Roblox: What is it, and why do I need to know about it?

The gaming platform, which lets players illegally upload songs, has sparked a chaotic music scene

The 15-year-old musician Odin, known as lungskull, has been making his own warped rap songs since 2020.  Photograph:  Matthew Avignone/New York Times

The 15-year-old musician Odin, known as lungskull, has been making his own warped rap songs since 2020. Photograph: Matthew Avignone/New York Times

 

Artists, label heads and industry schemers know that success in pop music today requires racking up plays on TikTok and streaming services. But there’s another, unlikely platform that’s picking up steam: Roblox.

Roblox is a game-creation engine, first released in 2006, that allows players to customise their own sandbox worlds, create mini-games on multiplayer servers and enjoy a second life online as square-shaped beings called Robloxians. Unlike Minecraft, a game that drops users into a fantastical “otherworld”, Roblox’s most popular mini-games (or, as Roblox calls them, “experiences”) are rooted in real life. They are “roleplays”, meaning the player performs a certain persona; you can be a sheriff, a parent adopting a child, a pizza chef.

The fact that Roblox is spawning a new music subgenre speaks to Roblox’s current generational and cultural ubiquity

Last year the platform spawned its own music genre – robloxcore. Mostly made by young teenagers, it’s a strain of chaotic, profanity-laden rap that’s overloaded with frantic sound effects. Tunes such as Threat, by lieu, a 13-year-old musician, emulate being inside a digital dimension where every bass thud and synth shake is an enemy you’re blowing past, every vocal stutter and short-circuited squeak a new obstacle to avoid. The scene has made ripples in the underground music circuit, and earned a nod from Phoebe Bridgers on Twitter.

Music has become such a big part of the Roblox community for one major reason: Starting in late 2013, users became able to upload their own MP3s to the platform, which other players can purchase. Inside worlds, you can equip an item called the “boombox” – a sparkly, golden speaker system – and broadcast the music to players around you. The closer you are to another user, the louder the music is for them.

While the platform’s makers praised how music has become one of its hallmarks – “the fact that Roblox is spawning a new music subgenre speaks to Roblox’s current generational and cultural ubiquity”, writes Jon Vlassopulos, its global head of music, in an email – in actuality, many of its young users are doing things that are supposed to be forbidden, such as hacking illicit music into the game.

Originally, the platform’s founders set a filter for profanity since it’s supposed to be child-friendly. Yet inventive users have devised a workaround. “Bypassing audio” refers to a technique where people distort or disguise an audio file so it slips through the detection systems meant to filter out offensive language and copyrighted tracks. (Methods include layering a song 32 times so the lyrics become deafening and indecipherable, or purposely raising or lowering its pitch so it sounds incoherent to moderators, before readjusting it in the game.)

The scene is odd but in a good way – it’s interesting how people can bond over something that goes against the terms of service

While many players bypass tame mainstream music that would have otherwise been blocked because of copyright issues, a large contingent of users boost intense, expletive-packed underground rap music. That’s partly how robloxcore exploded, after dozens of players uploaded those types of tracks and trumpeted them with their boombox items, inspiring other users in the same in-game worlds to listen to the music and share it, too.

Lieu, a pioneer of robloxcore and longtime Roblox player whose pronouns are they/their, says whenever they join games, they hear people playing their music. “It’s crazy because none of this was ever my goal, I just wanted to make music and be funny,” lieu writes over Discord, the talking and texting app popular with gamers. Without the game, lieu says, they doubted the music would ever be popular, “or at least nowhere near as popular as it is now”.

So, who are these mysterious, influential players bypassing music into Roblox?

They call themselves Roblox audio makers. Known for their devious bypassing methods and taste for aggressive rap, they gather mostly on Discord in secret groups and chats run by exclusive collectives. Audio makers sell methods of sneaking songs on to Roblox to one another like furtive weapons dealers; some can go for thousands of Robux, or roughly $20-40 (€16-32).

“The community can be very dangerous at times,” says a Robloxer known as DigitalCrimes (14) over Discord, explaining that aggravating the wrong person can lead to nasty consequences – having your personal information leaked or worse, players prank-calling a Swat team to raid your home.

Largely populated by teens and even younger players, the scene has a reputation for trollish behaviour. “A lot of them have egos and are edgy and toxic,” explains marty_red, a popular Roblox TikToker, over Discord. “The scene is odd but in a good way – it’s interesting how people can bond over something that goes against the terms of service.”

Roblox is a game-creation engine and it was first released in 2006. Photograph: Getty
Roblox is a game-creation engine and it was first released in 2006. Photograph: Getty

Bypassed tunes began to circulate in the mid-2010s, about the same time Roblox’s demographics were shifting; the kids who had grown up playing the game in the 2000s were morphing into teens and adults with a taste for restricted content. Suddenly, there was a whole crop of outlaws willfully skirting the Roblox rules to blast blown-out rap music from their boomboxes.

“When I first used to play, there was no distorted rap – the worst you would hear was maybe Eminem’s Rap God, and all of it was censored,” says mart_yred, who has been playing for more than nine years. “You started to hear bypassed audios in late 2015, and then there was a really big spike in 2017.”

The scene really took off in 2021, when popular audio makers on Roblox such as DigitalAngels and CriminalViolence set up shop on the vast video-sharing platform TikTok, establishing an entire subgenre of audio maker-themed videos. Roblox has always had a sizable presence on TikTok – users post gameplay footage, flashy animations and rapid-fire edits – but this content is different. Audio makers rate one another, brag about how much clout they have and compose slide shows of codes you can use to download the freshest bypassed audio in-game.

Over the past few months, the most successful bypass TikTokers have racked up tens of thousands of followers, bringing a group of newbies into the shadowy world of audio making. And some of the tracks they use as audio for TikToks end up flowing out into the broader TikTok pool.

The biggest so far is lungskull’s Foreign. The 15-year-old Parisian began as an audio maker bypassing other people’s tracks to the game, but since 2020 has been making his own warped rap songs. After one of his Roblox friends used Foreign in a late 2020 TikTok video, the tune had a mini-moment, and has now soundtracked more than 45,000 TikTok videos. Eventually, the song leaked beyond the gamer realm, becoming the backdrop to goth girl memes and a video of a cockroach dashing to evade insect repellent.

In 2013 Roblox users were able to upload their own MP3s to the platform, which other players can purchase. Photograph: iStock
In 2013 Roblox users were able to upload their own MP3s to the platform, which other players can purchase. Photograph: iStock

Other tracks initially lifted by Roblox players that then spilled across the wider TikTok horizon include Axxturel’s ghoulish Ave Domina Lilith, which mushroomed in popularity after a Roblox TikToker posted a video of a cluster of male avatars wearing cat ears and maid costumes dancing to the song with the caption “me n the boys”. More recently, the user cybyrbae made a video that helped propel Yameii Online’s Baby My Phone, which ended up peaking at number two on the Spotify Viral 50 playlist in March.

While none of these songs fall into a defined genre, they’re linked by their off-kilter vocal styles and a feeling of lo-fi incompleteness – a decaying quality similar to that of bypassed tunes. Many fans call the amorphous sound social reject music, which captures their ironic sense of themselves as the lowest of the low, playfully dissing one another for devouring such low-quality, earsplitting, coarse rap tunes.

“When I wasn’t that known, I thought it was crazy that people would play my music on Roblox – sometimes I would go up to them and say something funny, like, ‘Hey, what song is that?’ as if I was just a random player,” lungskull says over Discord. But ultimately, the game has provided him with something bigger than an audience: “I’ve met so many friends from Discord and the audio community.” – New York Times

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