Finding a True Name in a Post-Genre World

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Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr

Writing just this week in The Daily Beast, Ted Gioia includes among his “Five Lessons The Faltering Music Business Could Learn From TV” the advice that the industry should “resist tired formulas.”

Now, no one’s really speaking up in favor of tired formulas as such, but reading on, it turns out what he’s really against is classifying music by genre. Observing that programs like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad became critical hits in part because they broke the predictable conventions of TV genre shows about cops, doctors, or lawyers, Gioia notes that “every album and song nowadays is marketed as part of a genre—rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, etc.

“But the very decision to sell songs to targeted genre fans has turned into an aesthetic straitjacket,” he continues, suggesting that the music business should “emulate the boldness with which the leading pay TV networks have sabotaged genre recipes.”

Still, even as Gioia correctly notes that there already are plenty of people making excellent music that doesn’t fit easily into a particular category, and even if you agree with the premise, the post-genre future remains at best, to borrow a phrase from the speculative fiction writer William Gibson, unevenly distributed.

Parts of it undoubtedly are widespread already. Thanks to technology, musicians and composers have access to a lot of useful new tools; computer-enabled formal ideas like the mash-up have emerged; and musicians are able to collaborate across time and space in ways that previously were impossible. There’s also the notion that by making it easy to find people with similar interests all over the world, the internet provides an alternative way to form musical communities that theoretically can make music scenes tied to geographic location less important.

Of course, the internet also can “silo” people into self-selecting groups that only reinforce their existing ideas and beliefs, which isn’t exactly broadening. And when geography isn’t the determining factor bringing musicians together, how do they find each other online? More often than not, it seems to be through shared fandom, often of specific artists but sometimes entire genres. (For handy examples of this, just consult the “musician wanted” section of your local Craigslist.)

Technology also has made the process of music discovery much easier. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, one might follow a reference to a previously unknown band or musician found in liner notes, Rolling Stone, or Down Beat to a half-dozen record stores and the library, and still come up empty handed. Now, anyone who wants to find out more about Sun Ra or John Cage or Edgard Varèse can simply type their name into a search engine, and in seconds the internet will deliver biographies, photos, journalism and critical opinion, and most important, audio and video.

So with the internet letting us hear just about any music and see any musician any time we want, for a comparatively low cost of entry, in theory it could provide an ideal opportunity to get rid of genres. Unfortunately, one thing technology can’t do is make the day longer than 24 hours. There’s more information, and more music, more easily accessible to more people than ever before, but no one actually has time to read or listen to more than a fraction of it. So we still must rely on gatekeepers and sorting mechanisms, one of which is musical genre, and radio, retail, presenters, and media all continue to categorize music according to whether it is rock, pop, hip-hop, country, R&B, classical, blues, folk, jazz, and so on.

While some musicians embrace genre labels for marketing purposes, others are understandably reluctant, or even antagonistic, toward having their music pigeonholed, or just want to make art for art’s sake. Nevertheless, presenters, labels, and media want to grow their audiences, for all the obvious reasons, and even musicians who claim to be unconcerned with commercial success still want their music to be heard. As long as that’s the case, genre labels seem likely to persist.

For evidence of that, look at what’s known broadly as “electronic dance music,” touted as a major growth area of the industry and one that seems to spin off hyper-specific sub-genres at a dizzying pace. Wikipedia’s list of electronic music genres contains 22 major sub-categories, each containing at least a half-dozen sub-genres, totaling more than 200 different varieties. Outsiders may be hard pressed to distinguish among, say, two dozen different varieties of house music, yet to those on the inside, the distinctions are critical enough to warrant coining new terminology.

If nothing else, this proliferation of sub-genre names should give listeners in the know a fairly specific idea of what to expect, and it also gives musicians and composers a wide variety of specific channels or identities that can be used to get their music to the public.

Given this example, I wonder if, rather than anticipating an end to genre designations, perhaps new music needs to cultivate a whole lot more of them, since much of the terminology currently in use is overly general at best, and vague or misleading at worst.

In marketing speak, it’s called “segmentation,” and it can serve a useful purpose in helping sellers identify potential buyers and buyers to find things that interest them. For music that’s distributed online, specific sub-genre designations could be particularly useful and can serve as keywords or metadata, helping listeners locate music of potential interest.

Even the umbrella term “new music,” while well understood by the readers of this publication, often is interpreted by others in terms of the plain English meanings of its component words, which can lead to some convoluted explanations.

In the 1990s, when I was a board member and later an administrator for New Music Circle in St. Louis, I was also playing blues and rock gigs, and I’d get into conversations with other musicians or fans in which I’d mention that I was working for New Music Circle, putting on concerts. Inevitably, they’d ask me some variation on the question, “So, what kind of music do they do?” and twenty years later, I find myself having similar conversations trying to describe the Mizzou New Music Initiative, with highly variable results.

Calling music “avant garde” or “experimental” seems to have a polarizing effect, immediately attracting interest from some while repelling others. “Contemporary classical” and “post-classical” are descriptive enough in one sense, but even setting aside the former term’s unfortunate oxymoronic quality, at least some of what we call new music doesn’t really have any relationship to classical music, so these terms are of limited use. On the other hand, the evocative term “creative music” may suggest something about the intent of those who are making the music, but doesn’t do much to locate it in terms of any specific sound, tradition, or genre.

Comparative recommendations—“If you like X, you may also enjoy Y”—can be useful, but only in those cases when you already know something about the person’s interests and preferences. That’s easy for Amazon or Google, but in casual conversation, or for a musician or composer trying to describe her latest work in liner notes, a news release, or a one-sheet, it can be little more than guesswork or wishful thinking.

Does new music necessarily need more than 200 sub-genres? Probably not, but if genre designations are going to be with us for a while, perhaps some imagination and some more colorful language could make them work to our advantage.

***

Dean Minderman is a writer and musician in St. Louis, Missouri, and the founder and editor of the website St. Louis Jazz Notes. As a consultant with the firm Slay and Associates, he currently works with the Mizzou New Music Initiative and other music-related projects of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, assisting with publicity, marketing, and strategic communications. A graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, he has experience as an arts administrator and consultant, advertising writer/producer, music journalist and blogger, publicist, and event producer; and as a performing keyboard player and singer, composer/arranger, and bandleader.

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14 thoughts on “Finding a True Name in a Post-Genre World

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  2. scottj

    One place where this deep segmentation of subgenres has really taken hold has been in the metal and hardcore world, which possesses a dizzying array of labels; every band seems to come up with some name like “extreme post-thrash metalcore” that denotes every aspect from the tuning of the guitars to the tempo of each song to the register of the screaming. I don’t know how effective this is. It connects metal fans with records they might like, but it breaks the music up into a system of variables to be reshuffled and combined as the performers see fit, leaving much of metal music as a pastiche of styles without any expressive substance. Even when their music is so heavily “genre-fied,” the heavy-music artists that most stand out are usually those that refuse to play the label game. I don’t know how this would affect other areas of recording, but I am concerned that further segmenting concert music – even for promotion purposes – could intensify minutiae of style rather than freeing them.

    Reply
  3. Simon Brown

    An interesting article and a topic that we’ve had (and continue to have) much discussion over. Perhaps your readers might be interested in our project: The Listening Experience Database. We aim to collate people’s experiences of listening to music of any kind, historical period or culture. Visit: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/LED for details of how to get involved.

    Reply
  4. Dean Minderman

    scottj, I don’t listen to a lot of metal, but I am aware of the extreme sub-segmenting you mention, and I think you’re right in noting that there’s a downside there, too. After a certain point, it can start to seem like a word game, or the differences become so small as to be undetectable for all but a few. But as with most things, there’s probably a happy medium, and my hope with this piece was just to get people thinking about the idea of genres from a slightly different angle.

    Simon Brown, thank you for the comment and the link. Sounds like an interesting project, and I’ve bookmarked it to read later.

    Reply
  5. Rene Saller

    A splendid essay, well-written and provocative. I particularly enjoyed this sentence: “Unfortunately, one thing technology can’t do is make the day longer than 24 hours.”

    If only! Especially on deadline days.

    Reply
  6. Rick Underwood

    As an old fart of 58, I find the new designations of no use whatsoever. I have no idea what inverted Americana hip-hop skat should sound like. Tell me it’s blues or rock or folk, and I know which one I’d give a listen to. With the music subscription services on the internet, it is easy to give a group the half-hour test before deciding to keep or dump. Stratification confuses me and just makes me a creature of habit, i.e., following the same core groups until some outside media points me to someone new.

    Reply
  7. Kyle Gann

    Thank you. I’ve been saying this, against a continual outpouring of kneejerk resistance, for twenty years. Prospective listeners need help navigating the vast, interesting and healthy but tremendously confusing labyrinth we’ve created.

    Reply
  8. Dean Minderman

    Rene, I’ve had that same wish to make a deadline day longer; it may have even been lurking in the back of my mind when I wrote that sentence (on deadline). Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Rick, thanks for reading and commenting. It’s understandable that a lot of people, regardless of age, can be confused or turned off by the micro-stratification of genres. However, a big part of the issue here is that many don’t understand what “new music” means in the same way they understand terms like rock, soul, folk, etc. If they did, this whole discussion might be unnecessary.

    Kyle Gann, thank you also for reading and commenting. I’d be very interested to read what you’ve written about this subject or related issues. Perhaps you can provide a link or two?

    Reply
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  10. Mark Samples

    Thanks for this thought provoking post, Dean. I can’t shake the feeling that humans will never get past chunking bits of information into groups. Even genre-defying acts get collected together to form new genres. For instance, you identify one such group in your post when you write: “While some musicians embrace genre labels for marketing purposes, others are understandably reluctant, or even antagonistic, toward having their music pigeonholed, or just want to make art for art’s sake.”

    These kinds of label-reluctant musicians can become a category (or “genre”) in themselves. I call it the “artist brand.” The characteristics of this group seem more philosophical than sound- or style-based. Some of these characteristics are anti-commercialism, artistic reinvention, and boundary-crashing. Think (early) Stravinsky in the classical world, or Radiohead in the alt-rock world.

    Next task is to share this post on my Twitter and read through Kyle Gann’s links…

    Reply
  11. Dean Minderman

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Mark Samples.

    The “artist brand” is an interesting notion. The two examples you mention both can be located, at least approximately, in terms of existing genres, but I’d definitely agree that both are distinctive enough that one can’t just label them “another rock band” or “a 20th century classical composer.”

    I wonder, though, about “artist brands” and emerging musicians/composers – it seems like a concept that’s difficult to apply to an artist until something is known about their music, which brings us back to the question of how these ideas of genre might be used to connect musicians with listeners who don’t already know about them. Food for though, for sure…

    Reply
    1. Mark Samples

      Good point, Dean, about having something to apply to an artist’s music before he or she can demonstrate a pattern of upheaval. The “artist brand” is necessarily longitudinal, as it operates on comparison. Both of my example artists hooked into a genre to begin with before they started rearranging the furniture: Stravinsky with Russian ballet and Radiohead had grunge rock.

      Here’s a separate thought, slightly off topic, but playing off of your “comparative recommendations” point. It’s true that, as you say, those recommendations only work if the comparisons are known—”for people who like Ferneyhough” might not get you 1,000 new listeners and your music featured on the NYT. What if composers used a “high-concept pitch” approach to make their music interesting and immediately understood? As you probably already know, a high-concept pitch works by using a known quantity and transferring it to a new context. It’s often used in the film industry, to get execs to put up huge sums of money for nebulous projects. A famous one is the high-concept pitch for the movie “Speed” (Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock). The pitch was: Die Hard on a bus. (For more on high-concept pitches, see the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, starting around p. 57; the example I used here is from that book.)

      How might composers use the high-concept pitch to not only garner interest for their work, but quickly and richly communicate it? What if a composer (or a journalist) said: I’m the James Joyce of the new music world. You might get an immediate sense of the composer’s personality, ideals, and goals. Or what if Richard Feynman were switched out with James Joyce, Martha Graham, or Wes Anderson? I would actually really like to hear what a “Wes Anderson of new music” sounds like. Or to stretch it beyond the creative arts: I’m the Donald Trump of new music. (I don’t think I would want to hear that composer’s music, but I might have a pretty clear idea of the kind of operation it would be.)

      Of course, the high-concept pitch is only a doorway. It’s meant to be passed through, not lingered upon. But it might encourage a broader set of interested new listeners to walk through it and find out more about the composer.

      Thanks again for the stimulating post.

      Reply

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