The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Monday, May 12, 2014

Is putting music into categories really bad?

Any sane human being knows that music is divided into categories. Some of the music may be in a gray zone, be a fusion of different genres,  or in a new but recognizable classification, but the fact is music does come in categories.

The main thing to realize is that categories isn't the same thing as taste.

When you hear an artist say that his or her music doesn't fit in a category, what they're really saying is: I want my music to be heard by as large number of people as possible for maximum sales potential.

Or else, they want to sell to that cult audience that wants to buy music that "doesn't fit in any category."

The fact is organizing music in the categories isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It's a good way to start investigating music if you're a novice, and useful if you're a fan of a particular genre.

Also, if a style of is in vogue, then more than a few bands will change their clothes and hairstyle to take advantage of the latest Beany Baby style enthusiasm for the latest hit sound.

There are, of course, artists whose work isn't easy to fit into a category. Those are the geniuses, a type of artist that only comes around every so often, even if the music industry would have you believe that the actual percentage is 99%.

...but back to catagories,

A good example would be if you wanted to buy a shirt. If you walk into a department store, do you want the shirts scattered among pants, dresses, hats, and power tools?

Of course not. You want them in a shirt section, so you can see the entire selection and make your choice.

People who want to buy classical music would probably prefer to not hear the Dead Kennedys or rap music mixed in with the musical samples on a music site. Even if it might possibly do them some good to do so.

One reason categories have such a bad name in music is that people who will only listen to one genre always have a small but vocal minority that are musical snobs about it.

This tendency for overly vocal and snobby fans of a particular musical style to think it's a superior form of music, or even worse, makes you cooler, is probably one reason why jazz rarely makes it to the mainstream music music charts.

When you think about it, jazz should be one of the most popular forms of music on earth. Even though the theory behind the music is often complicated, the actual sound of at least 80% of it is very pleasant to the ear.

In fact for most of it's history it was popular music, particularly in the 20s and throughout the big band era.

The ironic thing is that the one place in the 60s and 70s where jazz could be a true hit was on the much maligned by hipsters AM radio, where Louis Armstrong could have a number one with the Beatles coming in second (that hit being "Hello Dolly") and even a country song from Buck Owens could enter the mainstream taste.  

AM radio is also where more than a few teens first heard rock for that matter.

Early FM radio gave us a glimpse of what eclectic music programming could be, but that changed within a decade once it became a big business and selling commercials became important and no less subject to payola.

Now, when I say categories are important, I only mean for the purpose of organizing the mass of music at the consumer has to navigate in order to find what they want in the digital world.

The idea of categories and genres only became a bad word because of the perception that popular taste is always bad. The proof tends to focus on this or that artist, like Lady Gaga, but other groups like REM sold millions of records too.

In other words, groups often didn't mind being in a category, they just didn't want to be put in the wrong category like pop music.

In the 70s and 80s the music industry tended to push genres and popular music because the emphasis was on selling music in mass with expensive CDs. Which was a carryover from the 60s and 70s, when for some hip reason, albums became the most important music unit, much to the delight of the big labels.

The music industry wants you to think of categories in terms of taste. Otherwise it be difficult to get you to buy a jazz, alternative or pop album with maybe three or four good songs on it and often a bunch of filler cuts at a premium price. 

Like I've said in earlier blogs, that era was an exception. Your average music consumer tends to have preferences but will often buy songs from another genre if they like the sound. That's why singles were predominant before the LP, and in the digital world after the CD.

People like songs, and units like CDs or LPs force people to pick genres and especially limit exploring new music. I think if you look at the majority of people's iPods or MP3 players, there'll be a surprisingly wide variety of music on it for the simple reason that people can buy what they want in terms of songs (and hear a sample first) and not be forced to buy a 16 song album where they may have only heard the promo single for it.

Subcategories and labels aren't bad, as long as it doesn't dictate your taste in music.

And when you think about it, so what if it does, no big deal. After all, it's your money, and buying what you want is rapidly becoming one of the few true freedoms you still have.