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Music isn’t getting worse, genre is

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Photo of Mark Mulligan
by Mark Mulligan

A couple of weeks ago Rick Beato put out a video titled “The real reason why music is getting worse”. The core arguments centre around too many people making music, and tech making it both easier to make music and  for people to be lazy creators. And while Beato followed his original argument with an ‘old man yells at cloud’ video (this time titled “I know you’re angry, so am I…”), he stood his ground. The problem is, what constitutes ‘good music’ is entirely subjective. If it was only about technique then the majority of popular music would consistently lose against classical or jazz. Music is good when it moves us. And it tends to move us most when we are young. Hence most generations thinking that the best music was made when they were young.

Of course there is a lot in Beato’s arguments, but the ‘problems’ he identifies are also the positive trends that underpin the tectonic shifts in today’s music business and culture. But (and I know you shouldn’t follow a ‘but’ with a ‘but’, but…) there is also a lot more going on. The tech and democratisation trends are merely responding to and catalysing wider cultural shifts in music –– with fragmentation and genre the prime movers.

There has been plenty written about genre coming to an end; that we are in a post-genre world. The truth is more complex. In some respects, genre was only ever intended as a way for audiences to navigate their way through music, signposts to what they will probably like. Genres still play this role, though mood and activity playlists are fast becoming an alternative architecture for categorising music. Nonetheless, genre  remains the primary way we understand music.

The canon of music genre was established years ago (pop, rock, metal, dance, hip hop, jazz, country, blues, classical, etc). Each of those meta-genres came to prominence with underpinning cultural movements and at specific periods in time, especially popular music: pop ‘60s, rock ‘70s, dance, hip hop and metal ‘80s, dance late ‘80s / ‘90s.

The last chapter of the genre cannon –– dance –– was the ‘90s (and yes, that is a statement that is asking to be disagreed with). All other genres since have formed within the now-canonised meta-genres.

The new genres of this millennium fall into four groups:

1.    Regional interpretations: amapiano, Brazilian funk, reggaeton

2.    Scene-driven sub-genres: hyper pop, drill, trap

3.    Genre reinvention: mumblecore, dovecore

4.    Genre revival: shoegaze, post-punk

Each one of these meta-genres push music in new directions but still claim membership to one of the genre canon.

The fact that meta-genres have become canonised is a reflection of the post-mainstream nature of music. Fandom has fragmented, and genre fragmentation is really the music manifestation of this foundational behavioural shift.

All of which means that the meta-genres are actually less important and useful than they were. They have always referred to the mainstream end of music fandom, with sub-genres being traditionally where the more tribal end of music fandom lives. While that tribalism still exists, the subtle-but-foundational shift is that the fragmentation of fandom means that many of today’s niche sub-genres are built around listening patterns more than tribal music scenes. Crucially, niche does not inherently mean small, it just means not mainstream (and just to complicate matters further, has itself become niche).

Perhaps the best way to think about music genre in the 2020s is less in genre terms and instead through the lenses of sound and culture. Music today is shaped in six key ways:

  1. Technology: Music production technology is innovating at a rapid pace, not just in terms of what tech is being made but also how creators are using it. AI is accelerating and amplifying this. New, unexpected sounds are working their way into music and changing its shape and sound. Think hyper pop (auto tuned vocals, pitch shifted instrumentation), and neurostep (a dubstep sub genre that uses lots of hypergrowls and ‘neurotic’ sound design).

  2. Cultural interplays: Regions fusing their local sounds with international sounds to create something new. Think Reggaeton’s fusion of dancehall, Latin music, and hip hop.

  3. User modification: Music fans speeding tracks up or down, boosting the bass, or creating mashups all flow back into music’s creative melting pot. A TikTok user creating a trap / grindcore / ambient mashup could accidentally create an entirely new wave of sound. This will become increasingly widespread, especially when you put gen AI in the hands of music fans.

  4. Scenes: Music used to create scenes. Now, music is often the soundtrack to scenes, especially online ones. As a consequence, music has the potential to evolve much more because it is not tightly bound by genre rules. Nightcore as the soundtrack to online games and manga communities was an early example, with its sound shifting over the years.

  5. Context: Physical spaces used to shape music (think Paradise Garage, late ‘80s warehouse raves, etc). As we spend ever more time online, it is only natural that online spaces are becoming the places that shape music. Whether that be TikTok-core, Spotify-core or Roblox-core. TikTok-core is so meta that it is often referred to as ‘core core’. Even social media is reshaping music - look no further than techno’s shift  to Instagram-friendly, fast BPMs and big drops. If / when the metaverse finally becomes a thing, this effect could explode. Take a look at VR club Shelter to get a sneak peek of what the future may hold.

  6. Genre fluidity: All of the above factors lead to genre fluidity, with artists increasingly happy to throw together elements of many different genres. In the old world, the genre-police would have angrily shouted down these efforts (and to be fair, some still do) but there is much more willingness to straddle genre’s old boundaries. The walls are coming down.

The music business, and music critics, are often too keen to identify new genres. But simply putting ‘core’ after a word does not invent a genre. Most often it explains a sound phenomenon, with music responding to one or more of the above six factors. Spotify-core is one such example. And because the digital world is forever changing, the nature of music is forever changing. If the 2010s was characterised by artists trying to make music that ‘works’ on Spotify –– with big intros, drops and hooks –– the 2020s is seeing music with a more aesthetic and mood based approach. This is music responding to its surroundings rather than the creation of music genre. 

Some of the change is truly innovative, some of it entirely reductive. And the reductive change is not simply driven by the long tail of enthusiast creators learning their way. The biggest artists and songwriters are just as culpable: of the 960 songs from the US Billboard Top 40 in the entirety of the 21st century just 32 diverged from 4/4 time. In the era of fragmentation, creators big and small will do whatever it takes to cut through. In this paradigm, genre can be a barrier rather than a signpost, confining a song to just one lane of music culture’s highway. 

Genre is not going away, but while it was once the only place music could go, it is now just one part of a much more nuanced and complex picture. And that’s a good thing.

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Geza X
This is a top notch article. I've been observing this for years, since KROQ went 100% "indie" and then syndicated. Hip-hop was next, and soon manufacturers saw the opportunity to focus on different racial profiles for clothes and lifestyle. What's worse, this ushered in a new invisible form of racism and cultural fragmentation. There was a time when there were les media outlets and therefore they played a wide range of music styles. That had its drawbacks for fans, yet encouraged a cultural diversity in the arts. I think something has been lost in the translation. The one GOOD thing is that we are cycling back to a singles-driven music culture and I have been hoping this could open a few doors for new artists.