YouTube’s lo-fi hip-hop community has for years offered a place to virtually gather, do homework, and find comfort in the random messages of strangers that populate in live chats. Now, as we’re all stuck inside due to the pandemic, those streams have become more popular than ever — not just as background music, but as ways to find community in a difficult time.
Over the past month, viewership of lo-fi live streams has grown rapidly. The lo-fi channel Nickolaas has seen a “significant rise in views” since the pandemic started, says channel operator Nick Stafford. The channel, with just over 32,000 followers, is designed around late-night vibes and conversations. Watching it feels like visiting an old-school Tumblr blog, but with an ambient soundtrack and live chat built directly into the experience.
“I think this is a fairly obvious correlation though,” Stafford said. “Folks have nothing to do, and that leaves them open to exploring the furthest corners of YouTube. I think lofi streams are a great way to kill time, and meet people from around the world too! So it’s a win-win.”
Another lo-fi channel, College Music, has been seeing an uptick, too. Luke Pritchard and Johnny Laxton, the duo behind College Music — one of the longest-running live streams dedicated to lo-fi chillhop — say they’ve seen various waves of increases since the stream started in 2016, but nothing compared to right now. Subscribers to their channel increased by 40 percent over the last 28 days, Pritchard told The Verge, adding that total channel views are up 46 percent.
Social distancing has made it so “more people were turning to digital platforms than ever,” Pritchard said, which he saw as an opportunity. It inspired College Music to launch a new stream, “lofi beats to quarantine and stay indoors to,” with new visuals and graphics about social distancing. In just a couple of weeks, it’s reached more than 17 million views, he says.
The popular lo-fi channel ChilledCow, home of perhaps the most iconic “beats to relax/study to” stream, is seeing a big spike in subscribers, too. In March, Chilled Cow added 340,000 subscribers, according to SocialBlade, far above the increase of 160,000 new subscribers in January.
While lo-fi live stream channels are seeing a major bump in viewership right now, so is YouTube as a whole. Daily views of videos with “#withme” in the title have increased by 600 percent since March 15th, according to YouTube. Similarly, YouTube has seen a 590 percent increase in uploads of videos with the term “at home” in the title. “Cook with me,” “work out at home,” and “home office” have seen average daily views also grow — by 100, 200, and 130 percent, respectively. Hank Green, one of YouTube’s most prominent creators, tweeted about his own channels seeing big increases in viewership.
Unlike traditional YouTube videos, channels dedicated to hosting lo-fi streams have another advantage: a live chat tool. Building a place for people to talk while hanging out was always important to College Music, Laxton told The Verge. It’s become instrumental over the last several weeks, though. Laxton and Pritchard also run a Discord server where 11,000 members spend “a good amount chatting at all times of the day about a variety of topics.” Now, that energy has carried over to the YouTube chat.
“It’s like a little College Music family,” Laxton said. “We try to get onto the chat each day and speak with whoever is on at the time. I think it adds value having the channel interact directly and personally with its listeners.”
People hanging out in lo-fi stream chats often talk about hardships they’re going through, Stafford said. He wanted their chat to become a “safe place for anyone to openly discuss these trials and tribulations life has to offer.”
“We’re here to help people by providing a safe haven for anyone who may be feeling down or alone, especially in these trying times,” Stafford said. “The irony is that there may be plenty of people who feel lonely, but because there are others feeling the same way, they are not necessarily alone.”
Pritchard and Laxton also think that lo-fi streams have seen a big increase because people who are shifting from office spaces and schools to working from home are trying to find new ways to stay productive. People throw lo-fi live streams on as background music while working and doing homework. Now that more people are spending time at home, those streams become a constant.
“Without a dedicated workspace, people find it challenging to get into a flow and are easily distracted, especially when surrounded by distractions at home,” Pritchard said. “The sudden growth of lofi live streams, in my opinion, is clearly representative of that struggle and people seeking to find means to get back into a productive workflow and really focus on the tasks at hand.”
Since the pandemic is affecting people around the world, people are chatting with each other around the clock. Whether it’s 3AM or 11PM, there’s always a flurry of activity. Anecdotally, I opened Chilled Cow’s live stream at 2AM ET the other night, and there were 35,000 people watching. The chat room was highly engaged. In-between random jokes, people were helping each other with insomnia tips or talking about homework problems they were facing. In a moment of true social distancing, having a place to go to listen to music, be productive, and find a community is a little bit of solace, according to Stafford.
“We’ll have a user in India saying their goodnights while another is saying their good mornings from California.”