How The Role of Genres Has Changed In Music Culture

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.  Consequently pop music has become more amorphous, with all genres of music having strong footholds in the pop end of the spectrum.  But this does not mean that genres have stopped mattering.  In fact what has changed is that they have different relevance according to the sophistication of the consumer.  What we have is in fact a genre ladder (see figure).

genre ladder

At the top of the genre ladder we have the mainstream music fan, who will think about genres in very broad terms such as rock, dance and urban, but will often have little strong preference between one or another.  These are the sorts of consumers who when asked what type of music they like will most often say ‘I like a bit of everything’.  What they actually mean is that they like the sanitized pop end of most styles of music.

Next step down the genre ladder we get to the music fans.  These are consumers that have clearly defined music tastes and will think about the genres they like in terms of broad groupings such as heavy rock or indie rock.  Even at this level things start to get tribal.  For example a house fan will often have little time for trance let alone metal.

The third and final step on the genre ladder is the micro genre, where the aficionados are most often found.  This is where music fans think in terms of labels like Psy-Trance, Dirty South and Screamo.  It is where music tastes become most tribal and in many ways behave most like they did in previous decades. Though these consumers are the smallest group they are the ones that the music industry depends upon most heavily.  These are the ones that go to most gigs, that buy most merchandise, that spend most on music and are the most likely to be subscription customers.

In many ways at this end of the spectrum there is a genre renaissance.  There has never been such granularity of styles.  The digital era has enabled bands to build and reach niches on a global scale.  So while genres have become more blurred at the first rung of the genre ladder, here they mean more than they ever did.

21 thoughts on “How The Role of Genres Has Changed In Music Culture

  1. Very interesting piece. As anyone who keeps up with music would agree, the fragmentation of musical genres can be positively dizzying.
    That said, why do you think that fans of “micro genres” are as tribal as music fans of the past? I’m assuming you have data to back that up, but it’s not something that seems apparent to me.
    I can remember as a kid how unacceptable it was to acknowledge liking a rival band, never mind a different musical genre. Today, it seems that it’s quite acceptable for even the most devoted indie music fans to profess a liking for, say, Katy B or Biffy Clyro.

  2. Enjoyed the read! I am not sure I’d put “Dance” on top and rather name it Electronic, but otherwise makes sense to me. We for example specialize just on that very 3rd tier at and there’s certainly a niche market. And yes, very often it’s tribal: people who like one microgenre will not be fans of another. And finally, where is Jazz? 🙂

  3. One more note about the mood based discovery. My personal opinion after being in this space for over 10 years is that what we see with mood based discovery from the likes of Songza and Beats is mostly a gimmick. Curators intelligently guess the mood and the playlist: for many people it may work. But there’s a silent majority, or at least a huge amount of people for whom I maintain it would not work. The stuff I want to listen to when I am sad will differ from the stuff another person will want to hear when he is sad. It’s super subjective, there’s never one answer. And so the moods work for many people, but far from all, in the meantime it becomes a marketing gimmick as if these companies specialize in moods.

    I think it’s nonsense. The real mood listening revolution will be when devices such as mobile phones will detect around you things like time of day, weather around you, light intensity, your heartrate, your speed if you are traveling or if you are stuck in traffic, how many calls you may have made previously on your device, how many emails you exchanged, tone of those exchanges. Now those things affect mood, anything else is a curator’s gimmick and should be called “curator’s mood”

  4. Ari – re: the genre chart. I very intentionally used ‘Dance’ not ‘Electronic’. ‘Electronic’ might be a tag that is more familiar in the US historically but ‘Dance’ is the right term on a global basis. As a former dance music recording artist and DJ it’s a genre I’ve got a bit of ‘previous’ in 😉

    Also as for the missing genres – there are lots missing (folk, jazz, blues, classical, reggae etc.) The graphic is illustrative rather than exhaustive

  5. Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsHow the Our Urge to Classify Music into Genres Has Changed Music Culture » A Journal of Musical Things

  6. I’m a full time musician and try to get deep into any given style I’m listening to. That’s why I will often answer “what kind of music do you like,” with “a bit of everything.” LOL Point taken, though.

  7. The trend I notice most with bands, is that a lot of them have been adding multiple genre’s into the mix. Maybe, trying to appeal to various fans. Great article!!!

  8. Good article. Like the others, I’d say that the micro genre fans are probably more, rather than less likely to appreciate the other micro genres. Most of the music geeks I know would appreciate, say Death Metal AND Minimal Techno AND Ragga Jungle, but would eschew mainstream EDM or Pop.

  9. Kerry – to answer your comment in both quantitative and anecdotal terms. Firstly there is substantial consumer survey work underpinning this analysis that points to the micro genre tribalism. Secondly, speaking as a dance and rock fan, I know that my house fans almost exclusively dislike trance, while my indie rock friends dislike metal with a vengeance! Also fwiw my jazz fusion friend has no time whatsoever for trad jazz, and my alt-folk friend considers traditional folk music ‘twee’.

  10. I’d be interested to see this qualitative and quantitative data if you have any links. I literally cannot think of a serious music fan/DJ/critic I know who only ever listens to one micro genre.
    Does your Trad jazz friend ONLY have Trad Jazz in his collection? Do your Indie friends have no other music except indie? I doubt it very much.
    In my experience, Micro genre fans often hate nearby genres, but like some music from the other end of the spectrum. That’s why a Gabba fan might hate Tiesto, but love Mogwai.

  11. Hi Kerry – that’s my point exactly – that micro genre fans are super tribal within their micro genres, but will have interest in music from other genres

  12. I like this blog very much. I do believe there is a change within genre over the years. However, I believe that the genres are merging together. There is much genre because artist are tying to present themselves to more than one audience. Check out my blog!

  13. Pingback: Modern Music Genre Conventions | lucaswillmermusic

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  15. Thanks for this – very useful summary of genre evolution in the digital age. I think the era of music=lifestyle, that was characterised by such a strong affiliation with specific genres was (unfortunately) a moment in post-war Western culture 50s to 00s, perhaps gone forever. Wiped out by a digital surge of dumb media disconnect.

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