On an average day on Spotify, megastars like Olivia Rodrigo and Drake routinely rack up the biggest stream counts. But in recent weeks, a new name has captured the attention of digital marketers who spend their days scrutinizing the streaming platform: Sleep Fruits Music.
All of Sleep Fruits Music’s tracks are barely more than 30 seconds — lasting just long enough to register as a stream on Spotify and trigger a royalty payout. Many of the hundreds of songs are short recordings of rainfall, while others are soft electronic sound-baths. Sleep Fruits Music did not exist at the start of this year, but last week, the account was generating roughly 10 million streams a day, according to screenshots shared with Rolling Stone from the Spotify for Artists tool, which allows acts to compare stream-counts with their peers.
Those numbers are on par with streaming statistics for one of the biggest pop stars of the last 15 years: Sleep Fruits Music earned more Spotify streams than Lady Gaga on an average day in recent weeks.
In addition, a playlist titled “Sleep Fruits Music: Night rain sounds, Relaxing nature thunder,” which is filled with at least 235 brief rain recordings co-credited to Sleep Fruits Music and Ambient Fruits Music, was recently the eighth most-streamed playlist worldwide on Spotify, according to a confidential list that the streaming service shares with its partners, which was reviewed by Rolling Stone. Last week, that playlist was outperforming premier Spotify collections like RapCaviar and Hot Country, despite having a much smaller follower count.
One longtime digital marketer calls Sleep Fruits Music’s recent success “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen on Spotify.”
Sleep Fruit Music’s Gaga streaming numbers have been worrying some members of the music industry because the popularity of these rain sounds diminishes the money available to go to artists who have recorded actual songs. Under Spotify’s divide-one-pie payout model, there’s a finite pool of money for artists that comes in from the streamer’s ads-and-subscriptions revenue, and each act’s allocation is determined by his or her fraction of overall plays. When rain sounds are amassing millions of streams, that diverts money to Sleep Fruits Music at the expense of more traditional musicians — singers, rappers, producers, and songwriters.
“Cutting up ‘rain sounds’ into 31-second clips to maximize streams and take as much money as possible is egregiously immoral,” says Dustin Boyer, managing director of Venture Music, a digital marketing agency based in Nashville, Tennessee. “They’re just taking money” — he estimates $20,000 to $30,000 a day — “straight out of the pockets of artists. I really hope Spotify does something about it.” (Spotify declined to comment.)
Dutch electronic producer Stef Van Vugt is the founder of the sleep-music account’s parent record label, Strange Fruits. When asked about the criticism of his soporific playlists, he takes a “don’t hate the player, hate the game” stance.
“My mind is blown even trying to grasp the idea of saying [that] what Strange Fruits is doing is a bad thing,” he tells Rolling Stone. In a wildly consolidated music industry, Strange Fruits “is an indie that has figured out how to take a piece of the major pie,” Van Vugt says. “You’re going to bash the indie? Finally someone has been able to take a percentage of the whole music market that isn’t Universal, Sony, or Warner.”
“We do a lot of things in, I would not say a grey area, but we like to experiment and do crazy stuff and see what the boundaries are of music exploitation and music marketing”
Strange Fruits started as a dance music label in 2016, but it retooled its approach in 2019 to focus on the eight hours a day that most musicians ignore — when all their listeners are unconscious. The label is now active in “eight to ten genres,” controlling playlists like Lofi Fruits Music (seven million followers) and Strange Fruits Music (five million) in addition to its sleep and ambient collections. (Strange Fruits Music includes several tracks Van Vugt produced under his artist name Steve Void.) Strange Fruits puts tracks on Apple Music and other streaming services as well, though Van Vugt says around 60 percent of the label’s listeners come through Spotify.
What accounts for the massive recent spike in listening for Sleep Fruits Music? “We actively pump in an enormous amount of marketing funds [into promotion] in the belief that eventually we’ll make it back,” Van Vugt says. He compares the approach to that of the indie dance label Spinnin’ Records — before Warner acquired it in 2017 — or a tech start-up: “Push something in somebody’s face so many times that hopefully it sticks.”
The key, as Van Vugt puts it cheerfully, is to be unafraid to “lose money for a really long time.” He claims that Strange Fruits has thrown “over eight figures” at advertising his label in 2021 alone, and that major-label executives have called his endeavor “the most unsexy company in the space, and thus the most sexy.”
The label gained a deal with the Alternative Distribution Alliance, Warner’s indie distribution wing, earlier this year. (Warner also signed an algorithm capable of making sleep music albums in 2019.) “We do a lot of things in, I would not say a grey area, but we like to experiment and do crazy stuff and see what the boundaries are of music exploitation and music marketing,” Van Vugt says. “Being with the majors gives you a protection layer where you can fuck up left and right, a little bit, sometimes.” Asked to provide an example of how that “protection layer” functions, he says he would be far more vulnerable to takedowns if he released a popular electronic cover of a well-known track through an independent distributor.
Though Van Vugt is having success with sleep playlists packed full of 30-second clips, collections like this have drawn the ire of the music business in the past. In 2017, Spotify was accused of stocking its own Deep Sleep and Peaceful Piano playlists with “fake” artists whose compositions were actually owned by the streaming service, which would theoretically help Spotify reduce its royalty payouts to the music industry.
In 2018, Music Business Worldwide reported on a pair of playlists full of 30-second snippets of audio that were among the Top 25 most lucrative collections in the U.S. on Spotify for months despite have small followings. Spotify eventually shut these playlists down.
Insiders tell Rolling Stone that least one major music distribution company now actively discourages users from uploading rain sounds, sleep sounds, or meditation music to avoid this type of trouble.
Van Vugt says he has been in touch with Spotify about his playlists. But even if the platform decided it didn’t like a collection like “Sleep Fruits Music: Night rain sounds, Relaxing nature thunder,” Van Vugt says his label is generating so many streams across its various other collections that it’ll “be fine.”
“At Warner they describe [Strange Fruits] as a phenomenon,” he adds. “I hope it’s not that. Because a phenomenon is something that comes and goes.”