In our continued specification, endless subdivision, and constant bickering about genre, we are idolizing the products of past processes.
We are worshipping at the wrong altar.
Genre began as description of creative process. It is useful as a description of the context, influences, and technology of an artist and their peers. It was never intended to describe a specific sound, style, vibe, or taste. These are after the fact.
Orchestral music is defined by the orchestra. Chamber music by a smaller group of specific strings. Big Band jazz consists of a big band, often with identical to little variation in instrumentation. The music produced by these bands ranged widely. In single sets, they’d move from what we’d now term Bossa Nova, to Swing, to Waltz. These are styles - musical terminology - describing particular sets of rhythms, tempos, and structure. Yet the sound of these groups is all identifiably Big Band Jazz. Why? Because it was produced by the process of a Big Band - a particular set of instrumentation, led by a band leader that selects, arranges, and produces the music. If you want to find someone that sounds like Duke Ellington's Big Band, do you look through the list of everyone else that has made music with a heavy swing influence? No, you look for others with a similar process - you look for other Big Bands from the same era.
The electronic music pioneers of the 80s and 90s didn’t have a sound they sought to replicate. They had a set of influences from the history of musical culture, they had a set of technical equipment, they had a culture of musician, listeners, and events around them, and they had their own experiences and creative process. It’s now easy to look back and label a group of processes as the pioneers of Detroit Techno, to cite their influences, to state the musical elements in their styles, and to document their process. But to attempt to use the sound itself as a categorization and definition for the sounds of today is to confuse the product with the work itself.
Dystopian Science Fiction is a genre. It describes a process of thinking - what would the world be like given X set of principles advance N number of years taken Y context. To perform the same operation as The Echo Nest on this type of science fiction would be to say that a writer who writes a novel set in a desert in the future with speaking animals is pioneer of the genre Anthropomorphic Dystopian Desert Drama (ADDD?). This misses entirely the point of the work. Instead, what dysfunctions is the writer revealing about our society? How does their vision of the future reflect the trends in our culture? How do the interactions of the animals gives a window into particular social dynamics? The peers of this writer are not people imagining worlds that look similar, but those considering the same issues.
In seeking to classify modern genre, we have failed to recognize that ideas, perspective, and process are no longer tied to place, environment, or background. In the New Yorker's piece arguing that genre is disappearing, they correctly call attention to the racist, classist, and institutional systems that distill an "Urban" artist's output to Rap regardless of their creative process and its current context. Yet it fails to point a direction forward. As our communities have become increasingly international and interconnected, the old genre divisions that defined listener interest have indeed stopped being relevant. However this does not remove the opportunity for any organizing principle. It shifts the level of organization to that of global network, one of ideology, approach, and empathetic alignment rather than location, instrumentation, or even technology.
The work of making music (or any kind of art) doesn’t lie in the specific work. You don’t set out with the exact work in mind. Even artists with incredibly specific visions must ultimately sit down to their metaphorical desk and perform a set of actions they've identified and refined to produce the work. What comes out is a product of the process, a reflection of it, an Artifact. It is through our creative process that we bring the work into being, and it is this process that is the basis of genre.
In attempting to categorize the output, we are asking the wrong question. Instead, we must seek to understand the processes that produce them, their influences, their context, and their cohorts. I see a generation of musicians attempting to fit into little boxes, wracked with guilt and agony about the diversity of their output. I asset that their output is not diverse. Their processes are easily categorizable into a manageable set of influences, technology, scene, and cohort.
I have always looked to labels as the natural organization for this kind of post-genre categorization. According to our current conception, the output of a small independent label might be all over the map. Yet the processes of the artists within it are related by something shared, selector for, and nourished within the label. It's no accident that genre definitions from past eras often so closely follow groups of labels within interconnected scenes. Chances are that their processes grew from similar backgrounds, made use of similar equipment, and influenced each other directly.
In seeking to categorize music in moderns times, we must pull back from the idolatry of the specific sound of past processes. It may be relevant and interesting as a stylistic reference, yet there are more important questions.
What is your process? What does it rhyme with? Who thinks like you? Who creates like you? How is this influenced by your education, influences, equipment, personhood, community, and cohort? Look for your peers not in sound, but in approach; not in words, but in ideas; not in output, but in process.
This applies to marketing, distribution, and playlisting as well. Instead of "Sad piano music for driving in the rain" how about "Songs produced by former classical musicians on their laptops while they were traveling on tour." Instead of "High Energy Dark Techno Bangers," how about "Musicians that spent their formative years in NYC warehouse parties and now produce electronic music with mostly analog gear." Instead of "Mood Booster," how about "Music from profound moments in creators' personal lives." We don't want to hear a monotonous list of music that sounds the same, but we do crave narrative within our musical and emotional journeys. This is the way to approach definitions of genre - not via the sounds themselves, but in the stories they tell.
Genre is the narrative told through the creative process.
It's not about the listener. We don't need hyper specific playlists targeted to everyone's unique snowflake context. The record store clerk of the past existed as a genre to themselves, "Music loved by record store clerks who play bass on the side and are working on a novel." It's about the narratives that shape their lives.
Each creator in the modern world is the remixer of the processes that came before. When your output sounds like the product of another process, that does not make it of that era, of that process, of that genre. Your genre is an abstraction of your own process. Claim it. Find the others that work within similar spaces. Together you are already creating the genres that will become idolized in the future. Perhaps when that time comes, we can direct the next generation to look within and see their work is already its own.