Alina Baraz has released just two EPs of her feathery, crazily calm music — like R&B buried under a layer of permafrost — but hasn’t produced anything that could be considered a mainstream hit. And yet she has amassed over 1.2 billion streams, many more than artists who are multiple albums into major label careers. Her success is one of the clearest signs of the chasm that still separates the streaming-verse and the world of old-school commercial pop.
To hear her tell it, Baraz was a star before she was a singer. “I had known this would be my career” growing up in Cleveland, she says, while nibbling occasionally from a Caesar salad in a midtown Manhattan restaurant full of business-lunchers. “But I didn’t know if I could sing. I always knew I would figure it out; it was more, when am I going to get some balls and do this?” Baraz started practicing in a chapel with good acoustics at her high school. She barely listened to any music for a year to avoid stealing, even unconsciously, the tics of other artists.
But she does count one singer as especially influential. “Corinne Bailey Rae was a shift for me because I realized, ‘Oh, there are tone singers,'” Baraz says. “I don’t have to project so hard.”
At age 19, Baraz moved to L.A. with her mother to look for a way into the music industry. She often recorded over beats she found on SoundCloud, and that’s where she encountered an instrumental from the Danish producer Galimatias. “We messaged each other, and I was like, ‘Hey, I made this song to your song,'” Baraz recalls. Galimatias was impressed, so the two made seven more songs over the next six months. Baraz describes her environment at the time as one of constant isolation. “I didn’t socialize with the world at all; I didn’t know anyone in L.A.,” she says. “I stayed in my room for six months.”
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These tracks, born out of solitude, were collected on 2015’s Urban Flora, which eventually came out on the label Ultra and almost immediately found its way to receptive streamers. Ultra, known for global club hits like the remix of Omi’s “Cheerleader,” was an odd fit; Baraz likes to keep it vague when it comes to the business details.
Urban Flora is intensely un-dynamic music, an exercise in tone control: The songs feature few changes in tempo or volume; languor rules. It’s a very popular sound in the streaming world — think of the label Soulection, or popular playlists like Spotify’s “Chill Vibes” — because it’s a handsome template that’s blank enough to relieve any source of anxiety. It’s less popular in radio, where programmers worry that anything downtempo drives away listeners.
But clearly, a lot of listeners chose to stay. “Her tone — she sounds like an angel,” says Warren “Oak” Felder, a producer-songwriter (Usher, Tamia) who worked with the singer last year. Baraz thinks Urban Flora attracted listeners “[who] want to escape.” “Everyone has that fantasy,” she adds. “We could go all around the world but be in this room.”
But for Baraz, the success of Urban Flora precluded that particular fantasy, instead bringing new demands. Like any artist trying to capitalize on a breakout moment, she needed to tour to maintain and build her fan base. However, this collection of eight songs was “never meant to be performed live.” “That was meant to be listened [to] in your bedroom,” she says.
Furthermore, after making music in isolation without regard for an audience, Baraz now had a flock of followers clamoring for more. “For like two years after that, everything I was making I was like, ‘This doesn’t mean anything to me,'” she says. “‘I don’t know who I’m doing this for. And I just started questioning myself. Because I wasn’t really coming from a place of expression anymore; it was just like, ‘Oh, because you want me to make it.’ And I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want to go to the studio — I had never been before.”
These discomforts helped delay the arrival of Urban Flora‘s follow-up, but none of that agitation bleeds into The Color of You, an EP that came out in April. The singer worked with a new set of collaborators, including Felder and Robin Hannibal (Yuna, DVSN). This time Baraz strove to be “direct.” “Urban Flora has so many metaphors — it’s beautiful, but I wanted to be like, ‘This is how I feel,'” Baraz says.
That old lesson from Corinne Bailey Rae remains important. Tone is still paramount; The Color of You is never not tranquil. Still, it has some of the peaks and valleys in songs that translate well in performance. “‘I Don’t Even Know Why Though’ — that was made to be performed live,” Baraz says. “Typically, a lot of the records she does tend to be on the slower, more vibe-y side,” says Felder, who produced that song. “I wanted to fly in the face of that: Let’s make something with tempo; let’s do something with a little bit of hop to it.”
By necessity, that means the distance between Baraz and mainstream pop is decreasing. On Friday, she released a new song, “Feels Right,” to mark the start of a new album campaign; it’s full of the fierce rhythm-section programming that characterizes most modern pop hits.
If Baraz remains on the outside for now, it probably won’t be for long. Labels are far more responsive to online developments than they were three years ago, even moving aggressively to swoop up viral sensations and monetize their output before they fade from the spotlight. (See Mason Ramsey.) That’s part of the reason why streaming hits become radio hits more quickly. And labels are also thinking more widely: The Color of You, for example, came out on Mom + Pop Music, an indie usually associated with guitar rock. Indie rock doesn’t tend to perform very well on streaming platforms, so it makes sense for the label to diversify its roster.
As a result, the streaming services are now functioning like a farm system for major-league baseball teams. For many singers, the minor leagues are useful for as long as it takes to release two projects; after that, it helps to have a major-label budget to reach the millions of non-streamers. (Radio is still the number one way that listeners discover new music.) SZA independently put out a pair of releases before connecting with RCA and reaching for radio on her third. Daniel Caesar took a similar approach, staying indie but launching a traditional radio campaign after his second release. Kali Uchis signed with Interscope sometime after her second release; the label is in the process of helping her reach the mainstream via old-fashioned muscle, by connecting her with Volkswagen for an upcoming ad campaign.
So it’s easy to imagine Baraz’s footprint will be increasing soon. Baraz says only, “I don’t like to overthink things”; Felder predicts that she will soon “kick open the door to the mainstream.” For now, Baraz is hovering just outside of the spotlight she always knew she’d end up in.