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).
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.