It’s the end of genre as we know it.
If you’ve listened to any popular music much within the past ten to twenty years, you may have noticed that many genres are not what they used to be. With the increasing presence of commercialized music, coupled with the rise of more independent music creation, genre seems to have taken a back seat to a new kind of music: genreless. In our new world of constant internet connection, streaming services, and computer algorithms which make recommendations tailored to our own personal tastes, the niche of having a narrow preference of musical genre is disappearing quickly. A 2018 poll by Vice Magazine found that 78% of those surveyed “couldn’t be defined by the genre they listened to,” (Jared Kristensen) and further academic studies seem to agree: genre is becoming increasingly unimportant to listeners.
So what does all of this mean for music? First and foremost, genre is not going away entirely. Too many people, including musicians, producers, record companies, and streaming services, rely upon classification systems we have in place for that to happen (Silver). What is changing is the basis and categories of those systems, and their meaning to the general public. Just like any other element of culture, music, and its genres, will blend together as new ideas are introduced and old ones are lost to time, and in a way, musical genres can be viewed as their own small ‘cultures.’
How does culture work, and how does it apply to genre?
Culture can be defined in many ways, and for this case we will be using a definition common in philosophical and sociological contexts. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines culture as:
The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
Music fits very well into this mold. It is, by definition, an element of culture. To contextualize this with genre, however, we must view each subcategory of music not simply as a part of a unifying custom, but as an entire culture itself. Like culture, genre is ever-changing, especially when consistently interacting with others.
Multiple customs coexisting in close quarters will inevitably diffuse into each other as each one acquires elements of their counterparts. Nowadays, with the advent of the internet and instant communication, the human world has become less and less bound by geography, allowing for the development of mass culture (Obiageli). When this happens on a global scale the ability to distinguish between geographically separate regions is eventually lost or at least significantly diminished. This is exactly the case with genre. As one listens to a more and more diverse selection of music, the concepts of every new genre or style are added to a subconscious canon of every musical element that person has experienced in their life. The average listener has a more diverse musical taste than a decade ago, therefore artists, record companies, publishers, and marketers seeking to produce successful content have a much wider selection of musical styles to work with. This, however, isn’t necessarily a choice for those who seek mainstream success. They can’t be sectioned off into specific categories because their audience doesn’t really care about that anymore (Kristensen).
The average listener has a direct impact on what music sounds like. This is partly because record labels would rather release music they know will sell than take any sort of risk, and partly because musicians listen to music themselves. Another side effect of the internet is the recent shift in publishing power from record labels to the artists themselves. Previously, artists were required to have a record label in order to find mainstream success. There simply was no other way to distribute music. In the internet age, there has been a storm of independent artists using platforms such as Soundcloud to gain notoriety (Ingham). These artists have direct control over what they release and therefore even more freedom to experiment with different combinations of styles than their label-bound counterparts. For record labels, a new release is an investment. To musicians, it is simply a new creation.
What about the ‘not average’ listener?
Most of the examples so far have been based upon the bogeyman-like ‘average listener’— the nonexistent character who discussed more in academia than any given person born in reality. When it comes to music, nobody is truly average. Music is an incredibly personal experience shared exactly by no two people. Does that mean that every word you have read until this point has been a waste of time? Fortunately for you, it doesn’t.
As long as commercialized music has existed, groups of people with similar lifestyles, clothing styles, language, hobbies, etc.—all built upon a common musical interest—have as well. From the highly intellectual, academia-based culture of modern Jazz to the long haired, leather covered, rebellious community which makes up genres such as Red and Anarchist Black Metal (yes, that is a thing), many niche genres have small, yet incredibly close communities—communities which still exist today. But while they may still exist, they are becoming less common and much smaller. “Fans just aren’t as obsessed about individual artists anymore,” says Jared Kristensen, and there aren’t as many cult-like followers of any singular genre either. In other words, people are closer to the fabled ‘average listener’ now than ever before. In the eighties there were the Pop fans, the Rock fans, the Metal fans, etc. and the ‘average listener’ was some Frankensteined version of all of them which didn’t closely represent anyone. Today, many people listen to the same kind of music: the music found in the daily hot tracks on services such as Spotify or Apple Music. The ‘average listener,’ while it does not exactly represent any one person, is a closer representation of reality now than ever before. It provides a more factual glimpse into what most people listen to than it used to.
Less fans might be good for the long-term.
Former Atlanta-based producer Rick Beato recently held a livestream on his personal YouTube channel in which he discussed the diminishing role of genre in everyday music. His main question: is Rock and Roll becoming the new Jazz? He believes so, saying, “I really believe that in 50 years Rock will be studied like Jazz is nowadays.” This is a rather controversial claim, but it might hold water. The comparison is best described using a generalization: as a type of music falls out of style, unimportant, less influential artists and/or works will be forgotten while the more revered ones become open to more rigorous, academic study. This happened to jazz in the past twenty to thirty years. An art form originally seen as low-class, and unintelligent rose to its height of popularity. After it died down in terms of commercial success, it became one of the most respected subjects in the history of musical academia, being offered at just about any competent music school. This didn’t just happen to Jazz. Classical music also rose to an even higher intellectual level after its perceived ‘death’ as a genre. Now today most music schools offer two disciplines: Classical and Jazz, one for each major type of music this phenomenon has happened to. Beato goes on to argue that this will happen to any distinctive style which has enough impact on music in general. When something as a whole is lost, only the greatest pieces remain.
It may be difficult to understand how some genres can be both suddenly dying in terms of their commercial success while still blending into a genrelsss texture, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Genres which remain alive and well all have absorbed elements of those which are considered to be dead. Rock kept the guitar, bass, drumset, vocals, and even sometimes the big band from Jazz. Pop still has most of these elements, just in a different—often computerized—form.
“But what about classical? Surely Christina Aguilera isn’t anything like Beethoven.”
Well, actually she is. Plenty of Pop music today still contains elements from some of the earliest music known, sometimes including full orchestras as in classical music. Rap does too. 1-800-273-8255 by Logic contains an entire string section. Mac Miller and just about any other Rap artist uses synthesizer, something pioneered not just by Rock but by Avant-Garde artists and computer scientists. Rap itself was birthed out of genres such as funk and soul and started out with sampling parts of songs from the fifties and earlier. There are so many similarities between these genres that it would be easier to list what they don’t have in common than what they do.
Genre is far from going away entirely. It is simply changing. While it is impossible to know for sure what the future holds for it as a concept, it offers new and exciting possibilities for music as a whole—and those genres that might otherwise be considered dead. This is a time for change and new horizons which offer the chance for creativity on a level never seen before. The communication and culture within and surrounding music has reached new heights and the resulting changes will take it even further. It is an exciting time to be alive.
Silver, Daniel, et al. “Genre Complexes in Popular Music.” Plos One, vol. 11, no. 5, 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155471.
“Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com.
Obiageli, Pauline, Ph.D. “Social Media: Shaping and Transmitting Popular Culture” Covenant Journal of Communication (CJOC), Vol. 2, No. 1, June 2014.
Kristensen, Jared. “The Rise of the Genre-Less Music Fan.” Audience Republic, audiencerepublic.com/blog/the-rise-of-the-genre-less-music-fan/.
Ingham, Tim. “DIY Artists Will Earn More than $1 Billion This Year. No Wonder the Major Labels Want Their Business.” Rolling Stone, 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/diy-artists-will-earn-more-than-1-billion-this-year-no-wonder-the-major-labels-want-their-business-830863/.
Beato, Rick. Is Rock Becoming The New Jazz?YouTube, YouTube, 24 Aug. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xGRQJQdgDw.