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Sunday, 15 May 2022
By Shephali Bhatt

How Lo-fi music turned into a cultural phenomenon powered by Gen Z

On November 27, 2020, in the wee hours of the night, Tanish Mittal, a 16-year-old web developer from Chandigarh who makes music for fun, uploaded his first 'lo-fi' song on his YouTube channel, Mittxl. It was a recreation of singer-songwriter Anuv Jain's soundtrack called Mishri which the musician had released just five hours prior.

Lo-fi (also written as lofi) is low-fidelity music. It is a genre of music where imperfections in recording are deliberate, the sound quality is not polished in a studio, and the ambient noise is not treated or cleaned in post-production. In short, it's a poorly recorded song and that is supposed to be a part of its charm. “It gives you the vibe that you are the protagonist in a movie and there’s music playing in the background,” says Darsh Nishar, a 23-year-old graphic designer who has been listening to lo-fi tracks since college, primarily to focus while studying and to tune out the chaos that comes with living in an Indian household.

     

Lo-fi was first recognised as a music genre in the 1990s but it has become extremely popular in India, especially with the Gen Z cohort, in just the last two years. According to Google Trends for India, interest in the search term "lofi" over the last five years picked up in November 2020–coinciding with Mittxl’s first lofi flip–and peaked just earlier this month.

Artists and streaming platforms believe this sudden rise of lo-fi has a direct correlation with the ongoing pandemic. "People usually like lo-fi music for the calming and relaxing effect it has," says Rishi Dabas, a 22-year-old EDM (electronic dance music) producer from Delhi. Rishi has been uploading "lofi flips" of old Bollywood hits on his YouTube channel, WORMONO, since 2018. The channel currently has over 750,000 subscribers. Harrlin Beats is another YouTube channel from India known for putting a lo-fi flip on old Hindi classics.

Lo-fi music resonates with people who have struggled to focus on studying or working from home while dealing with multiple anxieties during the last two years. "It also aligned with the constraints of the times we were in where artists couldn't go to studios to make music and many of them produced music from home," says Anirudh Singh Chohan, a musician and web3 marketer. "It also works better with the audience because most people identify with the idea of imperfection now."

Today, "lo-fi songs enter our top charts regularly," says Rahul Balyan, head of music at Spotify India. “Gen Zers stream lo-fi the most among all Spotify users in the country,” he adds. Further, India is among the top few countries, along with the US and Denmark, where lo-fi is a popular genre on Spotify, shares Balyan.

Lo-fi has turned into a pop culture phenomenon that transcends music. Aspiring musicians make lofi flips of new songs by their favourite artists as part of 'fan art'. Software developers have put up projects across GitHub and Product Hunt that allow you to create and share basic lo-fi music. Memes that look like their pre-edited versions with little to no fine-tuning, are now described as "lofi memes". Images with muted tones, evoking nostalgia and calm, are now filed under "lofi aesthetics".

Almost every conversation around lo-fi starts with the mention of one YouTube channel, Lofi Girl. Formerly known as ChilledCow, this 7-year-old channel reportedly run by a user named Dimitri from France, has over 10.5 million subscribers. It live-streams lo-fi hip-hop (or "chillhop") instrumentals from artists around the world. The ongoing streaming session started in February 2020 and has anywhere between 30,000 to 60,000 listeners tuned in at any given point of the day (and night). The beats are carefully curated to help users, especially Gen Zers, relax and focus on studying.

Lofi Girl's live-streaming sessions helped Hetvi, an engineering student from IIT Delhi, while she was preparing for her 11th and 12th exams, and the IIT-JEE entrance test. "I think more than the calming part, it was the community aspect that helped me," she says. "Knowing that all these people are listening with you at the same time gives you a sense of belonging." Sometimes she would read comments and find other students bonding over preparing for similar entrance examinations.

The channel cover art, a GIF of a "study girl", was created by Colombian artist Juan Pablo Machado. It was based on a crowdsourcing brief given by ChilledCow where they asked for entries of an illustration of a "student busy revising her classes, with Miyazaki-esque visuals". During the pandemic, this visual inspired the "look and feel of virtual study sessions," as per a YouTube culture and trends report from June 2021. Since then, the Lofi Girl visual has also been used as a means of political expression through memes. Artists around the world have created localised Lofi Girl renditions. Here's what the Indian Lofi Girl by Reddit user u/animesh_sensei looks like:

Lo-fi has also led to the emergence of a sub-genre of 'slowed & reverb' songs, where users slow down the tempo of a song and add audio reverb effects to make the track sound like it's echoing in an empty room.

The overall trend is mainstream enough to produce very vocal haters as well now, mostly people from older generations. Darsh understands where the hate stems from. "While channels like Lofi Girl give a relaxing vibe, Bollywood lo-fi music gives a sad and sombre vibe. Therefore, not every song should be lofi-ed here," he says.

Still, the popularity of lo-fi music continues unabated. While the original version of Coke Studio's Pasoori has fetched over 115 million views on YouTube and 44 million streams on Spotify, "its lo-fi version may just be more popular on Instagram reels now,” says Saloni Mittal (@whysaloni), a 21-year-old writer-marketer who discovered lo-fi music via reels last year. Since people tend to download audio tracks and use them in videos without always crediting the original, it is hard to assess the accuracy of this claim. Although the Pasoori lo-fi version seems to be all over my Instagram feed, too, right now, it has drawn its fair share of haters who point out that an upbeat song like Pasoori (albeit about heartbreak) should not have been lofi-ed.

The trend has helped the likes of Tanish (Mittxl) attract an audience. His lofi version of the title track of Kalank (2019) "touched viral charts on Spotify last year". While the song is called Kalank, "I named the lofi flip 'Main tera' banking on the recall value of a 15-second clip from the track featuring this phrase that had gone viral on reels the year before". It helped generate more traffic on reels for his version, he says.

His 'slowed & reverb' mashup, Dildara x I like me better, is included in 35,000 user playlists on Spotify, he says, as per his analytics page. But most of the streaming numbers he has clocked are via radio playlists. These are playlists that Spotify creates for you on the go based on the first song you tuned in to. And "listeners consuming your work through radio playlists are not your fans," he says.

As is the case with reels, here, too, the audience these days largely comes for the content and not the creator. Last year, Saloni (@whysaloni) curated a lo-fi playlist of 30 songs liked by 59 users, including some of her friends. "I don't recall names of the artists behind the lo-fi music I enjoy listening to though," she says.

Virality here doesn’t guarantee recognition for the artists; it doesn't fetch them much money either. Music labels are quick to put copyright claims on songs the moment these versions go viral. For VIBIE, a musician with over 1.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify, things are a bit different. In February 2021, his lo-fi flip of Saibo, from the original soundtrack of the movie Shor in the City (2010), fetched millions of ‘likes’ on Resso, ByteDance's music-streaming app, within two weeks of release. Soon, the track became popular on Instagram reels, too. "After a bunch of celebs made reels using my audio, Sony Music, the label that owns the rights to the song, contacted me to release my lo-fi version officially," recalls VIBIE, a 24-year-old music producer from Hyderabad. The track currently has over 16 million listens on Spotify and another few million views on his YouTube channel. "Now I release lofi flips of popular songs (old and new) through labels–including Sony Music, Times Music and Saregama–directly."

Even then, there's hardly any income, he says. Some labels pay him Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000 per song. Others don't claim copyrights on YouTube and let him earn via Youtube ads, which is also insignificant because the CPM (cost per thousand impressions) rates are abysmally low in India: less than half a dollar on average compared to an average of $6.5 in the US. Most of these artists look at creating lofi flips as a hobby.

Lo-fi, therefore, is limited to being a Gen Z cultural phenomenon at present. Labels are commissioning lo-fi music to remain culturally relevant but there are no expectations that the trend will reap financial benefits, says Mandar Thakur, COO of Times Music. Except for Pasoori, most other popular lo-fi songs have largely been reinterpretations of old hits so far. "We're yet to see a new song have a breakthrough because of its lo-fi version."

     

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Shephali chronicles how the internet is changing the way we live, and how our changing ways force tech companies to transform themselves. You can write to her on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin.

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