We had a great monthly meeting this week at Cafe Allegro. As always, the meeting inspired me in many ways and gave me things to think about. One area that I heard from many fellow musicians there was the difficulty everyone felt when they tried to classify their music into a “genre”. There are many reasons for this.
First of all, the genres are loosely defined and each person may have a different perception of whether a particular musical element fits into a particular genre or not.
Secondly, when we write a piece of music, sometimes we do not set out to have the piece belong to a certain genre. The songwriting mindset may have nothing to do with genres. The composer thinks in chords, melodies and rhythms and the lyricist thinks in characters and story arcs and verses and hooks; but they may ignore whether a particular chord progression is Western/Americana or Gothic Metal. Hence, the genre assignment comes as an afterthought and things just don’t seem to always fit.
Genres may also make an artist feel trapped, afraid to lose some amount of artistic freedom (and a chance for uniqueness).
I feel your pain. My personal struggle with assigning a genre to my music took more than a decade (even though a large part of it was an inactive period for me) and finally ended some months ago when I read the book “Music Success in Nine Weeks” by Ariel Hyatt. Now, before you ask, let me tell you right away. No, I didn’t apply all the advice in the book; and no, I didn’t get music success in 9 weeks (although that depends on how you define “success”). However this book had a section about the topic of genres that helped me formalize my stance on this issue.
Since I don’t have the book at hand right now, I won’t be able to quote directly, but what I got out of the book was this:
Genres are loose classification tools. Genres help people who have not heard you before determine whether they would like to hear you or not. Genres help online databases and distribution channels show your name as a suggestion to those listeners who are most likely to enjoy your music. Genres help music business professionals (and yourself) have some idea about how to position you, do your marketing, and do your PR.
Given the abundance of music available right now, it is more critical than ever to somehow reach the people that are likely to enjoy your music and become your fans (“finding your niche” in fancy terms). Any tool that helps those potential fans discover you, be it a genre, or a similarity to a famous artist, or a YouTube “tag”, seems well worth using.
That was what led me to finally go through the exercise of analyzing my influences and various elements in my music, tracking down which genres they originate from and finally draw some lines around what I call “my genre”. And since nothing stops you from claiming to be a crossover between multiple genres I did exactly that. Now I confidently and comfortably claim to be “a merge of rock, classical and electronica”. And once you go through this exercise it doesn’t feel “trapping” anymore. After all, every single one of these genres have so much variety in composition, arrangements, and sound, I feel like I could do pretty much anything under the sun and still be able to claim “Hey, I am just stretching the boundaries of my genre!”
Of course this is a personal choice and what I wrote is my story of arriving at a genre decision. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone. Plus anything we hear and read about Web 2.0, social media and online music discovery is subject to change in very short time periods. Assumptions and observations could be inaccurate. No one can really prove, without a doubt, that assigning a genre will help more fans find you. Maybe as an artist you don’t even care how many fans you reach. Maybe you are just out to communicate.
So what do you think about your music and genres? Do you feel comfortable with saying your genre is X or Y? What are your experiences?