How much more microgenres will we build before giving up and referring to all music as music?
Today’s artists and audiences, as shown by their artistic performance and listening preferences, are largely prepared for a genre-fluid environment. Also, the most nimble representatives of the production chain, though, can take time to catch up to the performers and fans at either end. With a variety of competing agendas, policy makers continue to focus on genre classification to organize, distribute, and explore content.
Although the winds can shift (albeit slowly), here are several strategies for can your music’s discoverability today, regardless of whether you create ultra niche or genreless content.
There is no way to avoid categorization.
Your niche is the field at which you excel. A niche market is a community of individuals that share a common desire or taste. If you excel at making pop culture, this is your specialty. Nonetheless, as an industry, we often use the term “niche” to refer to types that deviate from the cultural standard or what is popular.
In music, the word “subgenre” refers to distinct types within larger genres characterized by instrumentation, BPM, method, and societal significance (i.e. pop-punk, UK garage, trap, etc.). We’ve nuanced styles to the extent that, in the 1970s, we started defining microgenres: consider hyperpop, grindcore, gigicore, vaporwave, lowercase, cloud rap, bassline, witch house, cute punk, Simposonwave, flolktronica—the list goes on.
Artists are constantly establishing new niches as a result of expanded access to music production resources. When they mix predefined types to produce something different, we coin the term “niche.” It’s similar to how New York City rental agents turn a city block into a community (“East Williamsburg?” is a recently coined term). It becomes a fresh topic to discuss and brand—to commoditize and sell.
As young artists push the boundaries of creativity, we’ll continue to give these freshly created styles made-up titles. Meanwhile, listeners’ preferences and lifestyles will begin to evolve and diversify, and the forces that be will follow the patterns.
The populace is ravenous for novelty
Media sources also associate niche music with tiny but devoted fanbases. We refer to them as having a “cult-like following.” However, subgenres such as trap, emo rock, hyperpop, and folk have all achieved popular status at some stage. This raises the question: should art be considered niche if it is popular?
Naturally, many of influence begin to climb to the top. The ones signed to major labels with the largest budgets, the best connections, and the most aggressive media strategies receive the most radio airplay and press attention, resulting in chart-topping, terrestrial radio popularity.
However, a change is occurring. The internet — more precisely, social media and sites such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud — enables musicians to engage with people seeking something exclusive. And it seems as if the community of citizens is increasing rapidly.
Although there is more music accessible at the click of a button than ever before, there are still more people searching for what you’ve made. The key is to optimize your ventures on the admin side (after they are created) so that they are easily discoverable by your potential fans (or, to hire the right people to do so for you).
The genre mystery
Genre classifications have the potential to be confining, binary, and exclusionary. On the other hand, they act as a useful organizing method for the networks that serve as mechanisms for development and exploration. Organizations that have traditionally shown achievement by boardroom metrics (sales, streams, prizes, and accolades, for example) depend highly on them as well.
The issue is less with the existence of styles than with musicians’ lack of influence about how their music is branded and discovered, and therefore interpreted. They are capable of telling their own tale, but without control of the setting, they are unable to construct a complete plot.
Billboard recently demoted Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the country charts. It’s an album that defies genre classification, incorporating conventional country music features and iconography with a Nine Inch Nails sample, rapping, and singing. Lil Nas X himself initially classified the song as country and publicly characterized it as “country-trap.”
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.
Possessing narrative influence
To begin, we’ll examine how a few musicians have developed a following for their music, which ranges from genreless to hyper niche. Then we’ll take a more in-depth look at the market.
A generation’s voice
According to an expert, the only distinguishing feature of a hyperpop creation is the innovative usage of pitch correction. Nonetheless, just like a country ballad or reggae tune, you know when you hear a hyperpop hit.
It is a niche genre. Nonetheless, musicians such as 100 gecs, Charlie XCX, A.G. Cook, and osquinn have achieved significant cultural recognition as a result of TikTok and a Spotify playlist. Hyperpop is less of a music and more of a culture. It is the distinct sound of a generation at a particular time.
They’ve also had financial success. For instance, 100 gecs released music on Atlantic Records and reached number 94 on Billboard’s US Top Current Albums list (and much higher on more niche charts). On Spotify alone, their track “cash engine” has nearly 46 million streams. Along with his enormous solo popularity, Charlie XCX has collaborated on songs with Iggy Azalea, Selena Gomez, Blondie, and will.i.am, among other chart-topping artists.
When I consider music that is better off without a categorical label, I think of NNAMD, whose real name is Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. I’ve given his song, BRAT, to friends and relatives with a wide variety of musical tastes. “Simply listen to it,” I advise.
Already a well-known fixture on the indie rock scene, he recently received a boost in popularity after Kacey Musgraves shared his music via Twitter. This resulted in more messages about their collaboration, and for at least one day, my timeline was brimming with enthusiasm. He reported to us that he has seen an increase in followers and streams as a result of her mention. “You can say these are fans of Kacey Musgrave,” he said.
According to the website of Sooper Records, which is owned by NNAMD, Glennon Curran, and Sen Morimoto, “Like anything he’s done before, BRAT demonstrates that genre classifications don’t even fit here.” BRAT is comprised of elements of hip hop, alternative rock, gospel, and West African music, and in the hands of NNAMD, these apparently diverse elements mesh together snugly, as though there was never any doubt over their compatibility.”
NNAMD primarily used the term ‘pop’ to describe BRAT, since the album features pop choruses and melodic composition throughout. He knows that it might be a crossover album for followers of his early ventures’ math rock or DROOL’s alt hip hop and electronica. And if BRAT sounds unlike other pop records you’re familiar with, it’s still pop. If you like punk, hip hop, jazz, alternative rock, or electronic music, this album is sure to have something for you. Perhaps it is the direction pop culture is heading in.
According to NNAMD, “the most critical aspect of writing a project is being faithful to it, which does not necessarily entail performing in the same style or with the same instruments on each track, or even inside a track.” It is possible to provide a clear view that is not always coherent. Presenting what you want is preferable to allowing anyone else to dictate how you present it.”
What was NNAMD’s goal when he wrote BRAT? “I believe BRAT, like the majority of the stuff I publish, is primarily a path of self discovery,” he said. A ton of it was written when I was on tour every other month. In the meantime, I was attempting to reestablish a semblance of normalcy in my home life. I’d spend a lot of time alone, partly because that’s what I do in general, but mostly to balance out my tour life, which barely allows for true solitude. The rest of it discusses the moments of self doubt that precede moments of realization, as well as the benefits of developing and nurturing self esteem in such circumstances. It’s a great deal of self-awareness, self-care, and confidence.”
The abbreviation used to refer to a specific type
One of my favorite subgenres is cinematic music, which combines psychedelic influences with lush orchestral compositions, conjuring images of 1950s Italian movies or 1960s Australian surf films.
I am not alone in this. Since the 1980s, hip hop artists have been sampling cinematic psychedelic and soul tones, resulting in a resurgence in curiosity in vintage scores and their eventual re-releases. Splice provides a plethora of samples customized for this particular sound based on the creator’s preferences. I may think of a few record labels devoted to particular sub-genres of this type, such as The Roundtable, Be With Records, and Light In The Attic.
Additionally, there is a limited community of musicians who specialize in creating this type of music, not only for scores, but also for thematic records. Tulips, Maston’s (Frank Maston) third album, has been characterized by Aquarium Drunkard as “a 1970s film score on acid, Elmer Bernstein sweating his way through a bad ride to an ecstatic coming up.”
According to the analysis, “Maston’s genius resides in his ability to construct a cinematic world solely by music—the vintage guitar twang mingling with Morricone whistles and dusty drums to create something recognizable but decidedly unheard… Tulips may sound like an experienced film composer attempting the album style, but it is simply Frank Maston’s idea of a more cinematic song cycle experience.”
Tulips is, in several respects, a theme album—a soundtrack for the film that many of us wish existed. This year, he released Panorama, an album for the renowned library music label KPM. Tulips, his previous two records, and his production work with artists such as Paint and Bifannah both influenced and contributed to his decision to compose niche music for film.
I’m also reminded of El Michels Affair (EMA), Leon Michels’ solo project. Concentrating on theatrical soul with a contemporary twist prompted him to collaborate on collaborations with big pop acts and launch his own record label, showcasing other musicians that follow similar stylings.
According to the Bandcamp review of his song Adult Themes, “EMA spearheaded an instrumental funk / soul trend with their 2005 debut album Sounding Out The City, inspiring a slew of bands and even resulting in the establishment of a few independent record labels.” El Michels has also collaborated with musicians ranging from Adele and Dr. John, Lana Del Rey to Aloe Blacc… He co-founded Big Crown Records in 2016 and has subsequently created the majority of the label’s output.”
Michels started compiling compilations of brief interludes for hip hop producers in 2017. Several of these inspired Jay Z, Beyoncé, Travis Scott, and Don Toliver to write music. The thick, moody music of 1960s composers such as David Axelrod and Francois de Roubaix, as well as Moondog’s brand of classical jazz, influenced these fragments. Michels expanded on some of these concepts, resulting in Adult Themes.
Michels and Maston reached into small audiences by honing their craft around subgenres they adored. These concept albums often stand on their own, providing a small group with precisely what they desired. Maston sold out of the first pressing of Tulips, prompting the release of a niche second, and El Michels Affair has accumulated tens of millions of Spotify streams.
As a launching pad for creativity
According to Jorge Riveros and Martina Verano’s review for Water & Music (exclusively accessible to members), “a general point in favor of conventional genre categorization is that it helps segment and sell music in a more digestible manner for the typical audience.” By adhering to defined genre parameters, more devoted music fans will also be able to establish standards for monitoring the artistic progression and creativity of their favorite musicians, creators, and composers.”
“With that said, in the face of more genre-fluid experimentation, musicians might potentially benefit from conventional genre taxonomies in two apparently contradictory yet compatible ways. Specifically, as a musician, you should continue ‘grinding in your lane and defining [yourself as the top artist] in one category,’ as Chris Lopez, Tarsier Records’ Label Head, puts it… If you’ve developed a fan base and staked a claim in a certain category, you can then “‘tear down the doors and demonstrate to viewers that they don’t realize what they expect before you present it to them,'” as Nicole Otero, a former press assistant at Decca Records who now serves as a publicity assistant at Secretly Group, put it.”
Though I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that each of their artist examples began in a niche or category, such as jazz, and then branched out to produce pop and/or hip hop hits. Our previous NNAMD example demonstrates a similar trend toward pop. I’m curious as to what and how it functions in reverse. How much can pop stars introduce their audiences to new musical styles? I’m aware that this occurs, but do those fans remain and continue to explore that area?
Genre classifications and the curator’s position
I run a niche music exploration service for a few years, and despite my anti-genre stance, I found myself gravitating toward both conventional and made-up genres. Eventually, we abandoned genre classifications entirely in favor of a modern method in which listeners might choose their curator(s).
We shifted away from giving listeners songs dependent on their tastes and instead sending them whatever we felt like on any given day. At times, audiences adored it, at other times, they despised it. When we made this move, we lost a few subscribers who requested a special message. Additionally, we acquired several individuals who were solely involved in learning something different. It became entirely about the curator, the arbiter of taste.
Platforms for streaming
Although streaming platforms need between one and a few genre tags when submitting music, they often have many additional categories in their discovery frameworks.
The Water & Music review cited previously makes use of Spotify’s playlist-pitching portal (pictured below). “Artists may choose not only musical genres, but even regional areas, album types, instrumentation, and even moods,” the press release states. “Technically, you should also have just one musical form, which ensures that new musicians who are equal parts R&B, disco, or rock would make a decision dependent on their marketing objectives. That said, including new categorization choices is a positive move in adjusting to the complexities of how musicians and their audiences react to music today beyond genre.”
Whether you agree with what Spotify is bringing to the industry or not, the action- and mood-based playlists are critical for contemporary exploration, since they usually include musicians from a variety of genres.
“Consumers nowadays may often listen to music from many styles when doing a single task. Consider one of Spotify’s most famous playlists, Songs to Sing in the Shower, which includes artists such as Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston, as well as Harry Styles, M, and Lewis Capaldi. Although these musicians do not actually belong to the same category or even lane of music, there are a number of tracks, such as “Watermelon Sugar” and “All Night Long,” whose cheerful vitality and romantic overtones are ideal for singing in the rain, according to Riveros and Verano.
As with a DJ, several playlist makers (and algorithms) base their decisions on variation, BPM, key, and instruments. The style and pace take priority. Occasionally, these curators have a selection when sequencing their “collection.”
By being imaginative and deliberate in your categorization of your music, not only by genre and subgenre, but also by mood, place, instrument, and design, you will make it simpler for both human and AI curators to discover your music.
According to SoundCloud, it “uses a niche algorithm to suggest tracks to users,” which is why it’s critical to tag the tracks accurately with genre details. Along with a primary category, label your songs with a few relevant subgenres and any moods you believe best represent the music. It’s easier to add a few appropriate tags than to add as many as possible.”
According to Bandcamp’s Artist Guide, “features like explore, tag hubs, artist reviews, fan collections, and the music stream” account for 30% of monthly Bandcamp revenue, so it’s certainly worth tapping into. Your relation to the community, on the other hand, does not occur immediately. There are a few steps necessary to do this.”
For instance, “it’s critical to properly tag yourself and your music so that fans can find you using Bandcamp’s search and browsing tools.” Along with your main genre(s), you may choose a few others, such as subgenres and geographic area. Bandcamp’s crate-digger-like followers delve deep to discover fresh music on the website, trailing other music fans and following trails of similar subgenres.
Additionally, the guide recommends using Bandcamp’s “Recommended by the Artist” functionality, which allows you to add your favorite musicians to Bandcamp and hope for reciprocity. Another artistic result that has always persisted but gained traction in the era of social media is the artist as curator.
Consider the types of playlists on which you’d like to see your project. Who do you believe would adore and desire to write for your music? Why marks are associated with the albums they’ve covered? Whatever playlists are they a part of? Whatever musicians or organizations do you want to affiliate yourself with? Everyone else creates songs with a close tone to yours? Consider their tags, especially if they have a team behind them, since they have obviously spent time investigating their fans’ locations.
Publishers and record companies
People who work at major labels, recording houses, sync agencies, and film studios are among those who discover the songs on these sites.
Though categorization is used in most of their procedure, it is less of an issue (if at all) in A&R. This has mostly been valid for the majors for decades, but it’s becoming more popular among indies as well.
Take the case of Father/Daughter Records, for example. “We didn’t set out to get this super diverse team, but are intentionally seeking to find music and be in musical environments that kind of promote non-white cis male artists,” A&R lead Tyler Andere said in a Billboard profile on the label. And I believe that as a result of that, a lot of very fascinating art created by non-white male artists emerges.”
“I don’t want diversity to be a theme for artists,” Jesse Frick, a father/daughter co-founder, said. That’s the issue. And there’s a constant stream of [artists] being transgender, being a female rapper… these artists should be spotlighted all the time. You don’t just get a five-year cycle where you’re cool and then you’re not. In general, music should be diverse. I don’t want it to become a fad.”
Riveros and Verano’s study showed a trend in which labels “focus on identifying artists producing excellent music that will be a good choice for the defined label, and take care of categorization matters later,” rather than pushing conventional genre divisions at the A&R level.
I assume punk labels for punk artists, party labels for house music, and so on will continue to exist. In the interest of varied tastes and creative musicians, we’ll see more labels shedding these limits and welcoming all forms of music. I recommend paying attention to niche labels that support diversity in all ways whether you create specialty, genreless, or cross-over pop.
Press and radio
I’ve previously expressed my admiration for public, culture, education, and internet radio. Listeners and musicians, especially those that create music that is outside of the norm, underutilize non-commercial radio. Not only can these stations promote culture both online and offline, but the DJs put all of their artistic passions into creating sets, and they’re usually motivated to help new musicians get discovered. Try creating a public / community radio plan if you’re producing music that isn’t mainstream (i.e. Top 40).
Working alongside a publicist who knows how to deal with the media’s “genre conundrum” may be extremely beneficial. If you conduct your own public relations, find out which authors and podcasters are discussing music in your field.
Even though computers are guiding a lot of niche music discovery, word of mouth is always a big part of it. Although the finer points of music distribution are significant, I believe that concentrating on honing your art and treating people with respect can bring you a long way today.