You Don’t Know What a Genre Is

They’re long gone and it’s time to accept it

We’ve all heard the long asked, never correctly answered question, “so what kind of music do you listen to?”. And we’ve all answered with something along the lines of “umm it’s hard to say, I guess hip hop but also electronic but also I really like this one artist Verzache”.

It’s time to face the truth, genres aren’t accurate or useful. Justin Bieber is making Latin pop songs, Drake is making Jamaican Dancehall albums and your favorite new rock band (yes, those still exist) probably made most of their songs on a DAW. As with any generic label, we use genres as a shortcut to explain what we listen to (or definitely don’t listen to) faster. The problem is that these labels aren’t really accurate because every one of our favorite artists, songs and albums is influenced by or directly integrates a vast variety of sounds and styles. Spotify has 1,387 “genres” in its database, I couldn’t name 20 and even if I did, the artists I love would probably fit into at least 5 each.

The bigger issue is what genre has historically been used to denote: race.

“there’s nothing particularly great about our current genre distinctions. As many have pointed out, terms like “indie” and “country” are often racial markers as well as musical ones. As Noah Berlatsky puts it at The New Republic, “artists of color who make what could be called ‘indie music’ get classified as something else.” To listen to indie music may be just as much to listen to a particular kind of artist (read: a white one) as it is to hear a particular sound.”

Just think for a second about the fact that we still use Urban as an acceptable genre. The Grammy for best Urban Contemporary Album was established only 5 years ago! Who was in the running? SZA, 6lack, Khalid, Donald Glover and the Weeknd. I’m sure you can see the correlation, and it’s certianly not that 6lack and SZA are making similar songs.

“Back in 2013, Kelly Rowland and Nas presented the first Grammy Award for Best Urban Contemporary Album, designed to honor“artists whose music includes the more contemporary elements of R&B and may incorporate production elements found in urban pop, urban Euro-pop, urban rock, and urban alternative” and “albums containing at least 51 percent playing time of newly recorded contemporary vocal tracks derivative of R&B…. The category is seemingly designed to compartmentalize black artists, undermining the culture’s contributions to and influences on music even as it tries to celebrate it.” — Jeremy Winslow

Ok, so it’s pretty clear that genres aren’t very useful for anything besides shooting down banal questions and compartmentalizing “types” of artists in a frankly idiotic and racist way. So that begs the question…

What’s better than genres?

Brady Fowler is an awesome writer and engineer who tells stories using data. Not too long ago, he decided to create a network graph that linked artists based on similar “communities” as opposed to genre. In his words:

All of this artist surfing got me thinking about what makes one artist “related” to another — touring together, similar influences, same record label, sharing bandmates — the list could go on. In my opinion, Spotify has tackled this question of relatedness in a really great and fundamental way:
“Spotify’s related artists and radio are determined by algorithms which look at what people listen to alongside your music. So if I put your music in a playlist alongside artist X & artist Y then artists X & Y are more likely to be shown as related to you or played on radio.”
“What is most interesting to me is how the algorithms were able to place artists into clusters that accurately reflected “closeness.” The fact that most clusters are homogeneously colored indicates that Spotify’s use of related artist status is a good substitute for “genre”; it captures large trends in music similarity but also allows for more nuanced relationships and groupings.”

What’s awesome about this is how simple the answer becomes. Rather than labeling by genre, we can just talk about playlists like they’re communities (they are) and the artists those communities listen to. My sister love Khalid and she also loves Tom Misch. Are they the same genre? Who cares, I can play their music by the pool all day. That comes to the final piece. It’s all about the context.

Context > Genres

“People don’t look at things like hip-hop or country anymore — they are looking at things based on events and activities…We need to be able to deliver the right music based on who we are, how we’re feeling and what we’re doing, day-by-day.” — Daniel Ek

Are you at the gym? Laying by the pool? Heading to a party? There isn’t a genre for any of these things, but there’s definitely a playlist. That’s why streaming numbers are already showing us that context is the key to people’s listening hearts. Give them the right music for the right moment and they’ll go back to whatever they’re doing with a smile on their face. Genres are dead. Context and the communities around that context is the future.

Ok, so what?

First of all, don’t speak to me like that. Second, the answer to your question is another question. If the future of music is communities, then where do you find them?

Well, hold onto your rave gear because we’re building it for you.

Over the past few weeks we’ve be rolling out Laylo to a select group of the best music finders in the world. And as a thank you for actually reading this (yay first grade education!), we’d like to invite you into that private group before we unleash this beast on the masses. Shoot us a DM on instagram @LayloApp with the word “insider” and join us as we spread the true power of great music taste.