On Lofi Hip-Hop: How Spotify’s Mood-Based Music Curation Pushes This Subgenre

the magic of passive listening for active consumers.

Spotify’s Lush Vibes playlist garners over 367K+ followers and champions instrumental hip-hop producers.

There is something intangible yet beautifully liberating about chill beats. These stories are worth sharing from the artists who not only project their being into their records but also their performances. The cadence, the tone, its creative liberties of sampling, the signature downtempo percussiveness in rhythm, the beat tape culture, and the community that resonates with it. For the first time, we’re seeing the musicians of this subgenre flourish through streaming services like Spotify that are giving it the platform it needs to grow.

There’s a crazy demand for this and it’ll only get bigger.

Before we really get into it, what is lo-fi hip-hop in layman’s terms? To be frank, “lo-fi hip-hop” is a blanket term for this subgenre mainly to help industry tastemakers and music enthusiasts understand what it is; it is named this way particularly because it is instrumental hip-hop, by which most of the production sounds as if it was processed under a low-pass filter. I have also understood that this term has been scorned by most producers with that particular sound because…

  1. the term “lo-fi hip-hop” pigeonholes the artists’ sound to what some listeners have assumed is a gimmick because of their use of sampling and creative liberties that they impose onto the sound recording. However, the sound of these artists can incorporate other genres in the creation of the music whether it’s downtempo, ambient, chillhop, boom-bap, funk, disco, jazz, house, etc. Musicians can often evolve as creatives and develop their style away from the lofi sound, look, and feel, but the term “lofi” mainly exists to describe a trend.
  2. sometimes, the perception of the subgenre is not great. Due to the ease of entry in production and the democratization of music provided by digital audio workstations (like Ableton) as well as music platforms like Soundcloud, there have been a lot of producers have been acquainted with the sound of lo-fi. What that entails is positive for the music community, but there are producers who have been accused of abusing creative liberties associated with sampling by stealing downtempo song structure from various unknown producers, adding a disappointingly minimal amount of drum programming onto the sound recording, and calling it their own. In this, there is a learning curve that differentiates the artists developing and the artists that have built their story with the music.
  3. association of the genre to anything anime-related is common. There is a strong juxtaposition, at times, with anime and lofi hip-hop mainly because of the ordained aesthetic, look, and nostalgic feel.

To that, I always try to appreciate the music because I think that sampling has birthed a movement in our music that has broadened how we approach music and its production. Popular music, old and new alike, such as Wu Tang Clan’s album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and even some of the tracks on XXXTentacion’s album 17 (including “Jocelyn Flores”, which sampled potsu’s “i’m closing my eyes [ft. shiloh]”) have displayed lo-fi sensibilities: samples, adlibs, vintage drum programming, old vinyl, etc. If anything, I think about how artists like J Dilla, Nujabes, Madlib, and Knxwledge have changed the framework of beat music essentially.

(NOTE: Most of my insight into this subgenre is mainly derived from primary research from the artists I represent as well as secondary research which is derived from my personal observation as a curator in regards to this type of music.)


Tomppabeats at Los Globos, 4/20/2017; Photo provided by DNZ (Brandon Densley)

My affiliation with the subgenre began when I became a fan of Tomppabeats two years ago. I had asked him to generate a mix for a tastemaker I was actively running at the time called IRL Music. When I had talked to Tomppa for the first time, he had been known for his signature one-minute mark beats and his funny video content on Vine. Over time, what I observed is that there wasn’t really any artificial aspect to his artistry: what he had attracted is organic engagement from his listeners as they had grown fond of the beats and the artist behind them.

As a result, his music had grown a strong following; it not only helped him accrue over more than fifty million (50MM+) streams on his debut album, Harbor, across all platforms but also established his artistry onto a sustainable level where he is able to commit to music full-time. If anything, the appeal of mood-based music curation as well as activity-based music curation has helped pushed lo-fi hip-hop to casual listeners and music enthusiasts alike.

“The trend right now is to lose yourself in the playlist and discover music that way.”

Content curators on Youtube and Facebook have been enthusiastic about finding more music from independent artists as a response to stricter content-ID policies that exist on creator platforms and social media. The advantage of licensing music not registered with the content-ID policy from those producers and/or musicians allows for them to circulate their music via influencers whether on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Musical.ly, Vine, Snapchat, etc. This can also allow the artist to develop their relationship with the content creator or influencer and even allow them to partake in influencer seeding with the fortified network of connections that they develop.

Tomppabeats’ streaming statistics. Data provided by Spotify for Artists.

It helps immensely that Spotify, as a music streaming service, has recently proven to be very favorable towards mood-based music curation and activity-based music curation. Compared to an automated music recommendation platform like Pandora, Spotify amplifies the reach of the artists by employing a hybridized curation strategy of algorithm-based curation with human curators.

The mechanisms of how Spotify structures its content programming allows their editorial staff to incorporate and popularize a subgenre like lo-fi hip-hop. The implications have bolstered streaming statistics of these independent creators, rivaling the amount of fans that consume music released by artists signed onto major labels.

What Spotify does best is highlight music enthusiasts from passive listeners; the trend right now is to lose yourself in the playlist and discover music that way. The music itself has the power to affect people who may not enjoy music as much as the common music enthusiast but may desire the therapeutic effect of music that emphasizes the beauty in ambience above anything else. Especially with the bandwagoning of lo-fi hip-hop 24/7 radios on YouTube that have popped up, it’s noticeable that there is some universal feeling to listen to casually accessible music while engaging in a task like studying. It’s a convenience for people to be able to have tracks on the loop that are familiar yet uniquely different whether it’s the sample, melody, or the songwriting.

There are even playlists (independent and Spotify branded) on Spotify dedicated to sounds of lo-fi hip-hop and chill beats such as Lush Vibes, Jazz Vibes, Tender, Lofi Hip Hop. As for independent curators on Youtube, there are tastemakers that have occupied the subgenre from Chilled Cow, College Music, AnimeVibe, and most notably: Chillhop Music, a record label that has been pushing the current state of instrumental hip-hop since 2013. They have been pushing the recent uptrend of instrumental hip-hop music on Youtube through showcasing tracks via audiovisual means.

With record labels, the most prominent that I’ve seen within the scene are Chillhop Music, Vinyl Digital, and Inner Ocean Records; all three labels possess a great discography of releases, a strong reputation for supporting a catalogue based on chill beats, and most importantly the resources to create a physical release strategy of either vinyl or cassette as a well as a digital release strategy capable of breaking these beats into the current music industry environment.

Physical vinyl release of Flamingosis’ Bright Moments via Vinyl Digital.

An interesting perspective that lends itself to this dialogue is that most of these producers have not had to resort to unsavory loopholes or tactics in order to garner more plays for their tracks; most of the engagement from these tracks on Soundcloud, Spotify, Youtube, and Bandcamp have mainly come from word-of-mouth promotion. The encouragement for casual listeners to act as their own influencers and the accessibility for these users to develop their own playlists on Spotify transforms the vigor of fan effort from an awareness of the beat(s) into a gradual allotment of streaming traffic via their own playlists.

Producers like The Deli and okho have received an influx of streams on their discography from casual playlisters like Erica Freed, who created a playlist with 34.8K+ followers based on the Japanese-Australian producer/musician Joji, and Javier Ricardo Gonzalez, a regular Spotify user that moderates a 29.7K+ playlist based on the subgenre.

Example of statistical distribution on music consumption of artist; Data provided by Spotify by Artists.

To reinforce the argument that goes into organic fan engagement for lofi hip-hop, here is a bar chart of statistical distribution on music consumption according to Spotify for Artists. A healthy indication of demand for the artist post-album cycle is correlated between the monthly listeners count and various factors of engagement including:

  • Their Saved Music & Playlists
  • Other People’s Playlists
  • Your Artist Profile

These three factors of engagement are integral.

Their saved music and playlists gauges engagement via people who save the content on their collection and follow the artist while other people’s playlists gauge on how much engagement is happening with the interactivity via friend networks, user discovery, etc. These factors come together to help an artist figure out how their music is being circulated between users as well as how their music is slotted for community-based music discovery.

For producers who garner a high fan-to-artist engagement via their followers, playlists like Release Radar and Discover Weekly can also augment their reach; placement is affected by the listener/follower ratio and the more followers the artist has, the more Release Radar playlist placement the artist ends up on. With emerging artists, playlist placement with these specific playlists are the cream of the crop and can help increase music consumption.

With the category Spotify playlists & Radio, although it can spell success for the streaming front as well as great exposure for the single, it does not fare well in the long-run and is indicative of music consumption for the prime timeline of the single, which is usually a week or two into the release. Spotify playlists are usually updated weekly and sometimes the demand is confined to that playlist. Monthly listener counts that are correlated with this category of music consumption are representative of an audience base that is receptive to music discovery on official Spotify content programming.

From the resources attached to lofi hip-hop, the implications of the massive amount of streaming behavior/music consumption that juxtaposes itself with Spotify’s mood-based music curation allows for artists to be heard and for their music to have a profound spread in pushing this music to the masses. There is great growth potential with lofi hip-hop and the fan engagement that resonates with the community assures us that it’s here to stay.

And of course, there’s great repeat value in the music.

Meeting with Dutch producer eevee at Amsterdam Dance Event 2017.