You can’t go sit cross-legged with Post Malone in a zen garden anytime soon — but listening to a 60-minute version of his 2019 hit “Circles” could be a close second. On Wednesday, wellness app Calm and Universal Music Group (UMG) will announce a first-of-its-kind partnership that’s resulted in a “Sleep Remix Series” involving Malone and several other hit artists, the two companies tell Rolling Stone.
Calm will release seven tracks in time for World Sleep Day on Friday, March 19th. Ariana Grande’s “Breathin’,” Jhene Aiko’s “While We’re Young,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Golden Hour,” Katy Perry’s “Double Rainbow,” Luis Fonsi’s “Sola,” Post Malone’s “Circles,” and Shawn Mendes’ “Wonder” were all reimagined for the drop.
These tracks will live exclusively on the Calm app for three months, Cynthia Sexton, UMG’s EVP of Music Curation, tells Rolling Stone. After that period, the label group is allowed to distribute the music to standard streaming platforms if the move feels right.
This isn’t the first time Calm has enlisted big names for sleep remixes — or originals, for that matter. The company launched its music department about two years ago and has partnered with individual artists like Keith Urban, Lindsey Stirling, Moses Sumney, Sam Smith, and Toro Y Moi since then.
This partnership does, however, illustrate an increase in demand for carefully curated music that reduces stress and lulls the listener. Calm co-founder and co-CEO Michael Acton Smith says his team has watched closely as sleep-centric playlists on streaming platforms surged in popularity in recent years and months. The reason for that increasing popularity is twofold, he says: Social media has significantly contributed to the destigmatization of mental health issues, and studies show that Gen Z is more open to prioritizing mental wellness through a variety of tools like therapy. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which emphasized the need for such prioritization among all generations.
Most sleep playlists on streaming services don’t make a whole lot of sense, though. “The problem with most music is it’s quite short: When built for the streaming era or even the radio era, it’s three or four minutes long,” explains Acton Smith. “Even if something is really soothing, you can’t always get into a flow state and drift off to sleep. You have a song for a few minutes and then you go onto the next one and the next one.” Acton Smith says a sleeping person’s brainwave activity looks more chaotic when listening to a compilation of short tracks by different artists with different styles, instrumentation, and/or genres than a sleeping person listening to one long piece of music.
More and more people are turning to things like looped whale sounds and singing bowls instead of sleep playlists that shift tones and tunes, according to Sexton, who has reviewed a wealth of data. But those options aren’t always engaging enough to distract the brain.
Calm and UMG set off to find appropriate music that’s both long enough and engaging enough to encourage sleep and meditation. Acton Smith knows there are sleep-oriented songs already out in the world longer than four minutes, but he believes those are not usually created with enough care. Sleep remixes should not be songs that have just been slowed down and elongated with basic looping, he says.
“It ebbs and flows, and gets gradually more soporific, so you drift off to sleep without even realizing it.” When a listener starts the “Circles” remix, for example, they will likely be surprised by how recognizable it sounds at the start; it’s not like they fall right into a sonic pool of New Age haziness.
The remixes are meant to challenge minds to find the subtle differences at first, hooking the listener while they’re still awake. “If they’re boring, you’re [less likely] to play them in the first place,” Acton Smith says. “And we want your attention. We want you stop thinking about your to-do lists and that silly comment you made at work.”
In each sleep remix, pauses between lyrics may get longer until there are no lyrics left whatsoever, and the sound effects get softer over time: “Your brain goes from a beta brainwave state when you’re getting into bed to alpha, which is that kind of liminal state when you’re kind of half awake and half asleep, and then to theta, which is when you’re in the first stage of sleeping. It’s a very subtle slope, but it works.”
Courtney Phillips, Calm’s Head of Music, who moved over from a brand partnerships role at UMG in 2019, adds that the remixes are a “fun challenge” for artists, who are often forced to keep trimming songs down for mainstream, commercial success.
“I was just on a call with an artist’s team talking about tracks,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I asked, ‘Would it be cool if he made longer versions?’ And they were like, “Oh my god, he’s been killing us! We keep trying to get him to shorten these down because they’re so long. He would love to make a longer version.’ That’s what we want to be here for. We want to give artists that creative freedom, let them think out of the box and go, ‘Yes! I get to make something really weird, long, and beautiful.” She adds that the teams essentially turned the seven songs into “seven individual albums” all with their “own little world.”
In selecting the songs prime for this kind of reconstruction, UMG considered elements like lyrical messaging, vocal tone, BPM, and original instrumentation. Sexton says the whole process was a tight-knit collaboration between UMG and UMG’s A&R executives, Calm’s wellness experts, and four or five producers with experience in meditation. Some artists were more hands-on than others, but she says all had final say on the finished product: “We didn’t have any comments at all from any of our artists not liking the final mixes,” she says. “Not one.”
UMG and Calm both declined to discuss deal terms and how exactly artists are paid for these remixes, but Sexton says UMG is “always looking for new ways to expand audiences and bring new commercial opportunities to our artists.” She describes the partnership with Calm — which boasts over 100 million downloads — as “a great way to not only expand Calm’s user base but solidify the fan base and potentially find new fans for these artists.”
Acton Smith hopes for sleep remixes from a wider variety of artists down the line. “We’re going to start gently and easily, but I think we could have a lot of fun with some very unusual tracks,” he says, raising heavy metal as a specific example. “This journey is just getting going.”
From Rolling Stone US