How the Our Urge to Classify Music into Genres Has Changed Music Culture

Periodic_Table_of_Music_Genres_by_DJ_Glass
I think I need this for my office wall. Click to embiggen.

In an effect to make sense of things in a complicated universe, humans like to put things into neat little piles.  That includes organizing music into genres and categories.  Once something is labeled, it’s easier to retrieve and search for the stuff you want to hear.

Genre tags make for great shorthand, too.  If I say a certain song is “metal,” “grunge” or “indie-pop,” you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.  Some may bristle at their art being pigeonholed into a specific category, but it’s the only way for we fans to keep track of what’s out there.

However, Music Industry Blog posits that the idea of segmenting music into genres may be an old, outmoded concept.  Take a read of this.

The Echo Nest’s Paul Lamere has been doing some interesting work around age and gender music preferences which got me thinking about a bit more about how the relevance of genres has changed.  A school of thought that is gaining traction is that genres matter much less than they did and that they are no longer so useful for categorising music (just look at the rise of mood based discovery from the likes of Songza and Beats Music).  But as much as mood and activity are highly useful ways of programming music, genre does in fact matter just as much as it ever did, only in a different way.Up until 20 years or so ago, music was the defining cultural reference point.  Throughout prior decades it had been possible to identify people’s music affinity by the clothes they wore and the style of their hair.  From the leather jackets and Brylcreemed hair of rockers in the 1950’s, through the mohicans and safety pins of punks in the 1970’s, to the baggy trousers and hooded tops of ravers in the 1980’s, musical identity was worn as much as it was played.  The definition of a casual music fan was more engaged than today, with a casual fan typically every week buying a seven inch single and tuning into the charts show on the radio.  Because music was the core cultural reference point the average ‘music IQ’ was high.

Now though, music competes with a fierce array of alternative cultural identifiers such as branded clothing, extreme sports, networked gaming etc.  And of course media consumption time and wallet share are also competed for more intensely than ever before.  The result is that the average mass market music fan is less engaged than in the analogue era and the overall average ‘music IQ’ has dropped.

This manifests itself in a greater number of mainstream consumers coalescing in the middle ground of popular music.

It’s an interesting idea.  Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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