Chillhop Music – The Magic of Passive Listening

Chillhop is music for a world where everyone listens, but no one pays attention. The Dutch label is nevertheless successful — and knows why.

»In the beginning, Chillhop was just the name given to the music, not a label,« says Ben Diamond. The Englishman looks after the webshop at Chillhop Music, one of the biggest platforms for instrumental hip-hop. Three days of the week, he sits in a Rotterdam office that Chillhop Music has just moved into. »700 square meters«, he says. »Plus we’re currently building a studio in the basement.« Behind Diamond lies a giant skull — a remnant from the previous tenant. »They designed costumes for parties here and left a lot behind.« He smiles.

A few years ago, no one would have believed that Chillhop Music would develop into a company with a chic office space in the heart of Rotterdam. Not even the founder himself. Bas van Leeuwen started a YouTube channel in 2013 and uploaded music he found on the internet — gems that vibe as if J Dilla had poured three litres of cough syrup into his Sprite. And beats to which some people cram for exams or share a hit, bite through their shitty office job or just want to be alone without feeling like they’re alone. That has worked. In 2016, the channel had over 100,000 subscribers. Bas decides to found a label with Chillhop Music because he wants to make the music of the artists more visible — and, above all, to land on Spotify playlists.

Chillhop and the Swedish streaming provider were a match from the start. They belong together like 16 bars to a verse. The professionalization from a YouTube channel to their own label with distribution was nevertheless accompanied by changes. »In the beginning, Chillhop was based more on samples. Therefore, you got a certain sound«, says Diamond. _»But when Bas started the label, samples weren’t applicable.« A mash of different genres were blending into each other because the music had to change in order to continue to exist.

Meanwhile, 25 people work for Chillhop Music. 3.2 million people have subscribed to the YouTube channel, right now several thousand are listening to one of the two livestreams that are always running. 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. Always there: a raccoon. Sometimes it is typing on a laptop in bed, pushing a bicycle through the forest or leafing through a book next to a scalding cup of coffee. It is the face and figurehead of Chillhop. Designer Bastien Hebeisen had the idea for the logo in 2017. »He and Bas were in Canada at the time«, Diamond says. -»They saw a raccoon and had the idea for the logo. Because raccoons live in nature, but sometimes come into the city. Also, they’re cheeky, fun and pretty chill.«_

»I wouldn’t say that the way we try to create music that should be listened to in the background. I would say however that 99.9 percent of people nowadays do not listen to music without doing anything else at the same time.«

Ben Diamond

It sounds like a finely crafted story from the Paulanergarten, but the raccoon is now part of the corporate identity of Chillhop Music. The covers alone, on which it tumbles around, look like pages in children’s books without seeming childish. They use a trick that is familiar from films by Studio Ghibli or Disney. Everyone is addressed — from the first milk tooth to the last Kukident tablet. Playlists like »Seasonal Essentials« are streaming to millions of people, in the background, while you despair of integral calculus, go all Marie Kondo or blow your brains out with Das Kapital.

»Our core audience is not that easy to define«, says Diamond. »We were comparing it to people like us, but in reality it was very different.« Obviously, he doesn’t want to say too much here, only that most of the people who stream Chillhop come from the US. Anywhere from school teachers playing the music to their kids every morning to 50-year-old guys who just happen to like the music, all ages are covered. Nevertheless, one should not confuse the streaming figures with the number of active listeners. Many simply turn it up without knowing what they are listening to. »However, we also have superfans«_, says Diamond. By that he means people who are not only more engaged with the music or artists, but also interact on the Chillhop server via Discord or on Reddit. And they buy everything from hoodies to stuffed animals to vinyl records.

»Us focussing more on physical products allows us to have another way to sustain the company if the trend of Spotify starts to decline«, says Diamond. In the meantime, Chillhop Music thrives on people listening passively to actively listen away. The music is like a TV that’s on without anyone watching — it’s there without being there. Slides into the subconscious. Provides a vibe that no one can grasp, but everyone checks out. Ben Diamond tries to put it into perspective. »I wouldn’t say that the way we try to create music that should be listened to in the background. I would say however that 99.9 percent of people nowadays do not listen to music without doing anything else at the same time.«_

Chillhop does not stand in the way to prevent that, because it is about more anyway. »We try and create an experience that is engaging«, Diamond points out. »If we wanted, we would just create playlists and not care about the artwork and the story and stuff for maximum revenue, but that is something we don’t stand behind.« It is about the whole feel people get from the aesthetics of a playlist to the title of a record. Still, the way that Chillhop has manifested, people go for the name rather than the artist. Therefore, the label has taken steps to highlight the artists, giving them a platform. »There is definitely demand«, says Diamond. » I don’t see our core audience getting bored anytime soon.«