“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
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.