In the Mood

Toward the full commodification of ambience

Full-text audio version of this essay.

You are reading this in a café, the steam wafting gently off your coffee, a soft rain pattering on the window outside. You are in an old library late at night, with the creak of old chairs and the scratching of a pencil from a writer immersed in their thoughts. You are in a dense, foggy forest in the shadow of a mountain where your party has set up temporary camp, hoping no belligerent creatures wander through during the night. Hours tick by as these atmospheres spool out from your computer screen and speakers. Before moving to your next piece of business, you glance at your browser window to confirm: The coffee is still hot; the monsters have yet to arrive. The scene is set for your everyday activities, but only within the frame of the platform itself.

These “ambience videos,” each streaming on YouTube, epitomize a transformation in mood-regulating media: Where ambient media once intervened in the mood of an existing space, newer forms promise instead an atmospheric escape from wherever you find yourself.

Until recently, the ambient marked a relationship with the existing space where the audience already was. “Ambience videos” present an off-the-shelf “vibe” consumable as a product

Until recently, visual media for ambient use would often substitute screens for still images ornamenting a larger space — think a looping video of moving, plant-like forms standing in for a painting in an office lobby. They were typically non-narrative and abstract, or at least nondescript — a long take of an anonymous waterfall, for example — so as to quickly bounce the audience’s focus back out into the surrounding environment rather than absorb viewer attention entirely within the frame. Ambient video producer Arai Man likened them to flower arrangements. A wide range of artists took up this idea of the media screen as just one part of a larger spatial installation, starting with the environmental art movements of the 1960s. Across these kinds of works, the ambient marked a relationship with the existing space where the audience already was. The moving images were meant to add to and influence the existing environment, creating a kind of augmented reality in all but name.

But hints of a shift were already emerging by the 1970s. Marketers like Philip Kotler began conceiving of an “atmospherics” that could not only serve to enhance the mood of a retail environment but could become firmly associated with a particular brand. This would be what Kotler calls an exercise in “total design”: think Italian background music paired with a sale on Italian wine. This inaugurates a different kind of atmospheric approach, less about furnishing existing environments and more about recognizing ambience as an immersive product in and of itself. Much like the alternative worlds that virtual reality would come to promise in the following decade, this kind of atmospheric media aimed to bring a person into another realm entirely, leaving mundane everyday space behind.

YouTube “ambience videos” build on and intensify this legacy of branded atmospheric enclosures. The shift in nomenclature from “ambient video” to “ambience video” reveals a significant transformation in the cultural understanding of mediated moods: As the atmospheric becomes branded, it shifts from adjective to noun. Ambient describes what a video can do to the space around it; ambience presents a mood as a concretized thing, an off-the-shelf “vibe” consumable as a product. The shift from ambient to ambience, in other words, marks how atmosphere has become branded, privatized, and platformed in the on-demand era. While ambient media sought to reflect their moods back out into the world around them, ambience media instead calls on audiences to turn away from existing physical spaces to immerse themselves in more fully commodifiable virtual realms. Ambient vs. ambiance is an atmosphere-oriented variation on the broader difference in approach between augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) — between a conception of reality as open to adjustment and one where it mainly exists to be nullified and replaced with something else.

Like ambient music, ambient video built on a long history of decorative media designed to blend into the perceptual background. Among the most famous early examples is the several hours of seasonally televised Yule Log fireplace footage, a tradition that began in the 1960s. Ambient video installations like Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon (1985) were more abstract and emotionally ambiguous but leveraged the same basic approach to space, spreading screens throughout a gallery or an urban environment. While Anna McCarthy would later describe all television sets in urban space and retail environments as “ambient television,” media more specifically designed with the ambient in mind went beyond news or sports programming playing muted in a bar, seeking specifically to blend into and enhance the particular space they would be installed within. Eno perhaps stated this principle most succinctly in relation to his Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), noting that a truly ambient airport media “has to have something to do with where you are and what you’re there for — flying, floating, and, secretly, flirting with death.” That is, it would augment the emotional dynamics of the situation rather than simply providing a distraction from it.

As products, ambient videos were often purchased as physical media — VHS tapes or DVDs — discrete material objects existing within a shared space. Eno’s work notwithstanding, most drew little attention to their creators but instead emphasized a purchaser’s ability to use them as they saw fit. They might loop on a TV screen or gather dust in a media cabinet, but they remained objects meant to help tune the surrounding space rather than containers for their own self-enclosed environments.

Ambience videos break decisively with the earlier focus on augmenting existing locations, aiming instead to act as an immersive perceptual substitute for a physical environment

Today’s ambience videos share many of the same basic aesthetic principles as the earlier ambient works. They invite audiences to let them play while attending to other things, and they are designed to accompany everyday activities like studying, reading, and sleeping. However, ambience videos break decisively with the earlier focus on augmenting existing locations, aiming instead to act as an immersive perceptual substitute for the immediate physical environment. They provide not just an accompaniment but an alternative space within which everyday activities can take place. Like Kotler’s in-store atmospherics, these ambiences are both branded and self-contained.

Both ambient and ambience approaches aim to make everyday life more atmospherically controllable through media, but ambience shifts the locus of this control away from those in the local environment and toward more fully commodified ambience channels. By reframing everyday mood regulation as an escapist activity, ambience videos bring it more completely within the walled-garden logic of platform capitalism. Rather than a person curating their own local ambience, YouTube ambience channels situate moods as accessible via the platform alone, just as long as the browser tab stays open.

The earliest YouTube ambience channels parroted many of the content of earlier ambient videos, focusing on stereotypically relaxing scenes like beaches, forests, and animal footage. Around 2015, however, video producers began cross-pollinating this material with other online trends — ASMR, fantasy-based fan communities, video game streaming — to produce a hybrid style. The ASMR Rooms channel pioneered this with “Hagrid’s Hut – Harry Potter Inspired ASMR – Ambience and Animations – rain, fireplace, page turning” (May 2015). Building on the ASMR community’s focus on certain kinds of sound as reliable “triggers” of physiological response, the video situated its ambience as a discrete substance on demand, with the themed setting taking audiences not merely “elsewhere” but to a specific and familiar branded fantasy text. The lengthy, search-engine-optimized title and associated hashtags (#HarryPotter #Hogwarts #Hagrid) mapped out a market not just for ambience in general but for specific ambiences from specific fictional worlds.

Other ambience channels similarly targeted audiences already immersed in a particular piece of intellectual property, offering recognizable (if depopulated) landscapes from open-world fantasy titles like the Elder Scrolls series, World of Warcraft, Witcher 3, Lord of the Rings, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A non-copyrighted alternative eventually emerged through channels like The Guild of Ambience, whose videos, like “Rain & Thunderstorm Sounds | Crackling Fireplace | 3 Hours” (December 2017), provide their own fictional backstory (“The seemingly endless rain over the city of Greycott shows no signs of receding…”). The comment sections reveal these videos are also being used as backgrounds for tabletop role-playing-game sessions, providing atmospheric resources for at-home fantasy immersion.

In 2017, taking advantage of YouTube’s then-novel streaming features, channels began popularizing “live” ambiences that audiences could tune into anytime they like. The most famous among these is the 200+ million view “lo-fi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to” (launched in February 2017), which depicts a girl studying in front of a large window looking out on an atmospheric cityscape. Throughout the day, that landscape shifts to feature soft glowing city lights and, at times, rain falling softly just beyond the glass. A cat on the windowsill keeps continuous watch over what is happening outside, providing both the girl and stream audiences reassurance that it is safe to look away and return to our work. Neither the girl nor the cat pay any attention to the rest of the room, including the open laptop nearby and the wide range of physical media visible around the edges of the scene. In this way, the lo-fi girl models the new approach to ambience as entirely contained by the frame: Pay no mind to the cluttered room in which you find yourself; seek to draw your mood instead entirely from the scene streaming in through a nearby window.

By reframing everyday mood regulation as an escapist activity, ambience videos bring it more completely within the walled-garden logic of platform capitalism

The YouTube ambience videos emerging in lo-fi girl’s wake take a cue from this frame-within-a-frame format, deploying on-screen windows to hint at an external world of atmospheric weather while simultaneously providing reassurance this larger world won’t intrude on the cozy space the viewer is ensconced within. Channels like Calmed by Nature that had provided more generic relaxation videos (“Calming Wave Sounds,” “Mountain Creek”) began adopting the out-the-window ASMR ambience with videos like “Winter Snowstorm Ambience in Fire Lookout Tower with cracking fire, wind, & blizzard sounds” (April 2017).

Eventually the virtual café emerged as a favored place to situate these cozy moods, particularly after actual cafes became inaccessible amidst the 2020 pandemic lockdown. Calmed by Nature’s “Rainy Night Coffee Shop Ambience with Relaxing Jazz Music and Rain Sounds – 8 Hours” (March 2020) provides a typical example. The visual aesthetic is heavy on the hygge: soft pools of light, hot beverages, and colors that one ambience video creator describes as “warm, buttery hues” are conspicuous in an otherwise empty coffee shop. These interior designs are paired with a steady evening rain dripping from the eaves just outside the large street-facing windows. Candles flicker and mugs steam next to an open book and an open journal, as if their owners had just stepped away briefly (for eight hours). Smooth jazz lies low in the audio mix underneath the rain and the slightest hint of people talking somewhere offscreen. The attached hashtag #coffeeshopambience currently appears on over 650 videos across 168 different YouTube channels, each a variation on this basic style.

As Eliza Brooke notes in a recent New York Times piece, the pandemic appeal of these videos is pronounced: Their focus on the threshold of indoors and outdoors signals protection in the face of environmental exposure while simultaneously offering a warm and compensatory — yet never distracting — sense of community and spatial belonging for the socially distanced. But the focus on a specifically retail atmospherics is also far from accidental, echoing Kotler’s earlier promotion of the atmospheric in-store brand. Much like a latte purchase now often serves as a ticket to dwell for a few hours in a well-curated, comfortably franchised space, these videos situate ambience as an on-demand branded experience. If after eight hours you still want more, channels like ASMR Rooms and Calmed by Nature have in-platform stores with the usual mugs, T-shirts, and tote bags.

While the contrasting approaches of augmented reality and virtual reality have been debated within technology circles since the 1990s, they map a fault line that cuts across a broad range of media. The divide between AR and VR is less a technological split than an ideological one, marking out different attitudes toward the importance of the immediate environment — and different levels of belief in its ability to be changed. When hope for the shared local space falters, the surrounding perceptual environment begins to be bracketed off in favor of more full-scale media immersion. The center of attention can then shift to a more easily controlled and commodified virtual enclosure.

In my earlier work I traced a similar trajectory in ambient music, where the more site-specific compositions of the 1960s and 70s gradually gave way to more self-contained and virtual atmospheric spaces existing only on the recording itself. The recent rise of YouTube ambience takes this turn toward exclusively virtual moods a step further, situating the platform (and its army of content providers) as a self-contained source of streaming moods, urging users to turn their backs on their existing environments in favor of immersion in branded fantasy worlds.

Pairing on-site immersion with everyday activities like studying and sleep offers platforms a way to reach users beyond the limited time available for more-focused viewing, coming closer to an ideal of maximum engagement where the window between YouTube and the home user stays open 24/7. The promises of ambience videos — productivity and relaxation — bring even the most ostensibly unmediated everyday tasks within the frame of an all-day immersion in platform-based atmospheres, offering a utilitarian alibi for pulling the full scope of “You” even further into the “Tube.”

Simply put, like so much else in life, ambience is moving to a subscription model. If ambient once referred to a piece of work designed to help you melt into existing spaces, ambience is a steady drip of atmosphere promising to take you “elsewhere” — and meant to keep you coming back.

Paul Roquet is an associate professor in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and the author of Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self (Minnesota, 2016)