Much has been written about the death of the musical genre in recent years, yet this way of segmenting and categorizing music continues to hang around. With the music industry firmly in a singles and playlist-focused economy, it might be time for the industry to ditch the concept of genres altogether in favor of more modern categorization methods. But why are music genres increasingly irrelevant in today’s age, and what categorization methods make the most sense?
Artists are blurring the lines between genres
Music has always blurred the lines of genres; in fact, the blurring of the lines between two different categories of music is how many new and subgenres are formed in the first place. However, in this day and age, the lines between genres have continued to fade, especially as we’ve seen sampling become more prevalent in mainstream music.
Last year Doja Cat had a breakout hit with Say So, sampling a 70s disco sound. U.K. artist Jessie Ware also blurred genre lines on her hit album What’s Your Pleasure, released last year. Ware, who typically finds her musical style somewhere between contemporary R&B and seductive pop, sampled sounds from different eras and genres. 80s synths on Soul Control, funk on Ooh La La, and 70s romance on Remember Where You Are. Dua Lipa was another artist who played around with sounds from different genres on her 2020 album, Future Nostalgia. Highlighted by retro-sounding singles like Don’t Start Now and Levitating, Future Nostalgia flirted with past and present genres.
These are just a few examples of the many blurring and sampling of genres in today’s music. TrackLib’s latest report on the State of Sampling 2020 found that 13% of the songs on Billboard’s Top 100 last year contained a sample and 15% of songs in 2019 contained a sample. Their report found that rap, followed by R&B, Latin, and electro, were the genres most likely to feature a sample. TrackLib also found that 51% of the albums on Billboard’s Top 25 albums in 2020 featured at least one sample.
Another factor contributing to the decline of the genre is the globalization of music. It’s not uncommon to see collaborations between artists of different genres or even languages. Major Lazer is famous for its cross-genre and cross-cultural collaborations. The crossover success of artists like Rosalia, Anitta, J Balvin, and Maluma has also helped blend genres. For example, this past week, Rosalia released Lo Vas A Olividar, which featured pop singer Billie Eilish singing in Spanish. In November, Maluma released a remix to his hit song Hawai, featuring R&B singer, The Weeknd singing in Spanish. The globalization of music has not only led to artists crossing the genre line on a single album, but it’s created songs that are a mishmash of multiple genres. Sofia Reyes’ 2019 song R.I.P., for example, featured Brazilian singer, Anitta, and British singer, Rita Ora and crossed into eight different genres.
The spotify and pandora affect
Globalization and the high prevalence of samples in music is helping to blur the lines between genres, but so is how we consume music. The rise of music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify have also played a role in eliminating the need for genres. The Pandora Music radio station – which uses a seed song to play additional songs that may be of interest or related to that song – has been a game-changer for our perception of genres.
Rather than recommending songs within the same genre of the seed song, Pandora’s algorithm instead looks for other unique patterns across songs to create its radio stations. A Pandora station with a seed song by Bruno Mars could take you to pop, R&B, funk, and in many other directions that aren’t exclusive to any specific genre.
Then come the Spotify playlists, which, while many focus on a specific genre (like Pop or Latin), have increasingly become less focused on genres. There are Spotify playlists for just about anything – mood, holiday, tasks, events – and this is a trend that Spotify seems to be doubling down on. The company has more than 3,000 curated playlists, and Spotify plans to create more playlists curated for different user types. You can find a playlist for when you’re Feelin’ Yourself, Life Sucks, you need to Get Chores Done, the perfect soundtrack for your Pasta Dinner, or just idk. If you’ve thought of it or felt it, Spotify has probably already created a playlist for it.
One common theme amongst Spotify playlists and Pandora radio stations is that they transcend genres and offer listeners an opportunity to discover new music that fits the mood or vibe they were going for without being locked into any particular genre. It’s also important to note that both Pandora and Spotify have seen a lot of success with their approaches. Pandora is the most wide-used music streaming service with an estimated 38% share of the music streaming market. While Spotify (the second-largest music service) has created a new economy in the music industry – the playlist economy (to the chagrin of many artists).
Listeners care less about genres
Listener preferences are often left out of the discussion on why genres the music industry needs to move on from genres. The fact is that genres are much less relevant to listeners today, particularly younger listeners. A 2018 survey by digital media company, Sweety High, found that 97% of Gen Z females listen to at least five music genres per day.
Moreover, unlike older generations who typically discovered music and supported artists by walking into a record store and buying albums, younger generations mostly consume music electronically through free and paid music streaming services. This is an important distinction to note. In previous generations, music fans had limited options for consuming music. They could listen to music on the radio, at concerts, or they could go out and buy the entire album of an artist. Though sales of single songs made up a decent (around 9%) of music sales in the early 70s, it wasn’t until Apple launched iTunes that the music industry began to generate a good proportion of its revenue from the selling singles. Between 1980 and 2008, singles sales accounted for less than 10% of all music sales. Meaning, if you were spending money on music, you were spending on an artist – listening to the entire album and more likely dedicated to that particular artist or genre. Today’s reality is that with music streaming making it unnecessary to buy music or even listen to an entire album, today’s listeners identify much less with any one music genre.
How should music be categorized?
So how should music be categorized then, if not by genre? To understand how the music industry should be categorizing music, we should first consider how the music listener identifies with the music they are listening to. Listeners today refer less to particular genres and instead focus on the vibe or mood of a song. There is more emphasis on how the music makes the listener feel, and listeners increasingly seek ways to find songs that match their mood.
For another perspective on how music might be categorized, the industry should note what the music streamers are doing. Specifically, understanding how music algorithms and contextual recommenders pick up on patterns between different songs might provide insight into how music should be categorized. Musical elements like rhythm, beat, tempo, and instruments are categories that may be more relevant to music listeners and music streaming services.
Let’s also consider that by categorizing songs by tempo or rhythm, listeners are more likely to discover music that fits the mood or vibe they are looking for. These types of categorizations might make the most sense for the industry moving forward. For example, an up-tempo song is more likely to be associated with a happy mood than it would be melancholy and thus would be more easily discoverable to listeners searching for music to fit that mood.
The other upside in shifting to a categorization model that focuses on easily defined elements like tempo is that it improves discoverability – particularly for those artists still searching for an audience. The Pandora’s and Spotify’s of the world are attempting to do this in essence with their respective radio stations and curated playlists; however, for the vast majority of artists, the current system favors those already well-known.
So, in a time where consumers are eager to discover new music and artists and music listeners no longer feel a sense of loyalty toward any particular genre, why not get creative in how the music is categorized?