How the Over-Genrification of Music Is Bad for Listeners and Musicians

Three things recently made me think about music and genres.

  1. I regularly get emails from people asking how they can apply multiple genres, or sub-genres, to music in their iTunes library.
  2. Browsing stations in iTunes Radio, I was amazed by some of the genres listed.
  3. Reading the latest issue of a music magazine, I read the following: “It seems almost surreal that, not long ago, her work was being described as lo-fi.”

Notwithstanding the use of the word “surreal” in that sentence, my first thought was, “WTF is lo-fi?”

I’m not young. When I was growing up, there were a number of music genres, but far fewer than today. There was rock, jazz, classical, pop, and even things like disco and soul. Within the rock genre, you had southern rock, blues rock, and folk-rock, among others. When punk came along, it was its own genre, as was new-wave (that odd combination of electro-pop and black clothes) and rap.

001.pngBut it was nothing like today. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of genres in pop music. Lo-fi? Dubstep? Downtempo? Nu Gaze? Alt-folk? Grindcore? This extends to jazz as well, with a number of genres, which indicate eras as much as styles (and they aren’t new, to be honest). You have things like be-bop, but what happened to fusion? iTunes Radio doesn’t list that, but it was big for a while. (It’s fair to say that labeling some music “smooth jazz” is a good idea, because it ensures that I’ll avoid it.) And what does “alternative” even mean any more?

The problem with these sub-sub-genres is that they’re only understood by in-groups. If you’re not a fan of lo-fi – whatever that is – then you may simply ignore anything labeled with that moniker. For example, some years ago, I heard a fair amount of music by a band whose music is described as “post rock.” That was enough for me to avoid any music that used that label in the future. Or jam bands; I’m a big fan of several jam bands, but that name says very little about the type of music a specific band plays. Some may be jazzy, others rock, others country-based; the term jam band only says that they jam, nothing else.

These genres were probably adopted to try and give a more granular description of music, in a world where popular music is overwhelming broad. And they may be the fault of the music press; writing about music, describing wheat music sounds like, is very difficult, so these may be shortcuts for music journalists with limited options.

Yes, in the decade of my teens, the 1970s, there was much less music being produced and sold, so it was probably easier to label. But over-genrification just makes it hard for anyone unfamiliar with a musical style or genre to be able to approach it. Sure, you can listen to music, then try and figure out why it’s been labeled with a certain genre, but getting listeners to that first step is a big hurdle, as all indie musicians know.

And there’s the rub. If listeners are turned off because they get confused, and feel they’re on the outside, they may not try to listen to new bands. Artists need listeners, and need to do everything they can to get their music heard. Using arcane genres just alienates listeners, who may find it much simpler to just turn on the radio. And we know what that leads to.

3 thoughts on “How the Over-Genrification of Music Is Bad for Listeners and Musicians

  1. The only genre I was blown away by was a coworker’s iTunes genre called ‘sludge metal’. Turns out I am not a fan of sludge metal!

  2. As a music scholar I deal with genres and sub-genres all the time (mostly jazz though) and I think they’re utter meaningless rubbish with no connection whatsoever to the music they are supposed to define. Yes they’re mostly the make of journalist, critics and probably of the audience to a certain extent, but it also happens that the musicians themselves are responsible for the emergence of a sub-genre label in which case it is often to differentiate themselves from an earlier generation of musicians (for example bebop, free jazz). These labels are commodities, and easy way to describe music without going into too much detail, a very useful thing for records retailers (by the way the apparition of the “file under: xx” on CDs revealed the progressive lack of music culture from music retailers to me) and for journalist when they are limited in space. They’re a pain for me as you have to dig a lot to find out what they’re supposed to cover, more importantly they obscure the flow of music evolution and the interaction of musicians and ideas by erecting artificial boundaries. Unfortunately most music histories are genre and sub-genre based, again for practical reasons.
    I have 4 or 5 main categories in my iTunes library and I’m regularly tempted to delete them all and keep it all alphabetical, I only keep categories for when I’m occasionally asked to shuffle by genre.
    I’d really like, as an experiment, to watch the reaction of teenagers as they’d listen to an example of 1950s R&B and compare that to their understanding of the term, that would certainly be very interesting.

  3. Everytime I buy songs off iTunes, Bandcamp, rip CDs into files that get tagged by Gracenote, I always delete the “genre” tag because good music is good music regardless of whether it’s classical or rock, synthesized or acoustic, electroclash or techno…

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