A trick of YouTube’s algorithms has led to the blossoming of hundreds of unlicensed, independent radio stations on the site, reminiscent of an age of underground broadcasts in the previous century.
Luke Pritchard and Jonny Laxton were 13 when they met at a boarding school in Crowthorne, England, in 2011. They bonded over a shared love of underground music and in 2014 started a YouTube channel, College Music, to promote the artists they liked.
At first, the channel grew slowly. Then, in the spring of 2016, Mr. Pritchard discovered 24/7 live-streaming, a feature that allows YouTube’s users to broadcast a single video continuously.
College Music had 794 subscribers in April 2015, a year before Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Laxton started streaming. A month after they began, they had more than 18,440. In April 2016, they had 98,110 subscribers and as of last month, with three active live streams, they have more than triple that amount, with 334,000. They make about $5,000 a month from the streams.
The boys stumbled upon a new strategy, one that, in the past two years, has helped a certain kind of YouTube channel achieve widespread popularity. Hundreds of independently run channels have begun to stream music nonstop, with videos that combine playlists with hundreds of songs and short, looped animations, often taken from anime films without copyright permission.
Live streams come in many different genres. Two of College Music’s streams are part of a family of channels that broadcast what the broadcasters call lofi (low-fidelity) hip-hop, mellow music that would sound familiar to fans of J. Dilla and Nujabes.
Such videos, with subscriber counts in the hundreds of thousands, are some of most popular continuously streaming music stations on the site. Many are run by young Europeans, who may have only a passing familiarity with the history of the music they are spreading.
And they don’t know why, but their users really do insist on the anime images.
Mr. Laxton said fans protested when the imagery of the video was changed, and provided a screenshot of a particularly upset user requesting that an anime clip be restored to one of its three stations.
The channels occupy a precarious space between YouTube’s algorithm and its copyright policing, drawing comparisons to the unlicensed pirate radio stations of the 20th century, recreated in the digital sphere. Many of the channels blink in and out of existence within a week, but their presence has become a compelling part of the site’s musical ecosystem. And while competitors like Spotify are gaining, YouTube still dominates the streaming world, according to the latest Music Consumer Insight Reportfrom the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
When Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Laxton started streaming, they ran the channel from Mr. Pritchard’s dorm, which was right above the housemaster’s room.
“Every other day he’d tell me to turn it down because he could hear the bass bumping,” Mr. Pritchard said.
Mr. Pritchard, now 20, said there are so many new competitors now that it has become far more difficult to get the kind of instant success that he and Mr. Laxton discovered two years ago.
Live streams like theirs succeed in part by exploiting user behavior. According to channel operators, YouTube users often click off a video after several minutes, before the clip has concluded. But users who listen to live streams tend to play them for a half-hour or more, often as background music. That boosts the videos’ retention rates, which compels YouTube to promote them more widely.
A YouTube spokeswoman, Veronica Navarrete, said that while YouTube Live had been available since 2011 and continuous live-streaming had been available since late 2012, the number of live channels that stream daily has quadrupled year over year since 2016.
One of the most popular channels in the lofi family is called ChilledCow. It’s run by Dimitri, a 23-year-old who lives on the outskirts of Paris. He started his live stream on Feb. 25, 2017, and his listenership, well, as you can see from the below image, it grew. (Dimitri asked that his last name not be used.)
YouTube disciplines stations that color outside the lines. Streams are shut down all the time and even veterans of the scene get dinged. Bas, 28, who runs one of the most popular channels in the lofi family, Chillhop Music, from his home in Rotterdam, was recently assessed a strike over a copyright violation. At the moment, he does not have an active live stream.
The platform’s willingness to enforce intellectual property rights, even casually, has forced stations like Chillhop Music, College Music, ChilledCow and others to form their own relationships with the artists.
“The artists don’t get angry with us cause we know them and a lot of the music is from our label,” said Bas, who refused to use his full name because he did not want people bothering him on his personal accounts. “They rightfully get angry at some other channels though as a lot of people are just capitalizing on the artists.”
Channels like College Music, ChilledCow, Chillhop Music and others are unlikely to have a broad impact on the music industry. But they represent an underground alternative to the streaming hegemony of Spotify and Apple Music. The industry commentator Bob Lefsetz said that while the stations were not likely to become a lucrative endeavor, they were a way for members of the public to seize power back from cultural gatekeepers.
Nico Perez, a founder of MixCloud, applauded the channels, and said they were a natural response to the homogeneity of traditional radio playlists. But he was troubled by the total power that YouTube yielded over the ecosystem.
“If they grow large enough, YouTube will have to decide whether they want to support it or if it’s not what they’re looking for on the platform,” he said.
These days, Mr. Pritchard runs College Music from his home in Reading, having dropped out of law school to pursue music full time. (He’s now dealing with two housemasters, his parents.) Mr. Laxton, 19, is at university in Leeds, where he scouts and signs artists for the record label the two have started together, also called College Music. On a good month, it brings in another $5,000, they said.
“I think a year down the line, the thing that we’ll be pushing most will be the label,” said Mr. Laxton.
But he said the new competition on YouTube was not the motivating factor. In fact, he said, he was happy that the scene had blown up so quickly.
“Me and Luke started out trying to get more people hearing the music that we thought deserved to be heard,” he said. “The more people there are in the market, I think that’s a better thing.It means there are more opportunities for the artists we came about to help.”