By Erika Meyer
When you do a DIY release of original music, especially if you release it digitally, one of the first things you will have to do is pick a genre. Every distribution service demands this. You are usually provided a list of acceptable choices (and they’re never the same from site to site), and sometimes you can select from a list of sub-genres as well. Having to choose a single genre for your music, or worse, for your whole catalog, can feel like an indignity. Like most musicians, I don’t think that my music should fit, snugly, into a single category. “Get over yourself, quit acting special, and pick a genre,” the how-to-succeed-in-the-music-industry experts oh-so-professionally advise.
Lately I lean towards the broad category of “rock” (or “rock n’ roll”), choosing “garage”, “psychedelic”, or “swamp” as possible sub-genres, depending on the song or the album or my mood at any given moment. With past bands, I’d find myself waffling between two equally unsatisfactory options: “alternative” and “punk.” Sometimes “alternative” and “punk” are offered sub-categories of “rock”; other times they stand next to “rock” as separate genres. The independent artist has to work with the choices offered, and those choices vary wildly from website to website.
CD baby, the company which currently handles my digital distribution, has a genre called “metal/punk”. “Metal/Punk” is not a sub-category of “rock”; it stands alone. And it is not a single genre that mixes punk and metal; it’s just that whoever designed the CD Baby database didn’t think punk and metal were so different as to require separate categories.
How times change.
Indie? Pop? Rock? Metal? Punk?
I find the process of genre selection endlessly frustrating as it repeats itself through CD Baby, MySpace (never again), Soundcloud, and whatever will the next DIY distribution site d’jour. Options vary widely, but inevitably, the categories are too broad, or too narrow, or too confusing, or too new, or too dated, to weird, or not descriptive enough. To what, exactly, is ‘alternative’ alternative? Does ‘punk’ describe the conditions under which the music is made and distributed, or does it describe a musical community, or does it describe a type of sound?
To make matters worse, the definitions of many genres seem to differ from region to region and to change over time. Once upon a time, indie meant independent. Today ‘indie’ describes a musical aesthetic, a sound. As I recall, this is the same thing that happened with the word alternative. Pop, too, is derived from the term “popular music” but now seems to be a genre of its own. Things get more specific, and at the same time more confusing, when two genres are mashed together. How, exactly, is “psychedelic pop” different from “psychedelic rock”? And if that isn’t confusing enough, let’s attach prefixes like post-, pre- and proto- onto some the genres, or create genres tied to specific nations or cultures, like Krautrock, or J-Rock. At CD Baby, I always wondered why they had rock sub-genres called, for example “50s rock”, “60s rock”, and so on, up through “90s rock” (psst, CD Baby? The 90s were 13 years ago now). This music isn’t necessarily from the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc; it just has to have some kind of real or imagined similarity or relationship to rock music made during those decades, and assumes that any particular decade had a distinct identifiable ‘rock’ sound.
Genre labels, in all their big confusing mishmash, are ubiquitous in the modern music landscape.There are few if any objective criteria for defining any genre. We aren’t talking about the difference between a sonnet and a sestina, the difference between eight-bar blues and 12-bar blues, or even about the difference between ballet and modern dance. Rock may have begun as an amplified blues, but it’s become a much broader concept today — so broad, in fact, I’m not sure where it begins or ends. And punk started out as an approach to music and life, but somewhere along the line morphed into a specific style of music featuring loud distorted guitars playing eighth note power chords against aggressive vocals.
And I’m just supposed to accept all this and go with the flow?
Music is for uniting, genre is for dividing
Musical genre is useful for drawing lines between “us” and “them”. It may be useful for marketing, for criticism, for academic discourse, and for database sorting, but to define music by genre really does a disservice to those artists who strive for originality. The creative process is largely about joining together disparate influences and adding your own twist to the mix. Saxophonist Art Pepper claimed to see no distinction between classical and jazz music. Blondie moved from the New York punk scene into the pop market where they released rap and reggae-influenced hits. Songwriter Jan Terri veers from country to pop to rock and even “country rap” within a single album.
Should Green River have been forced to chose between ‘punk’, ‘metal’, ‘alternative’ or ‘grunge’ on a drop down menu? Should Matisse have been forced to tick a box reading ‘fauvist’?
Pages: 1 2
This entry was posted on Monday, January 23rd, 2012 at 3:23 pm. It is filed under Erika Meyer and tagged with blues, CD baby, Disney, Erika Meyer, Green River, Howlin' Wolf, indie, iTunes, Jan Terri, Jimi Hendrix, Metal, music genres, MySpace, pop, punk, rock, Soundcloud, The Rolling Stones. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
We are Collapse Board. We have no fancy slogans or marketing speak. We love music, and we want to express that love, share that love, communicate that love in whatever way we can – through words, through visuals, through informed discussion and argument, through passion.