Courtney Phillips’ job is to put people to sleep — quite literally. As the music head of wellness app Calm, she designs and oversees audio projects that let superstar artists help their fans relax, focus, meditate, and fall into slumber.
Phillips grew up with parents in the music biz; before her peers had lost all their baby teeth, she was already well-versed in the tensions and trends of the industry. Before Calm, she worked in brand partnerships at Universal. But in her current role, she gets to use her “powers for good,” the exec jokes. “I’m so happy to use all the knowledge I have of all the deals I’ve done and all the artist experience I have to put content into the world that is truly helping people — both the people listening to it and the artists creating it,” she says.
Calm saw a huge surge in downloads during the Covid-19 pandemic, as people around the world desperately sought new ways to unwind or reduce stress, as well as to connect with their loved ones and treasured artists. So Phillips, who arrived at the company around the start of the crisis, found herself with an eerily ideal entry point. She collaborated with her former colleagues at Universal and brokered deals with artists including Ariana Grande, Kacey Musgraves, Jhené Aiko, Shawn Mendes, and Post Malone, asking producers to reimagine their hit pop tracks into hypnotic, hourlong “sleep remixes” that could lull listeners into peace.
The remixers worked closely with specialists who study brain-wave activity, and the carefully soporific soundscapes offer a scientifically approved alternative to generic sleep playlists on streaming services, which tend to jump too quickly from track to track.
Phillips points out that many artists feel plagued by depression or anxiety themselves, so Calm’s projects help them bond with fans who are in the same boat. “If you’re a fan of an artist, you’re a fan of them as a person,” she says, adding that today’s fans want to feel closer to artists in as many ways as possible, even if that means bonding over unsettling feelings.
While the Universal partnership was the first of its kind, Phillips hopes to do more with other music companies in the future. She’s also focused on commissioning more original music, like Keith Urban’s already-released sleep song and Moses Sumney’s thirty-minute track.
And she’s eager to premiere more ambient albums — such as recent projects by Moby and Diplo — which can be great for conscious experiences. Phillips remembers seeing Diplo perform over her head in a giant plastic ball during Major Lazer’s high-energy Coachella set in 2013 and chuckles at the thought of someone so larger-than-life doing an ambient album. “But he’s also a guy in the world scared of Covid and not sure what this is going to mean for everybody,” she says. “I’m grateful for him for having the creative talent to be like, ‘I made an album so we can all deal with it together.’”
Celebrity involvement also broadens Calm’s audience. That excites Phillips, who’s currently busy diving deeper into the science behind sleep music. “Where could we go with it?” she says. “Yes, I can remix pop songs, but what else can I do? Where else can I work with artists I haven’t thought about?” She’s intrigued by hip-hop and rap in particular: “There are just some incredible lyricists out there, writing very moving and powerful songs,” she says, adding that she wants to explore sharing rap’s motifs in a different way — “maybe with a different beat or different tempo, almost putting more emphasis on the words” — that could specifically serve people looking for a therapeutic listening experience.
Phillips, who gave birth to a daughter last year, is committed to building a “a future for her where taking care of your mental health is prioritized and celebrated,” she says — and she promises to keep experimenting “no matter how weird it ends up getting.”
On the artist side of things, Calm’s sleep- and health-focused remix projects offer artists not only a fresh revenue stream, but also an unusual creative challenge. Mainstream musicians are used to cutting down their art to make it more commercial, but Calm instructs them to do the exact opposite.
“I want the weird side projects and meandering pieces,” says Phillips. “A lot of artists’ teams will be like, ‘Hey, they’ve got this work that we couldn’t put on the album and we didn’t know how to release it. Do you want to hear it?’ I say, ‘Yes, totally!’ I’m always here to let them have more creative freedom. I’m always here to let them have more creative freedom. Give me those deep cuts!”