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The Genre Trap? - Part 1

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Preface note:

In this article, I’ll be discussing my thoughts on the role(s) genre classification plays on musical creativity. I’m aware and understand how music genres have the potential to transcend music, becoming cornerstones of cultures, the voice of political movements or even a way of life. I’d like to leave that discussion point to one side for now and focus solely on genre classifications in respect to creative endeavour.

Furthermore, I appreciate the notion and idea of making music for artistic expression and not for money. However for the sake of this discussion, I’ll be considering musicians that have made career choices leading them to being reliant on income from their music.

The Genre Trap? - Part 1

In simplistic terms, hanging genre classifications around the neck of every piece of music is somewhat a necessary evil. It’s functionally necessary from a marketing point of view; appropriately categorising (or tagging) music focusses it towards appropriate audience and journalists which in turn helps exposure, audience growth, notoriety and record sales. As an artist becomes more well known and popular, they should (in theory) gain more profits from increased sales, which better enables further music creation (by investing new money in recording equipment and/or allowing the music producer to devote more time to music production).

So far it seems like a win-win scenario, however this is a crude breakdown of the situation and doesn’t take into account the very human aspect of creative exploration and diversity.

Consider any band, songwriter or music producer that’s been releasing music for 10-15 years or more. There’s a high chances that their artistic direction changed over time and so too therefore must their genre categorisation. Evolving in this fashion has benefits in that it satisfies the artist’s creative drive and has the potential to introduce the artist’s audience to new forms of music they wouldn’t have otherwise listened to. Furthermore the artist’s new and evolved style has the potential to attract new listeners who wouldn’t have otherwise listened to the artist in their earlier creative guise.

The potential downside however is that the artist’s audience could feel alienated, sidelined or even let-down by this change in stylistic direction, losing interest in the artist leading to a drop in audience numbers and loss of earnings. I imagine we’re all aware of how emotionally invested people can be in their favourite artists/bands and therefore a sudden and significant change of artistic style can be very jarring for devoted fans.

There have been many instances when artists have made seismic changes to their creative output and it’s led to them being dropped by their record label risking a large fall in income and potentially impacting on their ability to continue working in the music industry.

This brings us to a paradox whereby artists are both dependent on genre categorisation for audience growth and simultaneously confined by genre categorisation, albeit via the risks of alienating fans and losing income; i.e. the commercial and creative expectations that come with being successful in a particular genre. Of course, artists are free to branch out and do different things and many do. However once an artist has established an audience, making sharp turns (creatively speaking) is always to be considered a big gamble with no guarantee of success, irrespective of how good the music may be.

(There are two talking points that become apparent here that perhaps I’ll explore in future blogs; firstly the rare instances when an artist’s change in style forges a shift and change in an entire genre’s perception, redefining what characterises that genre; the second being anecdotal stories of audiences wanting artists to output new and different music only to be disappointed with the release of new music on the grounds that it’s too different to their older music and reverting to favour the artist’s older music instead)

This all leads me to question: is the music industry’s architectural reliance on genre categorisations to be considered a double edged sword? On one side genre categorisation provides the potential for success, aiding journalism and retail; whilst on the other side it has the potential to discourage artists from creative risk-taking that may remove them from their established genre classifications, risking audience alienation and financial return. Moreover, is the notion of genre categorisation a creative trap?

“A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge”

(China Miéville - Rat King)

When I was at university, I did an investigative thesis on creativity under censorship citing Dmitri Shostakovich (early-mid 20th Century classical composer in Stalinist Russia) as my main case study. There are few instances in history when artistic output of a civilisation was controlled and censored to the extent that it was under Stalin’s reign of Soviet Russia; and Shostakovich was arguably one of the masters of subverting censorship with musical sleight-of-hand. Shostakovich was (eventually) wise to the censors; he understood the “trap” so to speak. He knew what the censors were looking for and had learned (the hard way) what would happen if he didn’t conform to it.

In the context of the above quote, composing for Shostakovich went beyond just composing for composing’s sake and instead became a “challenge”; to express his creative drive whilst also conforming to the extremely strict censorship of Stalinist Russia.

Creatively speaking, challenges can be powerful catalysts. You will often hear tales of artist producing their best work under challenging scenarios, for example; Tom Waits being dropped by his record label and attempting to sober up all the while creating the Swordfishtrombones trilogy (“Swordfishtrombones” 1983, “Rain Dogs” 1985 and “Frank’s Wild Years” 1987), three critically acclaimed albums that set in motion a reforged career that later saw him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; or Eric Clapton penning the Grammy Award winning “Tears In Heaven” when sobering up after the tragic death of his son.

In Shostakovich’s case, he faced the challenge of his situation developing ways to use large and ostentatious tropes of socialist realism in his symphonies (to satisfy the censors), whilst harmonically sneaking in counter melodic parts and arrangement choices that would draw inspiration from western influences, largely going unnoticed until academic scrutiny decades later. He’s now regarded as one of the greatest symphonic composers of the 20th Century.

If Shostakovich could marry his own musical expression with the confines of Stalin’s censors, then truly, the sky’s the limit for independent composers and producers of electronic music. Consider the scenarios in which Shostakovich had to work (threat of forced labour camps, family members “disappearing”, being fired from his academic lecturing roles and nationwide discrediting by the head of state), independent artists such as myself are surely working with complete and absolute freedom.

Keeping all of this in mind, the notion of overcoming the “challenge” of stepping outside of one’s established genre without alienating their audience is surely a surmountable one. Nevertheless, just because something is achievable, doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy undertaking and furthermore, it raises questions, not least:

How does an artist satisfy their own creative exploits without alienating their audience?

I don’t claim to have the answer, but I will endeavour to delve more deeply in to this in the next article.


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