Meditation’s New Gurus: Why Acts Like Harry Styles, John Legend Are Signing With Wellness Apps

Written by on August 26, 2020

Interest in apps like Calm and Headspace has been growing during the pandemic, and the music biz is getting involved with exclusive content deals.

For an hour, sweeping violins crest and fall, forming a seamless instrumental loop. The track is understated and warm, designed to evoke feelings of relaxation and peace. Breath in, breath out. Breath in, breath out.
This is no balmy new-age recording; it’s an extended, strings-only remix of Sabrina Carpenter’s appropriately-titled pop ballad “Exhale.” The revamped tune, released in May 2019, was recorded exclusively for Calm, the popular wellness and meditation app that over the last 18 months has landed more than a dozen partnerships with brand-name artists, including Sam Smith, 5 Seconds of Summer, Kygo and Ellie Goulding. And since the start of the pandemic, interest in the San Francisco-based company has been booming, with downloads doubling between March and May up to 3 million paid subscribers, according to the company. (Its music brand that launched last Spring has already notched more than 500 million listens.) That’s good news for Harry Styles, an investor who last month made headlines with a sultry 40-minute sleep story released on the app titled “Dream With Me.”

Calm’s deepening inroads with major music labels — Atlantic, Capitol and Interscope among them — reveal the latest avenue for artists aiming to capitalize on the spiking self-care space, where millions of daily users stream content to nourish their bodies and minds. The industry was soaring pre-pandemic, too: The top 10 highest-earning meditation apps notched nearly $200 million in revenue in 2019, a 52% jump year-over-year, according to Sensor Tower data released in January.
“It became obvious that this was a new, untapped opportunity for us to release music,” says Jackie Collins, director of partnership marketing at Disney Music Group, where Carpenter is signed.
Deals have been brokered across several platforms in recent months as the music industry at-large pivots to reaching more listeners at home. See Nick Jonas and Diddy‘s Audible sleep meditations or Headspace — another popular meditation app — announcing Aug. 13 its partnership with John Legend, who will act as its chief music officer and is tasked with enticing other artists to contribute to the app’s songbook.

“You have a captive audience who are really listening and relaxing,” Collins says. “With the right song and the right sound, we thought this was a great opportunity for Sabrina to grow her audience.” The Calm-exclusive version of “Exhale” has raked in more than 2.5 million streams in the app. (Calm would not comment on the specific terms or structure of any artist deals).
Courtney Phillips Spoehr, a former director of brand partnerships at Universal Music Group, was brought on as Calm’s head of music last spring to quarterback the app’s artist-focused initiative.
“We’ve been finding in all our conversations with artists and their teams that they are really excited to work on music that can address some issues that they’re dealing with and how they cope,” Spoehr says. “They’re [also] suffering from insomnia, performance anxiety, and a lot of stress.”
The move to exclusive artist content began in March 2019 with the release of electronica stalwart Moby’s instrumental album Long Ambients 2 LP, which was available exclusively on Calm for its first 30 days. “That kind of opened the floodgates for artists’ teams to realize, ‘Hey, we can work with Calm,'” Spoehr says. “We have a wonderful mission, to make the world healthier and happier and our artists want to be a part of that.” Among the musicians interested soon thereafter were Sam Smith, who had already recorded an hour-long “Sleep Mix” of their hit “How Do You Sleep?” and wanted to collaborate, Spoehr says.

While most of Calm’s artist partnerships hinge on exclusive remix releases, like Kygo’s 11-track Golden Hour Calm Mix (stemming from his eponymous album released in May), Spoehr is looking to further expand Calm’s original content catalog. Violinist Lindsey Stirling and Australian singer-songwriter Nick Murphy have both published pieces specifically for the app. A new composition from avant garde singer-songwriter Moses Sumney is slated for the fall, Spoehr says.
Expect slow, steady growth from Calm’s artist relationships as each collaboration is more complex and time-consuming than a simple licensing agreement. The only time Calm users see an artist’s content by name is when a specific deal has been made and each branding deal is different, according to Mara Frankel, senior creative director for brand partnerships at Atlantic Records. “The standard is still being set,” Frankel says, regarding how much an artist gets paid for such a partnership. “In addition to the unique artist and brand variables of every partnership, digital lifestyle/wellness platforms are a relatively new space for music and talent involvement, a landscape evolving even more quickly because of the pandemic.”
Frankel declined to divulge exact figures for past branding deals, but notes rates “depend on everything,” from the level of artist to where and how and their content is used.
“A brand will make an offer to us, saying ‘we want this artist to do this, we’re going to pay this much money, this is what we want to do with the content, this is what the terms of the deal are,'” Frankel says. “Then it’s up to the artist, they might say ‘I don’t want to post on this social platform’ or they want more money.”

Frankel forecasts the bond between artists and wellness apps to strengthen, at least for now.
“With touring being knocked out, if artists are home and looking for things to do and find comfort in these activities, they’ll naturally try to find these partnerships,” she says. “These meditation and wellness apps, traditionally non-music platforms, are learning with new urgency as big artists express interest in their space.”
Calm’s primary competitor, Headspace — which celebrated 2 million paid subscribers in February — doesn’t currently feature any major artist contributions. But the new deal with Legend, a top-flight musician with a hefty artist contact list, bodes well for the Santa Monica, California-based company (both Headspace and Calm cost $69.99 for annual subscriptions).
“Songwriting and performing requires an incredible amount of mental focus, concentration, and present moment awareness,” Legend said in a statement announcing his new role. “That’s why I’m looking forward to helping others learn how to focus on what’s important to them — and I’ll be bringing some of my friends in the music industry along with me for the ride.”

William Fowler, Headspace’s head of content tells Billboard: “We’re all about authentic expertise, and when it comes to using music to help people gain a particular state of mind — whether that’s relaxation, sleep or focus — musicians are the real experts.”
The self-care-meets-music space seems to grow more crowded each week. The Heavy Group (Bazzi, Jay Sean) announced earlier this month a “wellness record label” called Sit Til I Learn Love (STILL MUSIC) aimed “at providing high quality, intentionally created meditation and mood enhancing music,” according to a release.
Elsewhere, the fitness juggernaut Peloton continues its popular Artist Series classes, which include yoga sessions soundtracked by major artists including Billie Eilish, Celine Dion and Billy Joel. While Peloton already has obtained licensing for these tracks, they do not launch any artist-centric classes, like “45-minute Billie Eilish Yoga Flow,” without permission.
“We [then] pair those artists with instructors who are fans and can bring the artist’s catalog to life in a workout setting,” says Gwen Riley, head of music at Peloton. “Our team is continuously activating and leveraging our music relationships.” While Peloton does not pay artists for these classes, the partnerships do sometimes extend beyond the app, including artist/instructor video chats on Peloton’s Instagram page. Mabel, Andy Grammer and Chromeo have participated, among others.

Spotify has noticed the wellness audio trend too and in April launched its personalized Daily Wellness playlist in the U.S. and U.K., a roughly 90-minute mix of music — sometimes relaxing, often energizing — and short podcasts customized to each user’s listening habits.
“We’ve seen an increase in consumption around ‘chill music’ and instrumental music,” says June Sauvaget, Spotify’s global head of consumer and product marketing. “We have research that shows 40% of users use music and audio content to manage stress.”
Sauvaget says original artist content recorded specifically for the playlist has not yet been tried, but she didn’t rule it out.
“We’re trying to hone in on what role Spotify plays, knowing there are other destinations for meditation,” she says. “This is the tip of the iceberg in regard to our role in wellness.”
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