The Tyranny of Music Genres
As a recording or performing artist, you find yourself answering a familiar question: “What kind of music do you play?”
How do you answer?
Maybe you have a stock reply — “rock,” “folk,” or “pop.” Or maybe you try to be a little more descriptive — “modern rock,” “folk rock,” or “indie pop.” Or maybe you try to connect more directly with the person — “Pearl Jam-style rock,” “Barenaked Ladies-type stuff,” or “a Sufjan Stevens sort of thing.” These generalizations categorize what you do, make it digestible for someone else, give them an entry point. But they don’t reveal much about you.
Is that what you want?
Why Music Genres Exist
Music genres exist to differentiate, for practical purposes, between “styles.” They are helpful to retailers wanting to separate classical from jazz, or country from rock. They are useful to marketers concerned with “relatability.” They do not, technically speaking, describe anything important about your music. They simply pigeonhole specific pieces of music with generalized tags, removing the identifiable details for the sake of the whole.
If you’re an original artist, music genres present a problem for you.
Sure, a music scene built around a genre might help you to “fit in” or reach a certain type of fan. But your true challenge as an original artist is to demonstrate the uniqueness of your work. The ways in which your work resembles that of others do not distinguish you. The characteristics that make you “accessible” are actually your most unremarkable.
Once you make a first impression, the categorization of your music actually works against you.
As an original artist, you need to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Defeating Music Genres
Let’s try this again. You’re asked the question: “What kind of music do you play?”
How do you answer?
Try this: “I play original music. It might remind you of other things you’ve heard, it might not. That’s up to you, not me. I hope you like it, as I’m not trying to trick you into liking it by giving it a ham-fisted resemblance to the Dave Matthews Band. I’m just doing what I do.”
See? Easy. It’s not a genre. It’s you.
I’m afraid I have to bust this up a little bit. It’s become something of an in-joke amongst many musical friends of mine that whenever you see someone describe themselves this way (“I don’t sound like anyone else, I sound like ME!”), they usually sound exactly like someone else, often a very poor copy.
Ideally, this strategy would make sense, but with so many people muddying the waters this way, it can turn people off. At least it does me, probably due to far too much exposure to open mics & Craigslist.
There can be a happy medium. Perhaps instead of responding with an established genre, invent a hybrid of your own, and give it a title people can remember. Or describe how the music makes you feel, rather than what standard genre it may sound like.
Just my thoughts, as a jaded musician who’s read to many bios…
I guess we’ve all met that guy. But if his stuff sounds overly familiar, chances are it’s genre-based. The problem with any genre is that it has a set of “rules” for what is allowed and what isn’t. That’s a pretty absurd premise for making art, unless, as you say, you make your own rules. Nothing destroys what’s interesting in a song faster than someone thinking it needs to fit in a box. And that really is the essence of genre.
Most art is made based on absurd premises (getting sex, escaping drudgery, ego-boosting). And unfortunately, people buy the hell out of stuff that is specifically made to be predictable. Fans like you & I are the minority, and most artists know it.
I agree that genres are bollocks, but of course so is the music industry.
Yeah, I agree. But the music itself doesn’t have to be bollocks, and a vital if small community exists around that kind of thinking. Brick by brick.
Disagree and agree a bit — at some point, the (used to be real, now virtual) record store is going to put you in a section — rock, jazz, pop, R&B, etc. This is because there is a conflict between the need for originality on the part of the artist and the need for understanding by others, and the need for understanding by others usually wins. Especially because “the others” are the ones deciding if they want to buy your songs or see your show or just click “like” somewhere.
I think the goal is really being able to state what you are within the genres clearly and/or how you mix the genres, so you do set up a framework of expectations and then can fine tune within that. “Klezmer-influenced rock,” “easy listening jazz,” “spiritual rap” or whatever. True, there are things that actually do live up to “you’ve never heard anything like this before,” but that can’t be every artist and if I’m honest with myself, there are only a handful of artists I have seen live that really live up to that. If it’s a guitar, a bass, drums and vocals playing typical Western rock chord progressions and singing major/minor melody lines with particular rhythms, we’re basically going to slot it into the rock and roll place in our heads, no matter how much the band may not want that.
But I don’t always think that’s bad — there’s a huge amount of space, depth and variety in those slots, and if you don’t believe me, look at the lineups for major festivals. A jazz festival may have bebop, horn ensembles, vocalists with backups, avant-garde players, blues-based players, electronica and banjos or odd instruments, all one after another. I don’t think they suffer from all being called “jazz” — but if I was just watching Trombone Shorty and then Bela Fleck came on followed by Tony Bennett, I would explain to an outsider that these are different acts and what the differences were. Ditto for almost any kind of “genre.”
So I agree with Matthew — I don’t there’s anything wrong with calling yourself “classical metal,” “intelligent rock,” “jazz for the masses,” “heavy blues” or whatever else you come up with. It helps people who don’t know you figure out if you’re worth trying out, or just understand what you’re up to. Just don’t go around saying your band is “you know, um, rock” and I think you’ll be fine. 🙂
Agreed, nothing “wrong” with using a genre to market art. But while genres differentiate between styles — the mechanics of music — they don’t illuminate much intrinsic about the art. Someone can say their music is “jazz for the masses,” but that doesn’t tell you much about it, and certainly doesn’t say anything enlightening about it. As practically helpful as a genre might be at square one, when the listener goes from “what’s this?” to “oh, it’s that,” a genre tag can stick to an artist like skunk spray. Could Elvis Costello do without being referred to as a “new wave” songwriter or an “angry young man” 35 years on? I think maybe he could.
So yes, genres are a nice marketing device, and long may they run as that. But an original artist needs to be cognizant of his identity, not just his mechanics — and of communicating that to an audience that thinks beyond cliche.