Nick Messitte I write about music, and why you buy the tunes you do. Follow on Forbes
You may have heard of ASMR, the increasingly popular internet-based relaxation trend. You might have caught the New York Times’s blog post about the phenomenon, or the Washington Post’s profile piece on ASMR’s most well-known practitioner, Maria of GentleWhispering fame.
If you don’t know what ASMR is, here’s a quick primer: ASMR is a sensation of intense relaxation, sometimes culminating in “shivers” or “tingles,” usually engendered by soft-spoken voices or precise movements on a visual plane.
If you want a more shorthand explanation, here’s one that seems to work when I bring ASMR up in everyday conversation: have you ever watched the painter Bob Ross and found yourself relaxed beyond all measure? Maybe even drifting off to sleep? Well, it’s no accident that Bob Ross has been called “the godfather of ASMR.”
Indeed, I trace my earliest experiences of ASMR (I’m coming out of the closet here) to people like Bob Ross, whose voice lulled me to sleep in the middle of afternoons spent at home whenever I was too sick (fever, common cold, common malingering) to go to school.
My own discovery of the ASMR community is not an uncommon story: for years, I suffered from acute insomnia, and would find myself watching snippets of Bob Ross on the computer—but it was never enough; I tried to find similar painters, but came up short. I tried relaxation tapes, but only a few worked. Eventually I found myself typing phrases into YouTube such as “soft speaking” and, somewhat embarrassingly, “mouth noises” (lip smacks and such).
Within seconds, four letters appeared on my screen, accompanied by a video posted by someone who called herself ASMRvelous. I watched the video and fell asleep within minutes. I’ve never had problems with insomnia since; to this day I rely heavily on the voice of ASMRvelous to send me to sleep.
You may be asking, what does any of this have to do with a business-oriented music column?
This is where things get interesting: on YouTube, ASMR practitioners (or ASMRtists, as they are often called), can see subscriptions numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and views in the double-digit millions. What is more, many of the highest ranking channels collect ad revenue, and many ASMRtists accept donations through PayPal and Patreon accounts.
Some ASMRtists are now beginning to create albums for the sake of mobility (at present, it’s quite inconvenient to access YouTube from an airplane, where ASMR could potentially soothe a nervy traveller.)
It is not inconceivable for such artists to categorize these album tracks or YouTube videos as “music.” For instance, Hailey—of the channel WhisperingRose ASMR—sometimes underpins her videos with her own original songs.
So now I ask you this: in purest semantic terms, what is the difference between a soft voice speaking over soft music and a loud voice speaking over louder music? Of course Hip Hop and ASMR are as different as different can be, but sometimes they may be composed of the same elements, as a pizza might share ingredients with a burrito (cheese, flour, tomatoes, onions, meat, et cetera).
Now, consider this not-so distant possibility: with the Billboard ranking system changing its metrics twice in the last two years to include streaming services such as YouTube, and with ASMR’s amorphous categorization, one could very well imagine a scenario in which a spoken-spoken ASMRtist cracked a mainstream chart.
If this seems ridiculous to you, consider that the benchmarks necessary for rising on Billboard charts are much lower than they have ever been due to plummeting sales throughout the music industry.
If you believe that the poetical, spoken-word nature of this art-form would preclude it from any mainstream ranking system, consider that the number one record in the country right now boasts a closing track over fourteen minutes long, much of it without music, and half of it centered on a conversation between two iconic figures (Kendrick and 2Pac).
Finally, if you believe that something so viral in nature, so narrowcast in scope, could never hit the Billboard, consider that it has already happened (albeit for one week only) for Soko, whose song debuted at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 almost singlehandedly because of YouTube.
Yes, this is a fantastical scenario for the present, but it does speak to a real, concrete question: is there any money to be made in ASMR? Is ASMR a viable artform for brands to investigate while seeking new customer bases? How about the practitioners themselves—can ASMRtists quit their day jobs to do this full time?
At least one can.
Meet Nichole, otherwise known as SpringBok ASMR. When Nichole made her first video in the spring of last year, she was working as “a VP of marketing for a tabletop gaming company,” while “taking on…a little bit of freelance copywriting” once and a while.
A fierce believer in the creative and palliative aspects of ASMR, Nichole never expected to make any money off the endeavor. In fact, she only switched on ad support to help pay for better microphones.
“Right away,” she said, “I had a lot of people saying that my equipment wasn’t good.” People encouraged her to open a PayPal account to ask for donations. Instead she decided to rely on ad support because “it seemed like a more democratic way to try to upgrade my equipment.” She felt as though viewers had more of a choice in traditional ads: “you can use Adblock, you can skip the ads if you want to.”
Soon she had a full fledged viewership. “Seeing that were so many people watching blew my mind,” she said, “I wanted to do my best for them.” By summer, she was making enough money to leave her job and concentrate on ASMR content creation full time.
Most of this revenue came from ads. “I assume there are people out there in the world with big, big hearts who watch the ads,” said Nichole. “To me, that’s shocking generosity—I’m so moved by it.”
To be fair, she’s quick to offer caveats—she still takes on freelance work from time to time. She points out that she’s part of a household whose finances are largely in order: “I’m married,” she says, “we own our house; my biggest expenses are things like paying off my student loans.”
These may seem like fairly important qualifiers, but consider that she’s relatively new on the scene; there are other artists, such as Maria GentleWhispering and Ilse of TheWaterWhispers whose numbers are, for a niche community, astronomical. Both have been featured in prominent mainstream publications (Maria in The Washington Post, Ilse within Oprah’s vast media empire). It has been suggested to me by multiple people that these artists are able to commit themselves to ASMR full time.
So yes, there is definitely money to be made in ASMR, though this is not to say that all ASMR practitioners seek money. Far from it. ASMRvelous, whom I mentioned before, does not. Neither does Matt of the channel ASMATTR, who spoke with me via email.
“I like to think of my channel as a creative outlet, not a source of income,” Matt wrote. “I’ve got a full-time job and comfortable level of income, so I’d rather not burden my viewers with loud, distracting ads for the sake of a little extra money.”
That being said, ASMR practitioners are content creators, and within the edicts of capitalism, content creators are entitled to seek revenue if they so choose. As Matt wrote, “those who monetize their content are not doing the wrong thing; in fact, they deserve to do so! it’s fantastic that they’re getting paid for their hard work.”
The hard work involved is echoed by Nichole. “Even though there’s money to be made,” she told me, “we’re all working really hard,” and this is borne out by the evidence: videos posted by artists in consistent schedules, requests from loyal fans taken and acted upon, emails read and responded to. Even though some ASMRtists choose to receive payment from their content, their work is still inherently, deeply personal.
It should also be mentioned that payment is not relegated to YouTube ad revenue. As Matt wrote, “many content creators have elected to sell or stream pieces of their content on platforms such as iTunes and Spotify. ASMR videos are very much a service for many people, and though I expect high quality, free videos to be around indefinitely, I and many others would likely not object to paying for certain premium content.”
He added, “Springbok ASMR’s recent album is a great example of this, and I know I’m definitely not the only person who bought it.”
So yes, once again, there is money to be made in ASMR—enough to fully support certain people.
The nagging question then becomes, “which people, exactly?” Who, specifically, can support themselves in this new creative outlet, and who cannot? Is it possible that a certain type of person has a nearly statistical edge when it comes to profiting off their YouTube channels?
These are indeed nagging questions—complicated and even controversial questions—because within the world of ASMR, there might just be a reverse glass ceiling taking shape; it seems as though it is more difficult for men to secure a living in ASMR content creation than it is for women. This, as you might imagine, opens up a whole can of worms.
Welcome to part two. In part one, we discussed the phenomenon of ASMR, an internet based trend of videos which relax those who experience the sensation known as Autonomous Meridian Sensory Response—tingling sensations brought about by specific verbal or visual triggers. We talked about the proliferation of ASMR and its growing mainstream appeal. We met one “ASMRtist” who, within the span of a few months, was able to quit her day job in order to focus on content creation full-time. We had successfully answered the question of “is there money to be made in ASMR?” with a resounding “yes,” but left off with a different, more perplexing line of questioning: “by whom exactly?”
For there is an uncomfortable truth we must now turn our attentions towards: in the world of ASMR, women seem far more predisposed to make money off their content then men.
When it comes to ASMR content creation, there have been no official “cui bono” studies as of yet; we are only just beginning to conduct formal studies into what ASMR even is, and why it occurs in the brain.
There have, however, been attempts to analyze various statistics behind the most popular ASMR channels. In June of 2014, Paul Artwork (a doctoral student in Psychology, as well as an ASMR practitioner in his own right) published a video entitled, “Research on the Top 100 most viewed ASMRtists channels (not an ASMR video).”
“The purpose of this research,” said Paul, “is to provide factual information…on the ASMR consumer preference; it’s also to provide scientific insight about ASMR consumption.”
In his study, the following conclusions can be drawn: as of June 2014, of the top ten ASMR channels ranked by number of subscribers, nine belong to women. Put more succinctly, here’s a pie chart from the study:
This study is also borne out by anecdotal evidence. As Matt of ASMATTR put it, “It seems pretty clear to me that women are significantly more popular than men in the ASMR community.”
Nichole—more commonly known as Springbok ASMR—echoed this sentiment as well. Within the community, “there are many men who put a lot of effort into what they do, and they only get a fraction of the growth that a lot of the women do.”
However, this gender discrepancy “does make sense” to Matt. “The sort of gentle, personal approach to speaking and doing things that most content creators utilize is commonly attributed to women in society, so I can understand why some viewers are not as comfortable with videos done by men.”
“Most of us, male or female, or any gender,” Nichole told me, “aren’t used to feeling safe around male voices very, very close up. So the idea of having a male whispering in your ear, to both men and women, might be uncomfortable for different reasons.
“Now, do I hope people can get past that and realize that there are some amazing, amazing men making great content? Yes.”
There may, however, be an encumbrance on “getting past that”—and here’s where we veer into more controversial territory: I’d be remiss not to point out that some people are skeptical of the entire ASMR movement.
On Slate.com’s The Gist, Maria Konnikova, of the New Yorker, suggested that ASMR was “bulls**t,” saying it coincidentally works “only if presented by very specific people: females we [deem] attractive between twenty and thirty—closer to twenty would be more in the sweet spot—you know, if they have a foreign accent that’s great, and if they’re stroking something, that’s even better…if that something looks like an ice cream cone? Great.”
Retorted the host, “a puffiness of the lip, a certain cut of the dress somehow seems to correlate to the ASMR prompting.”
As a straight male who routinely experiences ASMR listening to WNYC’s Jonathan Schwartz (I can assure you, he is definitely not a young woman in a dress), I can refute this claim. Still, some have a hard time distinguishing between ASMR and more, shall we say, sensual pursuits.
“It can be hard to understand,” Nichole told me. “people say they would rather their significant other walk in on them watching something like porn than watching ASMR because it’s so much harder to explain. That’s always sort of been the joke.”
While ASMR proper is a strictly clothes-on business—very safe for work, and almost tedious in its subject matter (I fail to see how anyone could be stimulated by thirty minutes of tapping on a table)—sometimes the lines can get blurred. Matt told me that he can “definitely understand why people make that connection.”
“For starters,” he wrote, “it can be very easy to mistake the perceived intimacy in many videos for sensuality if you’re not familiar with what’s actually going on. Things like face touching, whispering in your ears, and so on are often a part of romantic intimacy, so it may be difficult to subconsciously separate such actions from sexuality.”
Furthermore, everyday objects (hairbrushes, makeup, scissors) presented and de-familiarized within the context of an ASMR video can also be confusing for some. “Latex glove sounds can be a very effective ASMR trigger for some people,” wrote Matt, “but latex gloves may also be arousing for people with certain fetishes. As a result, it may seem only natural for the uninitiated to assume that latex glove ASMR videos are just fetish videos that made it onto YouTube.”
Nichole has some interesting additions to this theory. To most people, ASMR is a visual and aural representation of comfort—it comforts us to sleep, for example. “the fact that we find comfort,” said Nichole, in “soft spoken women who are right at the age of being able to bear children and are still young and vibrant…is not a coincidence: that’s typically how we view our mothers when we’re very, very young children.”
Nichole was very quick to qualify that these were her specific views—that she “could not speak for what somebody else feels and doesn’t feel.” Both Nichole and Matt also made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that for them, ASMR is the farthest thing from sexual. As a former insomniac using these videos to drift into a state I consider to be the furthest from arousal (sleep), I wholeheartedly agree.
However, there are more complicated factors. It’s not uncommon for female ASMRtists (a lot of them soft spoken, comforting women of a certain age) to be bombarded by sexually frustrated trolls (see any YouTube comment section for examples). Furthermore, ASMRtists tend to take requests from fans; in these situations, Nichole has observed that sometimes commenters are “trying to trick you into doing something that’s erotic. That happens. You have to be a little savvy about it.”
Blurring the lines even farther, there is now both a homegrown Erotic ASMR community and a pornography industry looking to capitalize on ASMR by re-labeling previously made content and using ASMR within their keywords to show up in google searches.
Also, some ASMRtists offer personalized, live ASMR sessions (sometimes for a fee), and this too seems uncannily reminiscent of certain chat-rooms unmentionable within these online pages.
I mention all of this because it leads to my own, anecdotal conclusion: it seems that women who are considered attractive within the parameter of our societal norms hold higher rankings—subscribers, views, et cetera—than those whom our heteronormative society would deem as conventionally less attractive.
It would be uncouth and highly suspect of me to point out which artists are attractive and which are not, but the statistics, as laid out by Paul Artwork’s study, consistently point to this trend. If such anecdotal evidence is indeed the case, this could be problematic for the legitimacy of ASMR going forward.
Setting aside heteronormative appraisals of beauty for the moment, there is yet another troubling facet to the question, “who makes money in ASMR?” This would be the looming specter of brand interference.
As ASMR practitioners and subscribers proliferate, so too does a growing amount of corporate interest, usually in persuading ASMRtists to hawk the specific wares of specific companies. Ally of the popular ASMRrequests channel has been known to endorse phones, microphones, and electronic games (albeit objectively awesome ones, such as Monument Valley).
Sometimes corporate entities seek to influence the channels themselves. Nichole wrote to me that she does “get approached, almost daily, by companies that want to take over my channel and monetize it with targeted ads and lots of marketing. That’s something so alien to my experience of making videos, and will never be ‘on the table’ for me.”
Since there is such a growing interest in the ASMR community, it is also conceivable to Nichole that “full production teams, capable of creating highly professional videos” might “imitate what is out there” already. Indeed, as we mentioned before, such a crossover is already taking place in certain spheres of pornography.
However, Matt doesn’t see this problem flourishing any time soon. “A major part of ASMR’s effectiveness seems to come from a sense of personal attention from a specific person, which may be difficult to replicate on a large scale.”
All of this points to one thing: whether or not ASMR is borne out by science, whether or not you find it to be creepy or relaxing, whether or not you’re a person in need of relaxation or a brand looking for extra avenues to explore, ASMR is definitely a growing phenomenon with multiple crossover points into diverse media outlets—music, blogging, internet TV, et cetera. It would be foolish of us not to pay attention to this trend, to ignore where it goes. For viewer, practitioner, and brand alike there is something at stake here. There is absolutely money on the table—it’s just a matter of tracking into whose pocket the money will flow.
For more musings, please follow Nick on twitter (@nickmessitte) or visit www.NickMessitte.com.