The sultans of steam

Times Staff Writer

IN COUNTLESS spa treatment rooms, therapists knead muscles and array rocks on chakras to the sound of tinkling chimes, muffled chants and meandering guitars.

The person lying under the sheets likely will emerge from the treatment calm and relaxed, still smelling the scented massage lotions, but with virtually no recollection of the music wafting through the room. And some would say that’s a blessing. One man’s soothing soundtrack “performed using organic flutes” and “inspired by the power and magic of crystals” is another’s didgeridoo torture.

Ubiquitous, and striving to be inconspicuous, so-called spa music -- perhaps the only genre that counts itself successful when it manages not to annoy -- struggles for recognition, definition and, in the mainstream, respect. Millions know who tops the pop charts, but only the devoted can name the stars who show up in New Age Reporter, which tracks the Internet and radio airplay for the top 100 New Age, ambient or world music albums, or guess which collection of whale songs or harp electronica will appear on the Coalition of Visionary Resources’ CD of the year.


The best snapshot of the genre may be Billboard’s New Age and world charts, which map a parallel universe where labels such as Malibu’s Gemini Sun are major players. The fastest-growing and most significant spa music label in Southern California, Gemini Sun was founded six years ago by Nicholas Gunn, a classically trained platinum-selling flutist and former fashion model.

For 55 weeks running, songs by Gemini Sun artists have been among the top 15 on Billboard’s New Age chart, Gunn says. And the label’s new release, “Echoes of Light and Shadow” by David Arkenstone, a three-time Grammy nominee, hit the No. 7 slot on the New Age Reporter chart earlier this month.

“As crazy as it may seem,” Gunn says with a hint of sarcasm, “there are people who actually care about this stuff.”

His brand of music, he adds, “is alive and well, but not in the mainstream consciousness.” Most often, it’s sold in bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders and on the Web at or Gemini Sun’s site,

He’s signed contracts with veteran musicians from around the world who are creating music to be heard inside or outside spa walls. Culled from New Age, Celtic, world, ambient, chill, Native American and other categories, it’s a genre Gunn calls “lifestyle music.”

“It’s a style of music that lets you unwind and reflect,” he says. Gunn is one of its champions, but he’s not exactly eager to be part of the club that calls him a member. For years, Gemini Sun’s catalog, which includes Gunn’s albums, has been lumped with those of other artists by distributors who sell packages to spas, hotels and yoga studios. “But every other song is something we cringe at,” Gunn says, running down the catalog of New Age sins: soulless, computerized passages; flat, minimalist melodies; poor musicianship. “We can’t believe we’re being put in that mix,” he says. “It lowers the acceptability of the genre.”


Lately, however, Gunn’s label is gathering albums created expressly for the spa experience. He’s been selling a new Spa Cents program that he likens to Netflix for spa music. He’s licensed the United Kingdom’s Paul Lawler, who composes and performs music to accompany healing arts, notably his CDs “True Reiki,” “True Chakras” and “True Champissage: Indian Head Massage.” (You don’t see a lot of “SexyBacks” in this genre.)

In a coup, Gemini Sun recently became the exclusive U.S. distributor of the spa-centric work of Fridrik Karlsson (“the Eric Clapton of Iceland”), whose “Spiritual Fitness” and “Magical Relaxation” albums have been top sellers in 40 countries. Two collections of recordings, “The Feel Good Collection” and the new lounge-inflected “iChill Music,” offer soundscapes composed to accompany yoga, reiki, meditation or simple relaxation.

As an accompanist to singers such as Madonna, Jose Carreras and Tom Jones and a session guitarist for many Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks, the London-based Karlsson had to switch gears to make his mellow music. To get a better feel for the needs of therapists and clients, he trained in yoga, reiki, hypnosis, ayurveda and more. To compose, he gathers his nylon-string classical guitar, plus piano, bells, chimes, flutes and light percussion and escapes to his house in Spain. There he employs neuro-linguistic programming (he credits Tony Robbins as a teacher) to achieve a creative, calm mind for his compositions. Songs are set to a tempo of 60 beats per minute, a rate Karlsson says has been proved to aid relaxation. And each of his spa-centric recordings is 60 minutes, on the dot, the typical length of a spa treatment.

Even with the expertise and success of Karlsson’s recordings, Gunn has a tough job ahead of him. Music’s role in a spa treatment is to set a mood -- then disappear.

“It’s a challenge to make the music not too intrusive,” says Karlsson, who visited Gunn in Malibu recently. “The more successful it is, the less you notice it.”

It’s hard to build a commercial presence when your purpose is to reside in the slim space between the conscious and unconscious mind and, in the best cases, to soothe so well that listeners are lulled to sleep. Karlsson points out that, for spa patrons, the background music can be a very pleasant and effective reminder of the treatment. Yet spas, which have eagerly packaged “the spa experience” in the form of pricey lotions and creams, have rarely sold the session’s music, a missed opportunity that bewilders him.


During a massage, he says, “it’s like the music is being pushed into you. It’s so anchored in you, that when you play it again, you relive the experience.”

If, that is, you were awake enough to appreciate it.

“Younger kids come to us and say, ‘That music makes me sleepy,’ ” Gunn says. “I say, ‘That’s the best compliment in the world.’ Think about it, when you are falling asleep, you want to be in a really nice space where you feel secure, safe and comfortable.”

This is the essential paradox of spa music: When it’s really good, it’s a soothing form of white noise. And when it’s great, all the whales, flutes and tablas float into a sea of zzzs. You won’t even know they’re there.