(LR) Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell accept album of the year for ‘When we all fall asleep, where do we go?’ onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Maia, a 19-year-old ukulele player, is one of the music industry’s rising stars even though she has chosen to stay on the fringes.
Just two years after uploading her first song to the internet as “mxmtoon” (pronounced em-ex-em-TOON), she’s sold 24 shows across the United States and racked up millions of views on YouTube. and TikTok with its indie folk-pop music.
And it all started in a guest bedroom at her parents’ home in Oakland, California. The setting lends authenticity to the genre-defying musical movement with which it is associated: chamber pop.
“Anyone can make music, and I think that’s the ideology behind chamber pop,” said Maia, who never revealed her last name to fans. “Chamber is more of an idea, a person sitting in a small space and using all the resources you have to create songs you’re proud of.”
Many musicians have found success starting out on the internet before signing with a record label to cement their rise to stardom. But chamber pop has emerged in recent years as a musical movement shaped and established by the Internet, fueled by online platforms, easy access to high-quality music software, and algorithm-driven recommendation systems that can push an artist from obscurity to glory.
Maia, for example, garnered over 75,000 views in just a few days for her new music video. Marie Ulven, 20, a Norwegian chamber pop artist better known by her pseudonym “girl in red”, has more than 3 million listeners on Spotify.
It’s the kind of success that may surprise even some of its own artists.
“I never saw this coming,” Maia said. “I had definitely decided to go to university to study architecture.”
Unlike other genres, chamber pop is not differentiated by its sound. Chamber pop artists tend to cover a variety of sounds and mix different types of music. Some bedroom pop artists don’t sound like the rest at all.
Chamber pop recently made its way to the Grammys when Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas, won Song of the Year for “Bad Guy.” Although Eilish isn’t necessarily considered a chamber pop artist, many of the themes she sings about and the genre-hybrid music the siblings make speak to chamber pop.
“We just make music together in a bedroom. We still do…” Finneas said in his Grammy acceptance speech. “This is for all the kids making music in their room today. You’re going to get one.”
The originality and openness of Eilish’s music has garnered a large fanbase among Gen Z, including Maia herself.
“Anyone who listens to her music also gets a really good sense of who she is or at least what she brings to the world,” Maia said. “We’re dedicated to her because she’s a whole person and we want to root for her.”
The independence and individualism of chamber pop gave its artists the freedom to explore their most personal and intimate experiences. The result is music that is often steeped in the identity of the artists, giving the genre a strong representation of people of color and the LGBTQ community.
“As a woman of color and someone who has a lot of different intersections in a lot of marginalized identities, I have a lot of things I could say all the time,” said Maia, who is Chinese-American. “And I think the internet has really given space to people who have stories to tell.”
The term chamber pop first appeared in the mid-2010s as a way to reference artists who had gained small followings online. Their music would be considered “lo-fi” compared to major label releases, but would still sound like it had been professionally made, thanks to high-quality music software that had become common among amateur musicians.
Ulven, with her guitar-heavy indie rock, started releasing music only on SoundCloud in 2017 and was thrilled if her songs received streams. Then, on January 4, 2018, YouTube channel “Lost Soul,” which promotes under-the-radar indie music and art, reposted his song, “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.”
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Almost immediately, she started getting fan messages on Instagram from people who had heard her song.
“I remember that day very well, because it was the first time I got the messages,” Ulven said.
Other chamber pop artists had similar stories or almost overnight success. Clairo’s song “Pretty Girl” hit 1 million views on YouTube within a week. A week after YouTube’s algorithm started recommending Boy Pablo’s song “Everytime” in October 2017, the song was racking up 40,000 to 50,000 views per day. From Rex Orange County and Cuco to Peach Pit and Phum Viphurit, the viral origin story is common in chamber pop.
“You can hit anyone now,” Ulven said. “You can reach the whole world just by making music in your room.”
By early 2018, Spotify had created an official bedroom pop playlist, garnering more attention and recognition from the movement.
Jamie Oborne, who founded independent music label Dirty Hit in 2009, said he sees a lot of similarities between chamber pop artists and indie artists of the past. The difference, he noted, comes from the internet-infused world in which they thrive.
“I don’t really see a difference in ethos,” Oborne said. “Maybe the difference is more about the times we live in and a market shift and an artist’s reaction to that, as opposed to a difference in values.”
Room to grow
Maia often spends hours listening to old demos, playing with musical arrangements on her computer, and playing the same chord progression over and over until she annoys her parents. She may sound and feel like a broken record, but she said it’s the process needed to produce a sound that’s uniquely her own.
The personal nature of chamber pop has been part of its success. According to a 2019 Spotify Music Culture Report, 50% of Gen Z and Millennials connect best with music that shares deep, authentic feelings, such as loneliness or sadness. The unapologetic honesty of chamber pop fits into the musical desires of Generation Z.
The phrase DIY – do it yourself – is synonymous with bedroom pop.
“No matter where I go with the music, there’s always going to be that DIY feeling because I’m in control,” Ulven said.
Cassandra Deguzman, 16, said she’s been a fan of Maia since her debut on SoundCloud and said she enjoys listening to the full range of chamber pop artists.
“I feel like these artists are telling a story in the lyrics and the music they create,” Deguzman said. “It’s like the fans have a connection to these chamber pop artists since their music is so relatable, especially since I’m a teenager growing up and discovering myself.”
Although Eilish continues to create her genre-individualistic music, her awards and multimillion-dollar deal with Interscope Records puts her in a more mainstream space.
Artists who remain in the pop chamber have chosen a more independent path.
Most chamber pop artists, Maia and Ulven included, sign with labels after independently establishing their music on the Internet. However, they choose transparent labels that exist more as partners with the artist, helping with promotional and sales activity, while giving the artist complete and total creative control.
Maia may be signed to a record and embarking on her second tour in April, but the guest bedroom in her parents’ house is still creative ground zero for her music. The same goes for Ulven, who may be performing at Coachella before embarking on his spring tour, but whose Instagram bio still states “I make songs in my bedroom.”
“I’m always going to bring my pop room, quotes, ideas with me to make music that’s meaningful to me,” Ulven said.