The last time you scrolled through YouTube, Spotify, or SoundCloud searching for music, you probably noticed something peculiar.
Lofi Playlists are everywhere.
These collections of music include hundreds, sometimes thousands of songs composed of a minimalist ethos; between 90 and 115 BPM, sampling from a wide range of melodies and are held together by reverb and hypnotizing percussion patterns.
The Beginning of an Era
A Google Trends analysis shows that between 2015 and 2021, lofi experienced a pattern of steady growth on YouTube that has yet to subside.
But, where did lofi music come from, and how did it take over the internet?
During the mid 2010’s, lofi started to blow up. Channels on YouTube such as ChilledCow amassed loyal followings. ChilledCow enticed listeners with an infinite loop of a lonely anime character on the screen, doing homework in a cluttered room perched in a city that was inspired by a film from the legendary anime production house, Studio Ghibli.
The stream and its artwork spoke to the Millennial sense of overstimulation and a desire for simplicity. Hours long lofi streams began to pop up everywhere under the titles of “beats to relax / study to” or “jazzy and lofi beats”. Listeners poured in from all over the world, feeding a growing global obsession with a form of music that is unlike any other. In 2020, ChilledCow set the record for the longest YouTube stream ever after a stream was finally ended by platform moderators after 13,000 hours online before briefly being banned by YouTube.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, lofi music benefitted from a boost as homebound Millennials searched high and low for something to ease the burden of confinement. In April, legendary actor and Philly MC Will Smith even hopped on the bandwagon, creating his own chill beats to quarantine to playlist. It received more than 13 Million views. The artwork for his lofi stream includes Smith from his Bel-Air Academy days, evidently back in Philadelphia for the quarantine. The urban skyline mimics purposely replicates the art of similar lofi playlists, creating an ethos where lofi is the ever present ambient music in an exclusive haven of relaxation as the listener is safely perched from the rest of the world.
Developing the Aesthetic
Lofi is different from other forms of popular music in that it champions simplicity. It is the Marie Kondo of modern music — reflective, inviting only the essential.
Rarely will a lofi track include vocals, and if it does, the vocals are bathed in reverb and echo, sometimes manipulated to the point of incomprehension. The vocals will come from the most obscure sources, such as an Alan Watts video, or a cartoon dialog. The beats can be repetitive, but they draw on musical nuances from a variety of genres, creating a unique and varied listening experience. More than anything, lofi is the unclaimed bastard child of jazz, blues, hip hop, disco, and even classical music. No practitioner of the aforementioned genres will claim that lofi music is a source of inspiration for them, but the lofi producer will readily lay claim to a vast kingdom of music real estate.
The Economics of lofi
As I began my own journey as a Lofi producer, I came to understand listeners’ growing obsession with this form of music. Lofi is the result of a perfect storm within the music economy. There is supply, demand, and generally low barriers to entry. As other genres such as rap and pop become oversaturated with indie artists who recycle predictable song themes and structures, a form of music that is untamed is more and more welcome.
Listening to lofi doesn’t require that much effort, and this is welcome in a world where technological stimulation is ever-present. Most people who listen to lofi music are doing an activity which requires some level of focus, such as writing, reading, playing a game, or relaxing with friends. Listening to Pop Smoke’s latest album is not as inviting of relaxation as a series of inconspicuous melodies is. Lofi is a retreat from the constant mental chatter that modern life creates. The commonality between every listener is that they are seeking some mental quiet.
Another value add of lofi is that playlists are blank slates for listeners to project their emotions onto. It’s not rare to find a playlist entitled “lofi music to cry to” or “emotional / late night beats”. The absence of words eliminates the cliches that might arise from, say, a Taylor Swift break up song. Rather, lofi invites nostalgia, reflection and the healthy processing of emotions. The music is comforting for the stereotypical Millennial; overly connected technologically but emotionally isolated. Ironically, the listener may feel more connected to the world outside of them when considering that 1 Million other people listened to the same playlist as them, doing whatever they were doing.
Additionally, the growing number of tools (production softwares, midi controllers and hardware samplers) employed by musicians allows anyone to become a beat-maker with the right amount of focus and work. Within the last year, Spotify created a submission gate within its Spotify for Artists application specifically for lofi and chill beats.
Major platforms such as Spotify have benefitted from this trend, as they have monetized demand by growing their subscription user base while feeding listeners demand for a passive listening experience. Lofi playlists on Spotify boast upwards of 1 million followers, competing with even the most popular rap playlists. The Lofi Beats playlist on Spotify invites its 3.7 M+ followers to “relax, study, and focus”.
Playlisters have created communities for lofi producers, as they invite submissions to their collections. Platforms such as SubmitHub and Soundplate have become extremely popular since they offer musicians the ability to submit music directly to playlist curators, who in turn can profit from those submissions while offering aspiring producers an audience. Independent playlisters such as Rose Watercolor, and collectives such as Calisoul have created playlists with enormous followings, upwards of 10K listeners and have become tastemakers for the genre.
If 2020 taught us anything, it is that people all over the world crave simplicity as a retreat from the chaos of daily modern life. The next time you find yourself in need of a deep breath, tune into a lofi playlist, and take some time to chill out.