The Rise of Lo-fi Music in Youth Culture
“The degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.”
In terms of music, fidelity is the measure of a recording’s faithfulness to the original version. The history of music is old, but the history of recording and production is not. The big question always was: “How can we record and reproduce sound waves at will?”. Thomas Edison solved this in 1877 with the invention of the phonograph cylinder, leaving musicians and producers worldwide forever in his debt. The stage was set, but the acoustics were off. For the next century, musical and scientific minds continually struggled to improve the quality of sound production. Countless inventions later, the term “high fidelity” (hi-fi) exploded into the music world and the technology was revered. Since advancing past the 1990’s digital MP3 era, music today can be reproduced almost perfectly with the right equipment.
The music world seems to have mastered music production. However, the genre of “Lo-fi” has seen an incredible rise in popularity over the last few years. Lo-fi (meaning “low fidelity”) is an umbrella term for the countless branches of modern music that happily embrace an imperfect sound. This culture has thrived whilst staring into the giant eyes of a global music industry seemingly obsessed with increasingly loud and surgically produced chart tunes. We want to discuss the how and why of the rise of Lo-fi in youth culture today.
According to Google Search Trends, this cultural phenomenon really began to grow in late
The popular use of the term “Lo-fi” has existed since the 1950s, but back then it was never used endearingly. Described coldly as “less good in quality than hi-fi" by the Oxford Dictionary in 1976, the term did not lean towards stylistic choice. The definition began to evolve in the United States in the 1980s, in reference to the DIY music of punk and indie rock. However, it was another few decades before the deliberate nature of the genre took hold and eventually entered the mainstream.
As a genre of many facets, the real structure of Lo-fi is hard to define, but here’s a breakdown of one of the most culturally relevant forms: Lo-fi Hip-Hop. Famously known for easy beats and fuzzy, warm tones, Lo-fi Hip-Hop is sometimes unavoidable in student life. Used to create atmosphere, and frequently only in its instrumental form, the genre is used as a back-of-the-mind type of entertainment when revising or winding down. Piano usually plays a central role, alongside low bass and melodic guitar. However, these are produced by drawing inspirations from smooth jazz and all things seemingly retro or vintage. What sets it apart from old jazz, however, is modern techniques in music making. Vocal samples, looped melodies, and chops in the song all help to give a sense of rhythm. The same goes for the compressed and saturated drum beats. The unique aesthetic to the genre is sometimes even topped off with purposeful imperfections, like hisses or scratches that takes the listener back to the era of vinyl.
“Sunny Side Up – BluntOne”
Many of these traits are also found within other branches of Lo-fi, but there really are countless avenues of the genre to be explored, each with its own story and sound. The growth of this network of sub-genres could be argued to stem purely from the vastness of the internet. Thanks to the worryingly clever algorithms of Spotify, and the growing communities of YouTube, it is relatively easy for new types of music to build decent followings. Our invisible digital world is the perfect place for audiences to delve into rabbit holes and discover all kinds of sometimes strangely specific sounds. For example, there even exists an ambient sub-genre of Lo-fi Hip-Hop almost completely inspired by the traditional sounds of Japan.
Japanese-influenced Lo-fi has amassed its own following.
Another notable member of the Lo-fi family is “Chillwave” (sometimes interchangeably referenced as “Retrowave”). This focuses on more electronic sounds, using synth and dance influences to create an entrancing experience, but also to a somewhat relaxing beat. Lo-fi House is another very notable division of the genre. Surfacing almost solely on the internet around 2016, artists like DJ BORING and Mall Grab have gradually grown to become widely
appreciated and commercially successful. Their deconstructed and muffled take on house is reminiscent of more minimalist times.
Skip to around the 8-minute mark in this mix for a good example of Chillwave Lo-fi.
“Sunday Avenue – DJ BORING”
As shown by the variety of the genre, Lo-fi has infiltrated multiple music scenes and aspects of youth culture. The ascent is undeniable, but what caused it? We already mentioned the power of the internet, but another possible reason may be a general revival in the love of all things vintage; a reverence for the retro. A good example to show this is the resurgence of vintage clothing amongst young people. There is no shortage of vintage stores around the UK, and the clothing marketplace of Depop has maintained the company a 100% annual revenue increase for several years on the trot. Whether this is down to trend, or a backlash to the mass-produced monotony of the modern fashion industry, it is hard to say. However, either could equally be argued about retro sounds in music. Last year in the US, sales of vinyl records were at their highest 1988. Perhaps Lo-fi is a symptom of nostalgia for the past, or a welcome response to the stagnation of modern music. Regardless, we welcome these atmospheric airwaves.