A couple of decades ago, if a teenager walked upto another and asked what kind of music he or she listens to, and one said "rap" and the other said "metal", the odds of them hanging out together would be very slim. Cut to 2018 and the very possibility of either of them naming a single genre is minimal.
According to a recent survey by Vice Magazine, 78 percent of young people said they couldn’t be defined by the genre they listened to. That's actually a huge shift in audience tastes, but one that can easily be understood when put in context.
Until the era of online bootlegs and peer-to-peer sharing, which sprouted somewhere in the early 2000s, the most common method of music consumption was the radio.
Stations were often dedicated to a single style or genre and heavy rotation playlists were largely instrumental in the tastemaking process. In the Napster era, music sales took a giant slump, but the importance of radio was still sort of intact. Today, in the digital streaming age, that's not the story anymore.
The Global Music Report 2018 announced that last year, online music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music became the music industry’s single biggest revenue source, overtaking physical sales and digital downloads for the first time.
Reuters: Music streaming overtakes physical sales for the first time: industry body— Marc A. Ross (@marcaross) April 24, 2018
"Online streaming services such Spotify and Apple Music have become the music industry’s single biggest revenue source" pic.twitter.com/DAYTJkkXVv
Streaming platforms not only offer a ridiculous amount of choice in terms of artistes, but the method of consuming music has slowly shifted to the playlist from the album. These playlists, whether curated by the service itself or compiled by other users, offer a diverse range of genres and artistes, and often, listeners don't even know who they're listening to. So in a sense, online playlists have replaced the traditional format of the album as the preferred choice for listeners.
What this atmosphere has brought about is the death of the "super fan". We've all encountered them at least once even though they belong to a dying breed. It's that person who religiously collects all of the artiste's memorabilia and knows all the album names in chronological order (not to mention the lyrics of each song).
You get the picture. But the conditions that were conducive for the existence of the super fan are fast disappearing, as record stores and music shops are slowly fading away. Fans just aren’t as obsessed about individual artistes anymore. Sure there are artistes like Drake or Beyoncé that have a church-like following, but there are very few fans that are listening to the albums from start to finish, which also explains the massive popularity of the single as a format over an LP.
As listeners across the world are gaining exposure to a seemingly unlimited range of artistes from disparate genres, simultaneously, the approach to creating music has changed for the artiste as well. Artistes are incorporating more and more diverse elements into the work, erasing the walls between genres to create a new blend and flavor of music.
As hip-hop races past rock and claims the throne of the new mainstream, breakthrough artistes like Kendrick Lamar and Post Malone are redefining the very sound of hip-hop, incorporating elements of jazz, rock, gospel, electronica and a whole bunch of other styles into their music. Producers like Mark Ronson are pushing the boundaries of the field by working with people from all sides of the musical world. Some of the many artistes he's worked with Paul McCartney, Adele, Nas, Queens of the Stone Age — the list could not be more disparate.
Some of the best albums of 2018 are those that borrow from a host of genres to create something individualistic and unique. Kacey Musgraves added flavors of R&B and jazz to country, Superorganism borrowed from the musique concrète sounds of the 90s to create their maximalist debut effort and The 1975 flitted through seemingly every genre possible to produce the millennial masterpiece 'A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships'.
There is a unique problem in terms of "genrefication" in the modern musical age. With the rise of so many unique artistes on digital platforms, the basic human need to box and categorize everything for the sake of simplification has rather complicated things. The result is an explosion of "micro-genres" that chip away deeper into the niches of a particular musical style. Just take pop for example. There's synth-pop, power-pop, Baroque-pop, chillwave, art pop, chamber pop... the list is endless. And two artistes both classified under the pop umbrella could sound nothing like each other. The pop of Ariana Grande is entirely different from the pop of say, someone like Capital Cities. And even if artistes draw from a range of influences, it doesn't mean we can easily classify them under one genre.
For instance, if you were to google Lana Del Rey, you’ll find her listed under "pop, indie R&B, indietronica, chamber pop and synthpop". Sure, she dabbles with all those styles but she's also not defined by any single one of them.
Meanwhile, as genres get more and more esoteric, weirdly enough, they're also getting less relevant. That should explain why almost every underground rock act in the last decade or so are all inconveniently clubbed under the bracket of 'alternative'. If it's too hard to describe and categorize, which is often the case these days, it's the easiest solution. This genre-blurring has proven problematic in a lot of situations.
Take the Billboard Charts for instance. Who do you think has been repeatedly topping the rock charts across the last decade? Believe it or not, it's Imagine Dragons. It could be hard to categorize them under the rock umbrella. Sure, 'Radioactive', their biggest hit ever has some basic rock structures in there, but that was six years ago and since then, they've produced three more albums, each leaning further away from the genre, incorporating more electronic elements, but still topping rock charts consistently.
2017 Grammy nominees for Best Rock Album have me questioning what year it really is. #WEEZER pic.twitter.com/cUbeqZvirz— Andrew Hamilton (@AndHamltn) February 9, 2017
The problem is also one that has become all too familiar at the Grammys. Last year for instance, The War on Drugs were nominated for Best Rock Album alongside Metallica, Mastodon and Queens of the Stone Age.
They ultimately took the award home but surely not without some confusion as to how they just beat a thrash metal, sludge metal and a stoner metal act. Similarly, this year, Swedish heavy metal icons Ghost found themselves in the same category along with Greta Van Fleet, Weezer, Alice in Chains and Fall Out Boy. Perhaps the Academy will have to reconsider these categories as we slowly head towards a more genre-less future.
Out of the many ways in which this genre-blending is affecting the music industry, the one place where it's clearly evident is the problem of booking acts at music festivals. This year, Coachella, a festival that was traditionally associated with indie/alternative rock acts had Beyonce headline. Meanwhile, The 1975, who are self admittedly "not rock", are set to headline the 2019 Reading and Leeds Festival alongside Foo Fighters and Twenty One pilots, and festivalgoers are just as divided about the announcements.
Twenty One Pilots and Post Malone headlining Reading? #RandL19 pic.twitter.com/4cN8XhGFYu— Tom McLaughlin (@TheTomMac) November 21, 2018
honest to god reading and leeds need to get their shit together, imagine thinking the 1975, twenty one pilots and even post malone are headline worthy, bloody hell https://t.co/uiEJyK1UUo— izzy (@prettyvisitxrs) November 21, 2018
So with the boundaries of genres slowly getting thinner and thinner, could the future of music be heading towards a genre-less direction? Or at least a place where genres don't matter anymore? Presuming 'post-genre' doesn't turn into a genre and cancel itself out, that could very well be where we're heading. After all, how many acts will we categorize into the alternative label before we give up on trying to make things fit? The fact remains that art is never created in a vacuum. It's constantly shaped by the shifts in times and cultures. And we're probably living in the most rapidly changing cultural landscape in human history, and the music of the time reflects that. These are exciting times!