Have you seen chilledcow’s YouTube channel, “Low-fi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to”? The channel is a looped anime-style animation of a young woman sitting at a desk in her apartment, taking notes and studying, occasionally looking out the window onto a nondescript (mediterranean?) cityscape. On the wall behind her is a bookcase, and a cat that sleeps on the windowsill. Everyone is chilling. The woman wears big headphones and is, presumably, listening to the same music we’re hearing. People watch this and other similar youtube channels to relax and as an audio and visual counterpoint to their own studying. Sort of like playing one of those warm and cozy fireplace videos on your TV for its virtual ambiance. Here’s the link.
I recently spent a few minutes listening more closely to some of this low-fi hip hop. I was curious about its components and why it all sounds pretty much the same. The music is downtempo instrumental hip hop without any vocals, constructed out of a skeletal beat and a repeating piano or keyboard or guitar chord progression. What makes many of the tracks “low-fi” is their slightly wobbly, degraded or aged sound which creates the impression that the music is an echo of an earlier (and more chill) time. This sound reminds me of the wab-sabi aesthetic, or those smartphone filters that oversaturate your photos so they look worn (and therefore more chill). The beats can be interesting, insofar as they stutter and swing a little, and are processed to sound brittle, or else sampled at a low bit rate. The piano or Wurlitzer keyboards sound as if taken from an old record, and the guitar sounds like a shard off of a vintage ECM jazz LP—maybe a John Abercrombie record, or the opening bars of Pat Metheny’s 1976 ECM debut, Bright Size Life. I don’t know if the producers who make this music cobbled their parts together from other recordings or played them from scratch, but unlike an Abercrombie or Metheny performance, the tracks are distinguished by their refusal to go anywhere interesting. Like the looped video of the young woman sitting at her desk studying, this music is all about creating a sustained calm mood. It’s the digital equivalent of lighting a scented candle. I’ve noticed too that this music is used a lot as a benign soundtrack to vloggers’ YouTube travel videos.
As I watched the channel for a few minutes, I looked up some of the artists on Spotify, and was surprised to learn that some of them have vast audiences and upwards of a million monthly listeners. Some of them also promote their work on Instagram by bringing their laptops and MIDI controllers out into nature and taking photos of them. I also read articles about the popularity of all things “chill” on Spotify. I suppose I already knew this, but on Spotify, “Chill” is its own genre! There are dozens of “chill” music playlists in the Spotiverse, from “low-fi beats” to “classic acoustic” to “beach vibes” to “peaceful indie ambient” and “peaceful meditation”—all playlists which I stay far away from. No doubt there is a lot of overlap among these vague categories, so that a low-fi hip hop track can appear on a “study music” playlist, and vice versa, or a “chill piano” playlist might include both a melancholy Coldplay song and a manic-hypnotic Philip Glass etude. Maybe the porousness of musical styles and the different ways people interpret the same music differently explains how some idioms—such as low-fi hip hop—accrue a vast listenership.
I was surprised to find that a lot of the tracks I heard on the low-fi hip hop radio YouTube channel are only 1-2 minutes long. This had me wondering whether they were deliberately designed for a kind of distracted listening, or their composers rightly intuited that, due to their repetitiveness, the tracks shouldn’t go on for very long lest they become annoying? Last but not least, it’s difficult to distinguish one low-fi track from another. Could this be the hegemony of musical style in action, pressuring producers into a shared way of making similar-sounding material? But then I had more radical idea: Might a single musician be putting out hundreds of similar sounding tracks under different artist aliases? If so, this would be a way to play Spotify’s genre game while giving chilled out listeners more of what they want.