In an ideal world, I think genres shouldn’t exist. Here’s why…

Genres are just boxes that we shouldn’t try to put music in. Your creativity can’t be contained in a uniform square.

Also, genres are not descriptive. In some cases, they confuse things more than help.

Updated November 29, 2019

The Problem With Musical Genres

musical genres
image via Melodrive

Saying a band is a “Folk” band doesn’t tell me anything. That could be Fleet Foxes or Bob Dylan or Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros.

All very different sounds.

“Rock” music could be Queen or Arcade Fire. “Rap” could be Kanye or John Reuben.

And what the heck is “Alternative”? That tells me nothing about the sonic properties of the music.

I know genres are helpful for finding music that could sound a certain way because they’re one-word categories that give people a very general idea of the music. I’ll give them that.

But when describing your music, don’t just say “Punk rock” or “Folk.”

Instead, I have another idea.

It’s more descriptive if we say things like “Coldplay is a mini-me of U2” or “Allen Stone is when you combine the voice of Stevie Wonder, the soul of Bill Withers, and the perspective of a grownup millennial.”

Try describing your music this way. It takes some thought, but it could spark serious interest in your sound.

Or, because genres are so blended nowadays, you could just tell people what instruments are involved.

I think these ways of explaining your music gives people a much more descriptive idea of what they’re about to hear than genres.

So I guess my point is, don’t think of your music as “this” or “that” genre.

Think outside the boxes.

Use descriptions and words that give people a clear idea of what your music sounds like. Not just a one- or two-word genre.

4 thoughts on “This Is Why Genres Are Stupid

  1. Great piece, and a profoundly valid point. And I agree completely, in principle.

    However… (aw, c’mon – ya knew thatw was coming..!)

    While the concept and desire for us musos to not “fence [music] in” is a commendable one, consider that we also have been conditioned, so to speak, to do this exact thing, even from our formative music appreciation years.

    I was brought up on “pop,” “country,” “glitter/acid rock,” “heavy metal, “punk/new wave,” “blues,” “indie,” “classical,” and so many other styles of music (as were you, I’m sure) – each with those limiting labels. It’s almost a part of everyone’s musical DNA, and not something that’s likely to change – like it or not – especially given the corporate nature of publicly consumable music since… well, forever!

    I get that it makes things easier for the “great ignorant public” (thanks, John Lydon) to compartmentalize their specific musical likes/dislikes. I also agree that it is a constraint that even the musicians who produce the music saddle themselves with, as well.

    I once heard Perry Farrell describe his then-band Jane’s Addiction to an interviewer as: …a cross between Duke Ellington… and Bad Brains.”

    I think trying to explain one’s music in the way you describe in your article, while being clever and much more “literal” to us musos, the risk exists that what we consider our music to be (or not to be) in those terms would possibly come off as pretentious gibberish to the “average” listener/interviewer. No doubt you, I and other, more “wordsmithery” artists would understand – and even appreciate – such self-applied descriptions. But a lot of (most, maybe?) casual listeners seem to prefer their labels and short-attention-span-pleasing “tags.” As both Shakespeare and Mr. Natural have spake: “‘Twas ever thus.” 😀

    All of which (without a single drop of rum) is helpful to me in the recent proposal to consolidate ALL of my music under one appelation: Tom the Busman. I have been struggling with the idea of scrapping all of my label’s different “band names,” and just re-issuing everything under mine own name. I think it’s a good move, precisely for all the reasons you list. But the downside is having to get rid of all those nifty sounding band names, and all those nifty band graphics I’ve so painstakingly created o’er the years..! lol

    As always, Mister C., you provoke much thought with yer musings. Press on, good sir!

  2. My main concern is that musicians (including myself) may feel the need to fit into a genre/box.

    And I understand that describing your music in the way I suggested could come off as pretentious, like “I think I’m as good as these artists.” I would hope people would understand a musician is not saying “I’m as good as this band or that artist,” and get that they’re just trying to give a clear description of the music.

    But yes, the average listener does, I think, want genres. They’re short and easy, but also people have their own perceptions of what a genre sounds like based on their past experiences with that music.

    I don’t expect genres to go away, but I think I might start describing my music not so much with genres, but rather with descriptions like that.

    As always, Tom, thanks for reading!

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