Identity and culture have killed genre in a scenes-driven industry
This year has seen a renaissance for jazz in popular culture, with artists like Laufey, DOMi and JD Beck, and Ezra Collective succeeding on commercial and critical levels. However, their successes also demonstrate one of the key dynamics driving the modern music industry: identity and culture are more important than genre.
The success of these modern jazz artists tells us more about the power of scenes and subcultures than it does about genres. Laufey may be bringing jazz to Gen Z, but her audience overlaps more with ‘sad girl’ aesthetic artists, like beabadoobee and Mitski. DOMi and JD Beck are embedded in the West Coast R&B and hip hop scene through collaborations with Anderson Paak, Thundercat and Snoop Dogg. And Ezra Collective, many of whom are of Nigerian heritage, have built a strong community among London’s African diaspora and beyond.
Labelling these artists as ‘jazz’ is almost pointless when their audiences may not even be ‘jazz fans’. Genre has become an inadequate and superficial tag that fails to capture the deeper culture and purpose behind the artists making music. The backbone of modern fandom is being cultivated and determined through elements of identity rather than through elements of musicality.
From making music to making movements
Jazz is not the only genre to exhibit this, as a whole range of niche identity-driven musical movements have been on the rise. Scenes such as Amapiano, Neoperreo and Punjabi Wave are all examples of musical movements that require an acceptable level of authenticity behind the artist’s identity. The role of language is a perfect example, now that 12 of Spotify’s top-25 genres are sung in a language other than English (compared to 1 in 2017). In a world where anyone can now make music, new styles are being defined by who can (and who cannot) make music with enough authenticity to satisfy their audience.
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The influx of creators has meant that success as an artist has become far more competitive than it ever was. It is not enough to make good music and promote it on social media because success comes from sustaining differentiation and inimitability. The best way to do that is to use identity to spearhead a scene that no one else can authentically lay claim to.
Music is in its scenes era
Conveying culture and identity through music is not as simple as it used to be. Musical elements, like tempo, rhythm, and instrumentation, used to be enough. However, consumers need more than that to commit to fandom. Elements of identity and culture, such as language, location, heritage, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. now need to be validated in the eyes of the modern music fan. Hearing the music without context is not enough to validate identity. Fans need more.
YouTube has long been the provider of music videos, interviews and behind-the-scenes creative processes that provide the context to help turn a listener into a fan. In fact, MIDiA’s research shows that YouTube is the number one destination for discovering new music, and the cultural context it provides is a big factor behind this. However, this could be under threat as music discovery on TikTok rapidly increases and threatens YouTube’s number one position.
When music is the main form of entertainment that consumers align their identity with, music discovery is how consumers judge the suitability of a platform as a primary input into their identity. For the next generation of fans, we are better off using TikTok aesthetics, like ‘#sadgirl’ as a way to classify music, breaking new artists through identity instead of a genre that is as vague and antiquated as ‘jazz’.