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.