Amy Jane, a 17-year-old college student in Pennsylvania, describes herself as a night owl whenever she studies. She typically starts her studies — usually in psychology — at 10 p.m., working through the night until four or five in the morning. For her at least, this time of day offers the least amount of distraction, a period when she can “concentrate more than if I was in the library during the day.”
Of course, college students who sleep all day and stay up all night aren’t novel. If anything, it’s a college requirement. But for Amy, her study routine isn’t the result of bad time management. It’s more of a daily appointment. That is, she’s one of the thousands of students around the world who study to live Lo-Fi YouTube streams.
If you listen to music on YouTube, it’s likely that you’ve come across a familiar thumbnail in your recommended browser. It shows a young anime girl wearing headphones sitting at her desk studying. Every so often in the video, the girl takes a break to look out her window or stroke her cat, before getting back to work. The video loops for anywhere between two to five hours, with a backdrop of soothing synthetic, ambient “lo-fi” beats, a genre of music referring to a form of electronic music that’s purposefully poorly produced, often over-emphasizing bass lines or distorting vocals to make the track stand out.
Low-fi streaming channels have become more and more popular on YouTube over the last couple of years. ChilledCow, for example, has more than 1.6 million subscribers, and regularly hosts live streams that an average of 50,000 people listen to daily. Meanwhile, Feardog and its popular “3 a.m. [lo-fi hip hop / jazzhop / chillhop mix] (Study/Sleep/Relax music)” currently has about 2.3 million views since it debuted late last year. And ChillHop Beats, one of the platform’s biggest channels with 1.5 million followers, broke music from PandrezzZ, Axian and Aso — producers who have gained a huge following from being featured on streamed YouTube videos.
For Amy, listening to lo-fi streams has changed her life. “It’s calming, and it’s helped me focus in a way that’s difficult in any other situation,” she explains. “I hate studying in silence, and I know I’ll always be distracted by my phone or by Twitter. Even when I try to listen to other music, I’ll spend more time going through endless Spotify playlists, or trying to find a new album I like on Discover. By the time that’s all done, I’ve been sitting around for hours and have achieved nothing.”
With lo-fi streams, Amy doesn’t have any of these problems. “Most of the music has the same kind of tempo, but it’s different enough that you won’t be bored. It’s a lot like the music you hear at Starbucks and other coffee shops — it works as background music but doesn’t distract you.” Amy adds that her friends also tune in, sometimes sharing different streaming channels with each other. “They don’t just use it to study either,” she says. “Some of them use it to help them sleep; a lot of them use it to manage their anxiety or when they’re on the verge of panicking — they find it calming.”
While lo-fi was popular before YouTube, it tended to be associated with niche gaming subcultures, anime fandoms and obscure communities making their own version of low-quality vaporwave. These tracks were largely available on Soundcloud, home to bedroom DJs and poorly produced trap music, often accompanied with images from popular manga, anime or The Simpsons. But it was only when YouTube rolled out its streaming features, which allow channels to stream 24/7, that lo-fi channels really proliferated across the web — so much so that the 24/7 lo-fi YouTube channel format has become a meme, inspiring parodies that include the infamous Hip Hop Study x Waluigi mix.
“The whole idea [of lo-fi hip-hop] is sonic nostalgia, but not in an overly aggressive or ironic way like vaporwave or retrowave,” well-known YouTuber Ryan Celsius told Genius earlier this year. “It’s usually beat production that can sound undermixed, containing intended or unintended imperfections with a heavy focus on creative sample use and authentic sounding drums kits. It’s usually a tape hiss or some analog distortion set against a simple set of drum loops and an incredible sample selection.”
Hamburqa, a 16-year-old producer whose beats have appeared in a number of lo-fi streams, thinks that the accessibility of the form — the idea that “anyone can make stuff just using the things they have on their laptop or phone” — makes it a defining genre for young people in 2018. “I make [lo-fi] because I’m lazy,” he laughs when we talk over Skype. “I just like to chill, and its the best music to chill to, to smoke to, to study to. It’s just easy going, you know?”
He started making beats with a bootleg copy of Pro Tools, a pre-set drum track and sounds he’d recorded from an untuned, two-string guitar. From there, he created his first track — a 10-second piece of music that he looped for 20 minutes. “I was just fucking around one day because I was bored, and thought it was fun. So I kept doing it, submitting it to bigger channels and promoting it on my Soundcloud. It just went from there.”
Hamburqa tells me good beat makers can make a decent amount of money by producing music for live streams. “You’ve got guys who sell their beats to DJs; guys who sell exclusive rights for channels; and guys whose beats are used to sell merch, [fashion] and all that,” he explains. “For some of these guys, it’s a way to get their break.”
One of the biggest areas of growth for lo-fi artists, he continues, is in Discord communities — the chatrooms favored by gamers who often feature music in their own YouTube livestreams. The Discord app has its own 24/7 lo-fi radio station, while producers have made tapes specifically for the growing fandoms on Discord. “It’s a huge deal in gaming,” Hamburqa says. “It’s really there that will make you — if an influencer or a popular YouTuber is playing your track while they’re on Fortnite or something, you’ve got a guaranteed hit in [subscriptions].”
That said, for Amy and her friends, lo-fi streams are still mostly just a calmer part of the internet at a time when there’s unlimited distractions from Netflix, Amazon Video and other streaming packages. “We’re a generation that finds it difficult to be in our heads for a long period of time,” she says. “It’s difficult to study in silence, and there’s no way we can stay glued to a project for any longer than an hour. So it’s a better alternative than getting distracted by anything that passes by.”
“Besides,” she adds, “it’s kinda nice to watch the [anime] girl on the screen studying, too. It’s like you’re studying with someone, so even if you’re up in the middle of the night, you don’t feel alone.”