If we had to decide what the soundtrack of the post-2010 Internet was, lo-fi would be the only reasonable answer.
Since the terms “lo-fi hip-hop” and “chillhop” started circulating more than a decade ago, the genre has undergone quite the metamorphosis. What was once a score for the geekiest places on the web—spread by young kids in the form of amateur mixtapes with anime-inspired art—became a mainstream sensation that even Will Smith and Disney tried to exploit at one point.
Between these two points in time, the history of lo-fi is far from linear, but it’s easy to pinpoint its protagonists. Without a shadow of a doubt, one of them is Chillhop.
For anyone remotely familiar with lo-fi music, Chillhop and its iconic Raccoon mascot are essentially synonymous with the genre itself. Despite sharing similar origins with many other networks, the Rotterdam-based company embarked on a trajectory of its own that has led to a thriving brand, which goes far beyond the infamous “lo-fi beats to study to” mixes and includes a record label, in-house studio, lifestyle brand and much more.
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the launch of Chillhop’s flagship YouTube channel, we caught up with the company’s founder, Bas van Leeuwen, to discuss the link between growth and tech innovation, the origins of the project and the Raccoon’s lore.
: Let’s start from the very beginning. Chillhop is now renowned for its YouTube channel, its cozy aesthetic and compilation series, but the brand’s story began in a very different way. It all started with a blog, right?
Bas van Leeuwen: It all started in 2012 when I was living in my hometown and most of my friends had moved. There was one close friend I spent a lot of evenings with playing board games, having drinks and listening to music. We then found this type of music somehow and spent a lot of nights exploring what was out there in terms of music in this style. There were artists making this music, but there weren’t a lot of places or listener communities really centered around it that we could find at the time. It was a lot of fun just searching for great tracks on places like Bandcamp, SoundCloud and Last.fm, and sharing it with each other and listening to it together.
I was at a point where I finished my studies and didn’t really know where I wanted to go, so I figured that if I spent time helping people find this music that we really enjoyed and which we felt was under-appreciated, I could help the artists as well as learn something from the process… and that’s how it started. Just as a fun way to help artists find listeners and create something around the music. It began as a blog where I would talk to the artists about their new album or just do a little write-up of music I found and liked, but it wasn’t long until I realized I enjoyed creating videos on YouTube containing this music more than writing.
I really enjoyed pairing the music with visuals I made or found, and I figured that if people didn’t know about this music the first step is getting them to listen to it instead of reading about it.
: How did the project evolve after that? Did the YouTube channel or the record label come first?
Bas van Leeuwen: The YouTube channel was the base of everything. I spent a couple of years simply finding music, connecting with artists and sharing that music with the small amount of listeners we had then. I also started our first mix series called the “Chillcompilation,” where I would make a monthly selection of tracks I found and shared it on platforms like Mixcloud, SoundCloud and YouTube. This was at the time a hobby I spent a lot of time on—I didn’t make money off of it nor did that even come to mind as being a possibility. I simply enjoyed finding and sharing the music as well as connecting with the artists and seeing how I could help them reach a larger audience.
Back then it was small. Spotify and streaming wasn’t really a thing so the whole idea of making money with the music didn’t really live—it was just people creating and sharing it because they liked the music. After running the YouTube channel for about three years I started the label as a way to get more involved in the process and be able to do more for the artists than solely uploading their music on our channel. Because I had built up a good relationship with a lot of artists over time and the YouTube channel was growing, pretty much every artist I spoke to was enthusiastic to be involved and have us release their music.
: Fast-forward almost almost a decade later. What does the Chillhop brand embrace?
Bas van Leeuwen: Other than the two “faces” of the brand, namely the Chillhop YouTube channel and the Chillhop Music label, we have a publishing and sync department. We also built our own recording studio here in our office in Rotterdam and we launched the Endless Sunday lifestyle brand.
: Let’s focus on YouTube. For legions of music listeners, you’ve been the incubator of their experience with lo-fi. When you started the channel, were there already established lo-fi curators who inspired you? How was the scene on the platform?
Bas van Leeuwen: The term “lo-fi” to describe this kind of music wasn’t at all a thing back then. That only started in 2015 or so. In 2013, when I started the channel, there were a few channels like Bob42jh, iE4tBe4tz808 and DLoaw that were inspirational to me. There were some other small curators from around the world that were important to me, but Bob42jh—who also ran record label Cult Classic Records—has been really fundamental for this type of music, even though nobody who listens to the music nowadays knows him.
There were also small labels like Dusted Wax, who hosted a simple website where you could download hundreds of beat tapes by artists, back then which were a great source of music for me. I would say the scene was really great and it was easy to connect with everyone and share the passion for the music.
: How was Chillhop’s channel initially structured?
Bas van Leeuwen: We uploaded single tracks that we found and liked and I created mixes every once in a while, basically. That was before the label was launched. It was really quite simple and similar to a lot of YouTube curators.
If you’re talking about the label, that grew first from just me to working with a few other people like Brandon (also known as Birocratic) helping out on the music side casually, with some other friends involved casually as well. In 2017 we hired the first few people full-time to help work on the label, including Bastien to work on design and a lot of label-operational tasks, as well as Simon (also known as Philanthrope) to work on the A&R side of things. From there on out, the team grew further as the label grew, counting now 24 people, half based in the Netherlands and half international.
: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the livestreams were an immediate success on YouTube. How much has that feature changed the game for you and the whole YouTube ecosystem?
Bas van Leeuwen: Huge. I think it’s been the single biggest factor for the growth of the music and most of the big channels in this space. We were one of the first channels on YouTube that started a 24/7 livestream in music and at the time, we had our music playing with more relaxing, real-life nature visuals in the background, aerials of islands and that kind of stuff.
It didn’t really blow up or trigger the YouTube algorithm as much. But once some other channels started livestreaming and used studio Ghibli visuals instead, it seemed to click with a lot of people, which then triggered the YouTube to recommend the stream to tons and tons of people. The popularity of those channels and the music skyrocketed quite suddenly and quickly.
: How has the rise of Spotify and other streaming platforms changed your approach? Previously, to be a music curator, especially on YouTube, there was a practical barrier. You had to download the track, get the artist’s approval, find a fitting cover picture and finally upload everything. Spotify, for example, bypasses all this, making the curator’s job just a matter of drag and drop. Not to mention that its UX is smoother when it comes to finding and listening to music. How did you deal with all that “new” competition?
Bas van Leeuwen: It’s a hard one, honestly. I liked YouTube since you could really create something new that combines the music and visuals and have interaction with the people listening to it through the comments, et cetera. I think what’s hardest, is finding a balance between everything. Whereas 10 years ago, everything would be new and I could do whatever I want whenever I want, but we now have listeners, artists and a team to think about.
As things change quickly, you have the responsibility towards all of those people—especially the artists—to create the biggest exposure for their music. It’s sometimes hard to find the time and keep the focus on the creative side. I think the fact that there’s a lot of people or competition doing pretty much the same thing without a lot of variation makes it hard to really get inspired by something anymore. I like doing something slightly new, but never see myself as some groundbreaking innovator or something. I try to take it step by step.
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However, that feels like it has slowed down a bit because I’m just trying to keep up with everything. That’s the challenge for me personally. I still really like the music but I feel like I have to break away from it creatively somewhat to keep it interesting for myself, but also while continuing to serve the music and artists in our catalog as well as keeping our operation afloat. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I don’t necessarily see competition in itself as something that I focus on or get too riled up about. It mostly just highlights the weak points in your brand and the lack of uniqueness or ease to imitate something.
: Let’s go back once more to the origins of Chillhop and talk about the fans’ favorite topic, which has even been the subject of video essays: the Raccoon’s lore. When does it come into play?
Bas van Leeuwen: So this is an interesting one, and depends on the lore as described in the “Chillhop universe” or the actual story. The actual story is that I was looking for a mascot that represented the style of character of Chillhop. A raccoon came to mind since it’s an animal that stems from nature but is often urbanized, so the combination between nature and city fit with my idea. Then in terms of attitude and character, it looks calm, laid-back and chill on the surface, but has a bit of an attitude and edge to it, which I really like as well.
So there was a moment when I was on a vacation-business trip in Vancouver with a colleague, and we were out in the mountains and coincidentally discussing the mascot thing. Then, when we looked out the window, we saw a raccoon standing there, just looking at us. That’s when I was like, “Yeah, let’s go for the raccoon.” And that’s how it was born!
We worked with a few different illustrators to bring it to life, both in the logo as well as the livestream. From there on out, it just evolved naturally and we are now building a bit more of a cohesive universe and storyline around the Raccoon and its “squad” as time passes, and sharing more details over time.
: But Chillhop’s aesthetic is not just built on the Raccoon. A key component of your identity are the artworks that accompany your uploads and releases. I noticed that the first hints of this art direction can be seen around 2018. How has it evolved and how do you manage the art direction?
Bas van Leeuwen: If you look back at the earlier videos on our channel that are still there, about seven years ago we featured visuals in a lot of different styles, from photos to illustrations to small DIY animations. It evolved from there and as time passed, we started focusing more on illustrations rather than photos. We have an internal team of people working on art direction, as well as a pool of talented illustrators and animators we work with on a frequent basis.
Although lately we try to create some consistency by working more in one specific style. I like the different interpretations of the Raccoon by different artists but it also feels good to go more in-depth with a visual artist we’ve been working with for a longer time.
: Your community creates a lot of fan art. Have you ever turned one of those creations into an official artwork or merchandise?
Bas van Leeuwen: Our community always blows me away in terms of fan art. There are some really talented people out there and it’s always awesome to see what they come up with.
We turned an animation by Nigel Ng into a sticker pack and mix. We always repost Leto T. Varian’s artwork as well because it’s just so good, and used some for the artwork of official mixes.
: As a spectator, I quickly got the impression that your community is extremely dedicated and vice versa, so much so that you go to great lengths to offer them the most positive and immersive experience possible. How has this relationship evolved over time? What are the most important virtual hideaways for the Chillhop community?
Bas van Leeuwen: It’s great to have a community that cares so deeply about the brand. It’s hard to name one place that people most frequently visit, but when it comes to the interactive aspect, both our Discord server and livestream chats are the places where people hang out most often. But there’s a lot of just as awesome followers on platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Instagram.
The relationship evolved mostly for me as a person, where it’s sadly become harder over time to be as close to the community as before. I lurk on our livestream chats and Discord frequently, but one of my ambitions is to have more time to hang with the community.
: Lo-fi became quite a mainstream trend during the pandemic years. Have you experienced the effects?
Bas van Leeuwen: Yeah, it’s a weird duality where I like the fact that the love I have for this music is shared by a lot of people. On the other hand, the fact that it became bigger also jeopardizes some of the magic that was there early on. There’s a lot of talented and passionate people in it, but also a lot of ingenuity.
On the other hand, I also don’t want to be an old grumpy gatekeeper, so honestly I’ve grown over that part and focus on people doing cool shit, which there’s a lot of. For us personally, our biggest peak was before the pandemic so I feel the growth in competition is bigger than the growth of interest in the music as a whole.
: Lo-fi is a very (if not exclusively) digital genre. It’s not a scene that resolves around clubs, concerts or festivals. Despite that, it has a very strong relationship with physical formats. What is the reason for this duality?
Bas van Leeuwen: I like holding things and we like creating packages, whether that’s in the form of a video or in the form of a physical product. I think a good balance between doing things digitally and enjoying things in real life is important, so the physical product side is essential for us in that sense.
: You’ve always been very active on this front as well. When did you start doing physical releases? Has the demand increased or decreased over the years?
Bas van Leeuwen: We started early on, in 2016. Our first release on vinyl was Deeb’s Slowmocean EP. I remember for our first few releases I did everything from curation to contracts to cover design and coordinating the vinyl production process, which we did on Qrates at the time.
I’d say the demand grew a lot after the first few years and it still does, although the insanely long production times for records makes for a big challenge on that side.
: Continuing to talk about physical experiences, how’s the Endless Sunday bar going?
Bas van Leeuwen: We just closed our cafe. It was a hard decision to make but ultimately we took over the lease for this place just before Covid hit, and burned through our reserves too quickly to be able to build a sustainable place in an increasingly hard market.
We learned a lot from it and had great experience running events there, so all in all it was a very valuable experience and we will definitely use the experience we gained there running events to continue doing that in the future.
: Do you have plans for the 10-year anniversary of the project next year?
Bas van Leeuwen: We have some ideas, but can’t share more there!