Illustration: Franco Égalité
How many more microgenres will we create until we give up and call it all music?
Today’s musicians and listeners are largely ready for a genre-fluid world, as indicated by creative output and listening habits. However, it will take some time for even the most nimble members of the supply chain to catch up to the artists and fans at each end. With various interests at play, decision makers continue to rely on genre categorization for organization, distribution, and discovery mechanisms.
While the tides change (albeit slowly), here are some ways you can increase the discoverability of your music today, whether you’re making hyper niche or genreless art.
There’s no escaping categorization
Your niche is the area in which you’re especially skilled. A niche market is a group of people who share a specific taste or interest. If you’re best at creating pop music, that’s your niche. Yet, we as an industry tend to use “niche” to describe styles outside of the cultural norm or what’s popular.
In music, we use the term “subgenre” to describe specific styles within broader genres of music defined by instrumentation, BPM, process, societal relevance, and more (i.e. pop-punk, UK garage, trap, etc.). We’ve nuanced genres so much, to the point where we began creating microgenres in the 1970s: think hyperpop, grindcore, gigicore, vaporwave, lowercase, cloud rap, bassline, witch house, cute metal, Simposonwave, flolktronica—the list goes on.
With increased access to music creation tools, artists are developing new niches all the time. When they combine predefined styles to create something new, we generate a new label for it and call it niche. It’s like how NYC leasing agents turn a city block into a neighborhood (“East Williamsburg?” A newly invented thing). It becomes something new to talk about and to brand—to commoditize and to market.
As emerging creators stretch and break creative bounds, we’ll continue to assign made-up names to these newly invented styles. Meanwhile, listeners will continue to broaden and diversify their tastes and habits, and the powers at be will be chasing the trends.
The people are hungry for something different
Media outlets have a tendency to relate niche music to small but loyal fanbases. We use terms like “cult-like following” to describe them. However, if you think about subgenres like trap, emo rock, hyperpop, and folk, they’ve all reached mainstream status at some point. This begs the question: can art be niche if it has mass appeal?
Of course, the artists with power behind them continue to rise to the top. The ones on major labels with the biggest budgets, strongest ties, and invasive marketing campaigns get the most radio plays and press coverage, leading to chart-topping, terrestrial radio success.
However, there’s a shift happening. The internet—specifically with social media and platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud—allows artists to connect with the people looking for something different. And that group of people seems to be growing exponentially.
Although there’s more music available than ever at the click of a button, there are also more people looking for what you’ve created. The trick is to optimize your projects on the admin side (after creating them) so that your future fans can find them (or, to hire the right people to do so for you).
The problem with genres
Genre categorizations can be stifling, binary, and exclusionary. On the flip side, they’re also a helpful organizational tool for the platforms that serve as creation and discovery mechanisms. The organizations that have historically indicated success by boardroom standards (sales, streams, awards, accolades, etc.) also lean on them heavily.
The problem is less about the fact that genres exist and more that artists have little control over how their music is labeled and discovered, and therefore perceived. They can tell their own story, but without control of the context, they can’t form their full narrative.
We saw Billboard knock Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” off the country charts. It’s a song that blurred genre lines, employing traditional country music elements and iconography along with a Nine Inch Nails sample, rapping, and singing. Lil Nas X himself tagged the song as country in its initial metadata and publicly described it as “country-trap.”
Amanda Petrusich pointed out in a recent New Yorker article that country-trap “also applies to Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be,” which debuted at the top of Billboard’s Hot Country chart, and was allowed to stay there. (Rexha and both members of Florida Georgia Line are white).” She pointed out, “It seems strange, perhaps, to prioritize a label’s prerogative (or lack thereof) over the artist’s own…”
Petrusich reflected, “It’s difficult to imagine a GRAMMY ceremony that doesn’t rely on genre as its organizing principle—I suppose that would entail the bestowing of just one award, Best Music—yet genre feels increasingly irrelevant to the way we think about, create, and consume art. Few contemporary stars pride themselves on a pure or traditional approach to form, and most pull purposefully from assorted histories and practices.” Adding, “Genre was once a practical tool for organizing record shops and programming radio stations, but it seems unlikely to remain one in an era in which all music feels like a hybrid, and listeners are no longer encouraged (or incentivized) to choose a single area of interest.”
So how do we navigate this limbo today while keeping an eye on tomorrow? Here are stories of artists who’ve embraced categorization as it currently stands while incorporating other practices, defining new genres, and making the music they wanted to make.
Taking control of the narrative
First, we’ll take a look at how a few artists have found an audience for their music, covering both genreless and hyper niche styles. Then, we’ll have a closer look at the industry.
The sound of a generation
If you ask an expert, the only distinguishable characteristic of a hyperpop production is the creative use of pitch correction. Yet, much like a country ballad or reggae song, you know a hyperpop track when you hear it.
As a genre, it’s inherently niche. Yet, thanks to TikTok and a Spotify playlist, artists like 100 gecs, Charlie XCX, A.G. Cook, and osquinn have seen great cultural success. Less of a genre and more of a community, hyperpop is the specific sound of a generation in a specific moment.
They’ve seen commercial success, too. 100 gecs, for example, has released music on Atlantic Records and landed at number 94 on Billboard’s US Top Current Albums (and much higher on more niche charts). Their track “money machine” has nearly 46 million streams on Spotify alone. In addition to immense solo success, Charlie XCX has co-written songs for Iggy Azalea, Selena Gomez, Blondie, and will.i.am, among other hitmakers.
When I reflect on music better suited without a categorical label, I think of NNAMDÏ, born Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. I’ve sent his album, BRAT to friends and family all over the musical taste spectrum. “Just listen to it,” I say.
Already a well-known favorite in the indie rock scene, he recently saw a new wave of broader attention when Kacey Musgraves shared his music in a tweet. This led to more tweets about them collaborating and at least for a day, my timeline was teeming with excitement about it. He confirmed with us that he saw growth in followers and streams since her mention. “You can tell that these are Kacey Musgrave fans,” he shared.
Sooper Records’ website, a label run by NNAMDÏ, Glennon Curran, and Sen Morimoto, says, “Like all things he’s done before, BRAT proves that genre classifications don’t really work here. BRAT is part hip hop, part indie rock, part gospel, and part West African music, and in NNAMDÏ’s hands, these seemingly disparate pieces fit together snuggly, as if there was never a question of their compatibility.”
I asked NNAMDÏ how he and his team approach categorizing his music. He shared, “When I’m making an album, I’m thinking about the project as a whole, even if all the elements aren’t congruent.” He doesn’t label it by genre until it comes time to distribute it. When choosing genre tags (you’re sometimes limited to one – three on digital distribution platforms), he thinks about the perception he wants to portray and how his fans will find him.
His fans are people looking for something different—“crate-digger type of people.” With that in mind, he uses tags like “experimental rock” and “indie.” Though we both agreed those terms are essentially meaningless, listeners have come to some sort of agreement on what those terms imply, despite the subjective nature of music and genre. We have a rough idea of what to expect from them, even if that’s all over the place.
For BRAT, NNAMDÏ primarily used the tag ‘pop,’ as the album applies pop choruses and melodic structure throughout. He recognizes that it could be a cross-over album for the math rock fans of his early projects or the alt hip hop and electronic fans of DROOL. Even if BRAT sounds different from the pop records you’re used to, it’s still pop. Whether you like pop, hip hop, jazz, indie rock, or electronic music, you’re likely to find something you like on the record. Perhaps that’s the direction in which pop music is moving.
NNAMDÏ says, “The most important part of writing a project is staying true to it, and that doesn’t always mean playing in the same style or using the same instruments for each track, or even within a track. You can have a cohesive vision that’s not totally coherent. Presenting what you want is better than letting someone else tell you how to present it.”
NNAMDÏ’s intention when writing BRAT? He shared, “I think BRAT, like most things I write, is mostly a journey of self discovery. A wrote a lot of it when I was touring every other month. In the in-between time, I was trying to figure out some sort of home life normalcy. I’d spend a lot of time by myself, partially because that’s what I do in general, and also to balance out my tour life where I rarely truly get alone time. The majority of it covers the moments of self doubt that lead to the moments of realization and what gaining and nurturing self confidence does to aid those situations. It’s a lot about acknowledgment, self-care, and confidence.”
The go-to name for a specific style
One of my favorite subgenres is cinematic music that blends psychedelic stylings with lush orchestral arrangements, conjuring 1950s Italian cinema or ‘60s surf films from Australia.
I’m not alone. Hip hop producers have been sampling cinematic psych and soul sounds since the 1980s, contributing to renewed interest in old scores, and their subsequent re-releases. Splice offers loads of samples tailored for this specific sound in response to creator interests. I can think of a handful of record labels dedicated to specific sub-styles of this genre like The Roundtable, Be With Records, and Light In The Attic.
There’s also a small group of artists dedicated to making this style of music, not just for scores, but as thematic albums. Maston’s (Frank Maston) third record, Tulips, has been described by Aquarium Drunkard as “a 70s film score on a hit of acid, Elmer Bernstein sweating through a bad trip only to arrive at an ecstatic come up.”
The review continues, “Maston’s brilliance lies in his ability to create a cinematic universe through music alone—the nostalgic guitar twang blending with Morricone whistles and dusty drums to create something familiar yet decisively unheard… Tulips sounds like a long-time film composer taking a crack at the album format, yet it’s nothing more than Frank Maston’s vision of a more cinematic song cycle experience.”
In many ways, Tulips is a concept album—a score for the film some of us wish existed. This year, he made a record for the legendary library music company KPM called Panorama. Tulips, his previous two albums, and his production work with artists like Paint and Bifannah have all informed and led up to creating music for film.
I also think of El Michels Affair (EMA), the solo project of record producer Leon Michels. Focusing on the cinematic soul sound with a more modern twist led him to contribute to projects by major pop acts and start his own record label, highlighting other artists who embrace similar stylings.
The description of his album Adult Themes on Bandcamp explains, “With their 2005 debut album Sounding Out The City, EMA spearheaded an instrumental funk / soul movement that inspired a slew of bands and even led to the creation of a few independent record labels. El Michels has since lent his signature sound to artists from Adele to Dr. John, Lana Del Rey to Aloe Blacc… In 2016 he co-founded Big Crown Records and has since produced the lion’s share of its output.”
In 2017, Michels began creating compilations of short interludes intended as samples for hip hop producers. Some of those became songs by Jay Z, Beyoncé, Travis Scott, and Don Toliver. Those snippets were inspired by the dense moody work of ‘60s composers like David Axelrod and Francois de Roubaix, as well as Moondog’s brand of classical jazz. Michels expanded on some of these ideas, which eventually formed Adult Themes.
By honing their craft around subgenres they loved, Michels and Maston tapped into niche markets, which landed them their dream jobs. These concept albums stand on their own as well, serving a niche audience exactly what they craved. Maston sold out of the first pressing of Tulips, leading to a second, and El Michels Affair has seen tens of millions of streams on Spotify.
The genre as a launching pad
According to an analysis by Jorge Riveros and Martina Verano for Water & Music (exclusively available to members), “A common argument in support of traditional genre categorization is that it helps segment and market music in a way that is more digestible to the average consumer. Observing traditional genre boundaries might also allow more diehard music fans to identify benchmarks for tracking creative evolution and innovation from their favorite artists, producers, and composers.”
The article continues, “With that said, in the wake of more genre-fluid creativity, artists can actually use traditional genre taxonomies to their advantage, in two seemingly opposite but complementary ways. Namely, as an artist, you can keep ‘grinding in your lane and establishing [yourself as the top artist] in one genre,’ in the words of Chris Lopez, Label Head at Tarsier Records… Once you nurture that fanbase and plant your flag in a given genre, you can then ‘tear the walls down and show people that they don’t know what they want until you show them,’ in the words of Nicole Otero, a former press assistant at Decca Records who now works as a marketing assistant at Secretly Group.”
Though, I’d be remiss not to point out that all of their artist examples started niche or in a genre like jazz, and then broke out to create more pop and / or hip hop hits. Our earlier NNAMDÏ example shows a move towards pop too. I wonder if and how it works the other way. How often do pop artists bring their fans into the world of different styles? I know it happens, but do those fans stick around and further explore that area?
Genre tags and the role of the curator
I ran a music discovery service for a few years, and although I’m pretty anti-genre, I found myself leaning heavily on both traditional genres and ones my curators and I made up. Eventually, we ditched the genre classifications altogether and adopted a new approach where listeners could select their curator(s) of choice.
We went from sending listeners songs based on their preferences to sending them whatever we felt like that day. Sometimes the listeners loved it, other times they didn’t. When we made this change, we lost some subscribers who wanted to receive something specific. We also gained some who were strictly interested in discovering something new. It became all about the curator, the tastemaker.
Though streaming platforms require one to a few genre tags when submitting music, they also include several other categories for their discovery mechanisms.
The Water & Music analysis mentioned above uses Spotify’s playlist-pitching portal (pictured below) as an example. “Artists have the option to pick not just musical genres, but also geographic regions, song styles, instrumentation and even moods,” it reads. “You can still technically pick only one musical genre, which means that emerging artists who are equal parts R&B and disco or rock have to make a choice based on their marketing goals. That said, making additional categorization options available is definitely a step in the right direction, in terms of adapting to the nuances of how artists and their fans relate to music today beyond genre alone.”
Image source: Water & Music
Whether or not you like what they’re doing to the industry, Spotify’s activity and mood-based playlists are important to modern discovery, as they typically feature artists across a genre spectrum to varying degrees.
“Consumers today can also listen to several genres while doing one single activity. Take one of Spotify’s most followed playlists, Songs to Sing In The Shower, which features artists ranging from Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston to Harry Styles, MØ, and Lewis Capaldi. These artists don’t necessarily fit in the same genre or even lane of music, but there are a wide variety of songs like “Watermelon Sugar” and “All Night Long” whose upbeat energy and emotional connotations make perfect sense for the purpose of singing in the shower,” says Riveros and Verano.
Like a DJ, some playlist creators (and algorithms), use variance, BPM, key, and instruments to inform their decisions. Style and tempo begin to take precedence. Sometimes these curators include a range while sequencing their “set” in a particular way.
Getting both creative and intentional with the way you categorize your music not just by genre and subgenre, but also mood, location, instrument, and style will make it easier for the human and AI curator alike to discover your music.
SoundCloud says it “uses an algorithm to recommend tracks to users so it’s important to tag your tracks with accurate genre information. In addition to selecting a main genre, tag your tracks with a few relevant sub-genres and any moods that you think describe the track. It’s better to add a handful of relevant tags rather than go crazy and add as many as you can.”
Bandcamp’s Artist Guide says, “features like discover, tag hubs, artist recommendations, fan collections, and the music feed—drive 30% of Bandcamp’s monthly sales, so it’s definitely worth tapping into. However, your connection to the community doesn’t happen automatically. There are a few things you need to do to make it happen.”
For example, “it’s important to tag yourself and your music properly, so that fans can use Bandcamp’s search and browsing tools to find you.” In addition to your primary genre(s), you can add several others including subgenres and geographic location. The crate-digger-like fans that Bandcamp attracts dig deep to find new music on the platform, following other music fans and traveling on trails of related subgenres.
The guide also suggests using Bandcamp’s “Recommended by the Artist” feature, adding your favorite artists on Bandcamp and hoping for reciprocity. The artist as curator is another cultural outcome that has always existed, but taken a stronger foothold in the age of social media.
Think about what type of playlists you want to see your project in. Who are the writers you feel will love and want to write about your music? What tags do the albums they’ve covered use? What playlists are they on? What artists or groups do you want to be associated with? Who makes similar-sounding music to yours? Look at their tags, especially if they have a team behind them, as they’ve likely put time into researching where their fans are.
Record labels and publishers
The people discovering your music on these platforms include those who work at record labels, publishing companies, sync agencies, and film studios.
Though categorization is used throughout much of their process, it is less—if any—of a concern when it comes to A&R. Though this has been largely true for the majors for decades, it’s becoming increasingly common among indies as well.
Take, for instance, Father/Daughter Records. In a Billboard profile on the label, A&R lead Tyler Andere shared, “We didn’t purposely seek out to have this super diverse roster, but are intentionally trying to find music and be in musical spaces that sort of support non-white cis male artists… And I think through that, naturally lots of really interesting art that is made by non-white males artists comes through.”
Father/Daughter Co-Founder, Jesse Frick added, “I don’t want diversity to be a trend for artists. That’s the thing. These artists should be spotlit all the time, because there’s a constant influx of [artists] being queer, being a female musician… You don’t just get like a five-year time period and then you’re not cool anymore. Music should be diversified in general. I don’t want to see it kind of just become this trend thing that comes and goes.”
Echoing these sentiments, Riveros and Verano’s research found a pattern indicating that rather than forcing traditional genre categories at the A&R stage, labels instead “focus on finding artists making great music who would be a good fit for the given label, and take care of categorization matters later.”
I believe there will still be punk labels for punk bands, house labels for house music, etc. Yet, we’ll see more labels shedding these limitations and embracing all styles of music in the name of diverse tastes and talented artists. If you make niche, genreless, or cross-over music, I suggest paying attention to the labels that embrace variety in all aspects.
Radio and press
I’ve professed my love for public, community, college, and internet radio before. Non-commercial radio is an underutilized tool by listeners and artists, especially those making music that falls outside of the mainstream. Not only do these stations foster community online and off, the DJs pour all of their musical passions into developing sets, and they’re typically driven to help emerging artists be discovered. If you’re making music that falls outside of the mainstream (i.e. Top 40), consider developing a public / community radio strategy.
Working with a publicist who understands how to navigate the ‘genre conundrum’ with press can make a big difference. If you do your own PR, research which writers and podcasters are talking about music in your purview.
Even with algorithms driving so much music discovery, the genesis of those programs is still word of mouth. The details of music distribution are important, but I’d argue that focusing on honing your craft and being kind to people will get you a lot further today.
April 23, 2021