What is Lo-fi Music and Why Is it so Popular?

Lo-fi music has become a major genre during the global lockdowns of 2020. Many people have found themselves stuck at home all day, trying to find the motivation to do work, study and chores, with more time to kill by going online, and the growth of lo-fi music has been the result.

So what exactly is lo-fi music?

It’s a form of downtempo music with elements of hip-hop and jazz, featuring breakbeats, sampling and textures such as environmental noise and vinyl scratching sounds. Samples are often taken from old films. This gives it a cosy, often nostalgic sound, ideal to relax to or as ‘bedroom music’.

Lo-fi music is found on popular streaming sites such as Spotify and also has dedicated YouTube channels, the biggest of them being ChilledCow. ChilledCow’s animation of an anime girl doing her homework has become an internet meme, such is the popularity of the channel.

It is indeed an ideal music genre to study to, which is probably why it has been especially popular for younger listeners. Unobtrusive enough to have on in the background but stimulating enough to keep you awake, it helps you maintain your focus. ChilledCow also has a chat function, so provides a place to hang out for people seeking connection during these somewhat isolating times, with many users opening up about personal issues.

The genre has not escaped criticism, however. Detractors have accused lo-fi creators of being lazy, as much of the music is essentially similar-sounding, and easy to make, with creators able to make their own material on apps such as Bandcamp (I myself have recently become a dabbler in Bandcamp). It has been argued that all you really need to know in order to create lo-fi music is how to sample (haven’t quite learnt that bit yet).

But it’s the sampling that really makes the difference. You can put a unique flavour on lo-fi music depending on what you choose to sample. A couple of my favourite lo-fi channels on YouTube include one which samples vintage songs and another which samples the Star Wars films (this last is especially fun).

And lo-fi music’s popularity shows no sign of dying out. The numbers speak for themselves: at the time of writing this article, Spotify’s biggest lo-fi playlist, ‘Lo-fi Beats’, has over three and a half million followers. And ChilledCow has nearly seven million subscribers.

Clearly, for many internet users, lo-fi music creates a safe space to work and study. The chat room functions also fulfil a social need during these strange times. The music is not always necessarily all that pioneering, true. But if it’s helping people, can we really knock it?

Many more people work and study from home these days. Without a dedicated workspace or office, lo-fi music helps create a kind of cocoon that reduces outside distractions and, due to its downtempo, calming properties, helps reduce anxiety.

Because we do seem to live in an age of anxiety. Whether it’s economic anxiety, the stress of living through lockdowns, or anxiety about COVID-19 itself, many people are increasingly escaping into the aural realm for relaxation.

I think millennials especially are drawn to lo-fi, and the evidence does seem to point to that – feeing the need as we sometimes do for a nostalgic, safe space to retreat. When we have fears about the future, the past is often a safe place to escape to.