[11 December 2006]
“Sleep Is the New Sex” blared an ABC News headline this past February. It should go without saying that when you have a major news item comparing nodding off to getting it on, you have a society with serious sleep issues (and probably serious sexual issues too, but that’s not the main topic here).
Citing the current 24/7 culture as a culprit for the country’s sleeplessness, the article quoted Forbes editor Melanie Wells as saying that sleep has become the new sex because it’s “something everyone needs and wants” and “we have to have it, and we have trouble getting it these days,” and estimated that sales of sleep-inducing drugs and devices could bring in as much as $12 billion in business this year.
But veteran music-industry executive Lisa Mercurio knew about insomnia before such drugs as Ambien existed and stars like Eminem made sleeplessness a (relatively) hot topic. She grew up with a grandmother who stayed up all night knitting and a mother who rarely slept. When her business partner Cindy Bressler, who had performed as a concert pianist as a teen, mentioned she’d read an article about rising rates of insomnia, it was music to Mercurio’s ears.
And thus a double CD, Bedtime Beats – The Secret to Sleep was born, after Mercurio and Bressler dreamed up the idea while pulling an all-nighter. (Okay, we’re kidding about that last part.)
“The inspiration came from More magazine,” says Bressler by phone from her Manhattan office. “My business partner and I were together on a Jet Blue flight going across the country, and she tore this editorial out. It was an article by Peggy Northrup about why women can’t sleep at night and the kinds of things they do to occupy their time as a result of it.”
Mercurio had chanced upon an insomnia study that used mellow classical music to lull subjects to sleep, “Music Improves Sleep Quality in Older Adults” conducted by Case Western Reserve University researchers Hui-Ling Lai and Marion Good and published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing in January 2005. Lai and Good recruited 60 sleep-challenged people, aged 60 to 83, and had them listen at bedtime to their choice of six “sedative music” tapes for three weeks.
The results? The researchers found music “resulted in significantly better sleep quality in the experimental group, as well as significantly better components of sleep quality such as better perceived sleep quality, longer sleep duration and greater sleep efficiency.” The study also found that soothing music with a tempo of between 60 and 80 beats per minute had an especially Sominex-like effect on people. (The study did not, however, mention if lite jazz musicians the world over had unconsciously known this all along.)
So Mercurio and Bressler decided to construct a CD based on this knowledge about the science of sleep. They decided to use classical music pieces because classical music was what they knew best (although, when pressed, Mercurio does admit to having a soft spot for placid jazzster Michael Franks). Besides consistency in tempo, the pieces they picked all had a similarity of tone and lacked the wild, crashing dynamics that often startle snoozing symphony-goers. In other words, Mercurio and Bressler employed a lot of techniques producers – and composers—carefully avoid when putting together a musical program.
“Let’s be honest,” Mercurio says, “most composers don’t write to put people to sleep. So we really had to look at things that maintained their tranquility and that was somewhat of a challenge. There’s a whole lot of music out there, but you really have to have some basis of repertoire knowledge in order to come up with things that would provide a very beautiful experience and still fulfill the 60 to 80 beats per minute criteria.”
Eventually, they came up with enough selections to spread over two CDs. The set became the first major project put out by the women’s production company, Smash Arts. Mercurio and Bressler then brought the idea to Rhino Records because of the company’s wide distribution and reputation of understanding “how to develop a brand.”
“Our goal here is to really take Bedtime Beats and turn it into something that becomes a meaningful alternative to ways to teach people how to sleep better,” Mercurio says. “We’re trying to create a community at BedtimeBeats.com. There’s so many sleep sufferers out there—40 million of them. And I think people have really lost their way of getting back to a ritual for sleep. And I think it would be helpful for people to start sharing what they do—how are they using Bedtime Beats?”
The idea of mood music is not new. As far back as the 1970s pop iconoclast Brian Eno was releasing albums of piano and synth tinklings designed more for their ambience than their musicality. The Windham Hill record label brought Eno’s idea into the mainstream, helping to establish new age as both a musical genre and a marketing term. Mercurio is familiar with such marketing concepts, having worked in the music industry virtually all of her adult life.
“When I decided that classical piano wasn’t going to be my landing spot, I went into the business of music,” she explains. “I did a lot of things in that area, and one of them happened to be identifying where music and lifestyle intersect—and how the consumer consumes music that way. Classical music and some kinds of soft music and jazz are really all about enhancing your lifestyle. How does it fit in? If you’re not buying for purposes of an artist or a hit song, why else do people buy music?”
To Mercurio and Bressler’s credit Bedtime Beats works as both a lifestyle enhancement tool and a musical statement. It’s not the most thrilling ride listeners will ever take through the world of classical music, but then thrills weren’t the point, were they? The 23 placid cuts run the gamut from works by Italian opera master Puccini (“Crysanthemums”) to French eccentric Erik Satie (his Gymnopedies Nos. 1 and 3). The aria from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” may remind listeners of the mellow solo piano outings by new age pioneer George Winston/ (Ironically, Mercurio later found out the “Variations” were actually commissioned by a Count to aid his insomnia.)
Beethoven is represented with two uncharacteristically mellow compositions and even Faure’s inspiring vocal piece, “In Paradisum from ‘Requiem,’ ” comes off as classical sleeping gas in this setting. The mellowness factor is increased because the CD was mastered with liberal use of compression, a technique that helps smooth out spikes in the volumes of recordings. The dreamlike atmosphere is helped along because the compositions also segue directly into one another with virtually no silence between the tracks. And while the lack of crashing crescendos and tension-fueled buildup passages keep this from being a classical CD with panache, no one could ever say any of the set’s individual compositions are less than stellar.
The set also includes cuts listeners are unlikely to hear otherwise. Mercurio says the use of “classical rarities” was deliberate. “You can’t put too much familiar material on this kind of a record, because you don’t want people humming along with it,” she explains. “Maybe you can front load a few things like that, but you really want people to fall off the planet and go to sleep with it.” Most listeners are unlikely to be familiar with Frederick Delius’s “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Villanella from ‘Antiche Dance ed arie,’ ” to name two of the odder cuts.
So far, says Mercurio, the reaction she’s gotten from the public regarding Bedtime Beats has been mostly positive. She says she’s fielded “amazing testimonials” from people all across the country, especially parents looking to get their kids some shut-eye at a reasonable hour. The CD has also received a positive write-up at Blogcritics.org and, ironically enough, in More magazine, which inspired the endeavor in the first place. The only negative notes Mercurio says she’s heard are from the classical music community itself.
“It’s not so much ‘You’re ruining our music,’ but more like, ‘I’m interested in music that keeps people awake,’ ” she relates. “And my view towards that is that this is also serving a purpose from a music therapy point of view. I think you have to embrace that. This is about music therapy, and I don’t think the fact that you find ways to integrate it into people’s lifestyles is a negative thing.”
But it was one response to Bedtime Beats in particular that proved to Mercurio she had (ahem) a sleeper on her hands. One of the CD’s harshest critics was Mercurio’s 10-year-old son, who was none too impressed with what he heard. “One afternoon in a very early stage of this, I put it on for my son at 2 P.M.,” she says. “First he said ‘Mom, please take this off. You’re killing me.’ But he fell out after 15 minutes. And then he was gone for two hours in the middle of an afternoon.” Talk about finding a secret to sleep.