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Lo-fi is more than just beats to study to

Pencilling into a notebook in a green jacket with headphones on

Art by Olivia Allanson.

When thinking of the perfect environment for productivity, pumping out a last minute assignment or just wanting something to rewind, nothing beats lo-fi music. From humble beginnings in the 1950s DIY and budget music studios, lo-fi —low-fidelity music — has become a staple for university students. Lo-fi has come to replace classical music as the go-to Spotify playlist when it comes to needing to get things done. The popularity of lo-fi as study music however has pushed many to question whether there is something more meaningful behind the classic cymbals, bass and touches of piano all looped together that make up any standard track.

For me, it is clear that the beauty of lo-fi and its ability to enable long periods of focus is its simplicity. Lo-fi —often unaccompanied by any distinct vocals — has constant smooth rhythms and steady beats. Where classical music has been famed for its ability to make listeners feel smarter due to its complexity, lo-fi is less demanding, with loops simulating progress and making listeners feel they are achieving more.

As unassuming as lo-fi is, its simplicity has left me struggling to share or recall my favourite tracks. Instead, it all becomes lost in the moment rather than being a memorable experience in itself. There is no distinct start or finish to each track, as each song moulds into one until the task at hand is complete. Being the vehicle of productivity has potentially spelt its downfall in the most poetic form of self-sacrifice.  

This has been the sentiment of Australian hip-hop and lo-fi artist Henry Lin who has found lo-fi to have grown “lifeless.” Spruiked out of his humble bedroom-turned-studio, Henry spoke about how lo-fi’s simplicity risks “becoming overproduced with everything sounding the same.” He cynically finished by saying, “I guess that is part of the reason lo-fi became what it became.”

Yet lo-fi is something I find myself coming back to.  In these moments, and particularly out of the emotional exhaustion from the culmination of exams, extracurricular commitments and personal obligations, lo-fi becomes something else. Taken out of its usual context, it is no longer mathematical formulas that fleeted past my mind but, old friends, lovers, and painful experiences from a distant memory come flooding back. Waves of nostalgia are often triggered by provocative samples from films and songs of my childhood. Here, the gaps from the missing lyrics were filled with the words of my own journey.

When I spoke to American born, Chinese lo-fi artist Jake Chan, who goes by the stage name Jake $ing, he told me that he chose the genre because it was “capable of conveying intricate emotions,” thus making it an “outlet” for young creatives. Being founded on intentionally muffled, distorted sounds, it makes sense that this flawed genre formed emanations of their makers (and listeners). It’s technical minimalism and grassroots history is something very tangible and powerful as it gives young garage-studio Soundcloud producers the power to challenge high-end productions from Los Angeles. Himself led by the next generation of creators, Henry suggests that lo-fi will only survive through the“authenticity of new artists, now given the opportunity to evolve it.”

Even beyond the 24-hour live-streams on YouTube, lo-fi’s modern presence has secured itself a popular cult following for many years to come. With the narrower but popular derivatives of lo-fi hip-hop now attracting its own subculture, lo-fi now appears frequently in mainstream music, being featured in popular tracks by artists such as Post Malone, Frank Ocean and Joji.

But its popularity does not come easily. Faced with a barrage of copyright and resistance from mainstream music providers like Spotify due to frequent use of samples, lo-fi faces a precarious future of misconceptions. The genre continues to resist the seemingly eternal relegation to being capable of only being “study music.” But for lo-fi, this isn’t the end. Now, lo-fi has become its own aesthetic, distinct and pronounced as its own art form.