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What's bedroom pop? How an online DIY movement created a musical genre

Bedroom pop has emerged as a music movement fueled by online platforms, easy access to high-quality music software and algorithmically driven recommendation systems.
mxmtoon, also known as Maia, is an American singer-songwriter and social media personality from Oakland, Calif.
mxmtoon, also known as Maia, is an American singer-songwriter and social media personality from Oakland, Calif.Hannah Simpson

Maia, a ukulele-playing 19-year-old, is one of the rising stars of the music industry even though she’s chosen to stay on its fringes.

Just two years after uploading her first song to the internet under the name “mxmtoon” (pronounced em-ex-em-TOON), she’s sold out 24 shows around the United States and racked up millions of views on YouTube and TikTok with her indie folk-pop music.

And it all started in a guest bedroom of her parents’ house in Oakland, California. The setting lends authenticity to the genre-defying music movement she’s associated with: bedroom pop.

“Anyone can make music, and I think that is the ideology behind bedroom pop,” Maia, who has never disclosed her last name to fans, said. “Bedroom, it’s more of an idea, of a person sitting in a small space and using whatever resources you have to make songs that you’re proud of.”

Many musicians have found success starting on the internet before signing with a record label to cement their rise to stardom. But bedroom pop has emerged in recent years as a music movement shaped and established by the internet, fueled by online platforms, easy access to high-quality music software and algorithmically driven recommendation systems that can take an artist from obscurity to fame.

Maia, for example, drew more than 75,000 views in just a couple days for her newest music video. Marie Ulven, 20, a bedroom pop artist from Norway better known by her pseudonym “girl in red,” has more than 3 million listeners on Spotify.

It’s the kind of success that can surprise even some of its own artists.

“I never saw this coming,” Maia said. “I was definitely set on going to college to study architecture.”

Unlike other genres, bedroom pop isn’t differentiated by its sound. Bedroom pop artists tend to span a variety of sounds and mix different types of music. Some bedroom pop artists don’t sound anything like each other.

Bedroom pop recently made its way to the Grammys when Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas, won song of the year for “Bad Guy.” Though Eilish is not necessarily considered a bedroom pop artist, many of the themes she sings about and the genre-hybrid music the siblings make speak to bedroom pop.

“We just make music in a bedroom together. We still do that ...,” Finneas said in their Grammy acceptance speech. “This is for all of the kids who are making music in their bedroom today. You’re going to get one of these.”

The originality and openness of Eilish’s music has attracted a large fan base among Gen Zers — including Maia herself.

“Everyone that listens to her music also has a really good sense of who she is or at least what she puts into the world,” Maia said. “We’re dedicated to her because she’s a whole individual and we want to root for her.”

The independence and individualism of bedroom pop has meant that its artists have the freedom to explore their more personal and intimate experiences. The result is music that is often infused with the identities of the artists, giving the genre strong representation from 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 whole lot that I could say all the time,” Maia, who is Chinese American, said. “And I think that the internet has really given a place for people with stories to tell them.”

Net effects

The term bedroom pop first emerged 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 still sounded like it was made by professionals, thanks to high-quality music software that had become common among amateur musicians.

Ulven, with her guitar-heavy indie rock, began releasing music solely on SoundCloud in 2017 and was pleased if her songs received any streams at all. Then on Jan. 4, 2018, the YouTube channel “Lost Soul,” which promotes under-the-radar indie music and art, reposted her song “i wanna be your girlfriend.”

Almost immediately, she started getting fan messages on Instagram from people who heard her song.

“I remember that day so clearly, cause that’s the first time I got the messages,” Ulven said.

Other bedroom pop artists have had similar stories or almost-overnight success. Clairo’s song “Pretty Girl” reached 1 million views on YouTube within a week. A week after the YouTube algorithm began recommending Boy Pablo’s song “Everytime” in October 2017, the song was racking up 40,000-50,000 views per day. From Rex Orange County and Cuco to Peach Pit and Phum Viphurit, the viral origin story is a common one in bedroom pop.

“You can get to anyone now,” Ulven said. “You can reach out to the whole world just by making music in your bedroom.”

By early 2018, Spotify had created an official bedroom pop playlist, sparking more attention and recognition of the movement.

Jamie Oborne, who founded the independent music label Dirty Hit in 2009, said he sees a lot of similarities between bedroom pop artists and indie artists of the past. The difference, he noted, comes from the internet-infused world they flourish in.

“I don’t really see much of a difference in ethos,” Oborne said. “Maybe the difference is more about the times we live in and an evolution of the marketplace and an artist’s reaction to that as opposed to a difference of values.”

Room to grow

Maia will often spend hours listening to old demos, playing with musical arrangements on her computer, and playing the same chord progression over and over again until she’s annoyed her parents. She may sound and feel like a broken record, but she said it’s the necessary process to produce a sound that is her own.

The personal nature of bedroom pop has been part of its success. According to a 2019 Spotify music culture report, 50 percent of Gen Zers and millennials best connect with music that shares deep, authentic feelings, such as loneliness or sadness. The unabashed honesty of bedroom pop fits into the musical desires of Gen Z.

The phrase DIY — do it yourself — is synonymous with bedroom pop.

“No matter where I go with music, it’s always gonna have that DIY feeling over it because I’m in control,” Ulven said.

Cassandra Deguzman, 16, said she has been a fan of Maia since her early days on SoundCloud and said she enjoys listening to the entire scope of bedroom pop artists.

“I feel like these artists are telling a story within the lyrics and the music they create,” Deguzman said. “It’s as if the fans have a connection to these bedroom pop artists since their music is so relatable, especially since I’m a teenager growing up and discovering myself.”

Indie identity

Although Eilish continues to create her individualistic genre-bending music, her awards and multimillion-dollar contract with Interscope Records place her in a more mainstream space.

Artists who stay in the bedroom pop have chosen a more independent route.

Most bedroom 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, assisting with the business of promotion and sales, while giving the artist complete and total creative control.

Maia may be signed with a record and embarking on her second tour in April, but the guest room in her parents’ home is still creation ground zero for her music. The same goes for Ulven, who may be performing at Coachella before embarking on her spring tour, but whose Instagram bio still reads “i makes songs in my room.”

“I’m always gonna bring my bedroom pop, quotation mark, ideas with me about making meaningful music to me,” Ulven said.