It’s a music trend in search of a name.
Buzz words like “Chill Hop” and “Jazz Hop” don’t quite capture the essence of this new genre that has no rap in it but is catching on with studious Gen-Z teens, stressed-out Gen-Xers and laid-back Boomers looking for lean-back soundtracks for their lives or at least their living rooms.
The term “hip hop” may have originated in 1978 when rapper Keef Cowboy, a member of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, teased a buddy who joined the military with mock drill sergeant commands: hip-hop-hip-hop-hip-hop, a catchy cadence they added to their show. But rap’s machine gun vocal vollies and marching rhythms have nothing to do with this easy-going, peace-loving music bubble.
Yet ironically, the U.S. Department of Defense inquired about a collaboration, says Jack Brophy, a founder of The Jazz Hop Café. “We’ve heard from some very unexpected companies,” he says.
“Our demographic is for the most part 15-35 and they’re coming from most countries of the world,” says Brophy, whose YouTube channel has more than 150 million views and about 1 million subscribers across all platforms. “We know our music is most commonly used for studying and a wide range of background purposes, Bar-B-Q’s, gaming, relaxing … even teachers are using our mixes in their lessons.”
Some call it elevator music, says Luke Pritchard, 22, who dropped out of law school to co-found London-based College Music with his business partner Jonny Laxton, also 22. But elevator music is great, they say, especially if it elevates people. “The genre really is ‘easy listening’ and that’s exactly what you want if you’re looking for an accompaniment to your work or, as we’re also seeing now, just relaxing.”
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The genre crosses generations but mostly skews younger, says Björn de Water, operations manager for Netherlands-based Chillhop Music, whose audience is 73.4% aged 18-34. “But we want people in their 90’s listening too.”
Nonetheless, a New Yorker article dismisses it all as “Apathetic Music To Make Spreadsheets To.” “Background music is hardly a new development, but, previously, these sorts of experiences were mostly relegated to elevators and waiting rooms,” reads the article by Amanda Petrusich, adding: “The idea of purposeful listening—which is to say, merely listening—is becoming increasingly discordant with the way that music is sold to us.”
Sure, there’s a time and a place for purposeful listening to, say, Cardi B’s WAP (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) or maybe even Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (feat. Cannons), but there’s also room for chill-o-fied background music. And while music is a “proud, temperamental mistress,” she generally could care less what her online listeners are doing as long as they’re keeping her turned on, via YouTube channels, Spotify playlists or otherwise.
And turned on is what chill-o-fied livestreams are, some going all night long. One even went nonstop for a year and a half. That was ChilledCow, clocking one of the longest music livestreams ever at about 13,000 hours, gathering 218 million views along the way, stopping only when YouTube mistakenly terminated the stream for supposed policy violations on February 23, 2020, but restored it later that day.
Other channels are endlessly spooling out nicely crafted jazz and funk grooves like lifelines from a tugboat on a choppy sea. Jazz Hop Café’s Café Vibes livestream has been playing tasteful jazz progressions nonstop since July 6th, and Chillhop Music has two live feeds, one with the label’s raccoon with a hoodie and headphones wandering through a winding suburban sprawl nonstop since March 21st.
What sets The Jazz Hop Café and Chillhop Music apart from many of its successful competitors, like Paris-based ChilledCow (6.17M subscribers) and College Music (1.16M subscribers), is that they don’t use many loops and instead mainly feature music recorded in several minute takes by jazz musicians performing spontaneously on real instruments.
Some hip-hop artists have loved the lengthy Chillhop Music tracks so much that they’ve ripped them from YouTube and sliced them into loops for backing beats, that is until the label sent takedown notices, says de Water.
And a few chill-o-fied labels are reportedly being approached by major record labels and publishers, sniffing at the highest streaming catalogs for possible acquisition or seeking production music for licensing to visual media.
Unlike a top 10 pop hit, chill-o-fied songs and videos that break through to tens of millions of plays or views took years to get there. But a long tail of annual listening activity, even without huge hits or spikes, attracts investors in today’s red hot music acquisitions market.
“I’ve worked with all the majors and many major indies,” says de Water, “and we don’t need them. We can do it ourselves.” In addition to streaming videos and tracks, Chillhop Music sells vinyl and merch, and they plan to open a physical music café in Rotterdam after the pandemic. “We connect directly with our community and we need no one in the middle at the moment.”
The other thing that elevates some of these chill-o-fied channels over others is the animation. Rather than a still landscape that can sit for hours unchanged on some of these videos, Chillhop Music, Jazz Hop Cafe and College Music are using animation loops to spice up their offerings.
For instance, the Chillhop Essentials – Summer 2020 compilation features a blissful cartoon river in sight of a distant volcano, with visual loops of a cute raccoon (the label’s mascot) riding on a kayak or grazing in the grass, sometimes with the volcano spouting colorful but harmless lava, all while the scene alternates between gorgeous night and day.
Looping the videos but not the audio seems the winning recipe.
Although these chill-o-fied channels use many animation artists, the scenes are consistent in style and theme, many with an Anime influence. Like postcard from japan on the Jazz Hop Café channel. Brophy from the label explains why: “The main pioneer of this scene was Nujabes, a Japanese producer who sadly died in 2010. He left behind his legacy of very impactful albums and soundtracks in Anime. He had a huge cult following online & his death initiated hundreds of artists to create music in his style. So whilst the scene is Jazzy, it also contains Asian themes.”
One of the more financially successful companies in the genre is Japan-based BGMC, which concentrates on music for businesses. One video entitled Relaxing Jazz has 40 million views since February of 2017. A team of three musicians at BGMC make most all of the music themselves. “There are times we create almost 1,000 songs a month,” says the team’s leader who asked not to be named. “We actually play and record without loops mostly,” he says. “We strongly believe people can feel more warmth and comfort with the songs that are made by hand rather than computer.”
Making money with this music can be tough.
“Unlike with other types of longform YouTube videos, 24/7 lo-fi hip-hop livestreams tend to serve only one pre-roll ad to viewers when they first visit the broadcast,” says music business writer Cheri Hu in an article in Hotpod, “then no ads for the remainder of their time on the page. The result is disproportionately low ad revenue, despite longer engagement from viewers.”
Hu analyzed a livestream from College Music going steady from September 16, 2019 to January 21, 2020, finding that the livestream “generated 38 million minutes of watch time, with an average view duration of 52 minutes — implying around 750,000 total lifetime views … Assuming YouTube’s average per-stream royalty rate is around $0.001 (this figure may vary widely in tandem with ad rates at large), that would put College Music’s lifetime revenue from this single video at only around $1,300.”
For that reason, the chill-o-fied labels are looking at ways to cater to their community with merch, vinyl and, when the time is right, offline activations and performances.
It’s curious that a young generation, or a slice of it, has embraced such non-offensive music. Each teenaged generation seems to set its predecessors on fire, or at least on edge, with its music and art. You had 40’s bebop, 50’s doo-wop and rock-a-billy, 60’s acid rock, 70’s punk, 80’s big hair, 90’s gangsta rap, and EDM loudness wars in the 2000’s, each received by elders as an unruly ruckus.
So, why is this Gen-Z contingent inspired by chill-o-fied jazz in the spirit of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue instead of the Sex Pistols or the Wu Tang Clan? Maybe because they want to focus on schoolwork. How weird is that?