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This week sees the launch of Spotify Wrapped – where users of the streaming service find out the songs that have dominated their listening habits for the past year.
The annual marketing campaign not only reflects a subscriber’s music consumption, it also highlights the sheer number of musical styles that make up the site’s catalogue.
From Goths to punk rockers, genre can imply a lifestyle as well as a way of simply categorising music. However, in the digital age, around 100,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day, and they’re sorted into one of more than 6,000 genre classifications.
Hundreds have been added in the last year alone, from Dream Plugg (a spaced-out brand of hip-hop) to Zomi Pop (a fusion of Mayanmar’s traditional Zomi music and Western pop).
So how has this increasingly diverse landscape impacted the sub-cultures that organise themselves around music?
“Genre is a kind of virtual community – even before the online age, right?” US journalist and music critic Kelefa Sanneh tells the BBC.
“It provided a sense that there were others out there listening to the same records as you, or making the same kind of music, even before the internet.”
Sanneh, who wrote Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, says genre was also beneficial for companies, who could use it as a marketing tool.
“It’s been helpful for radio stations to be known for playing specific kinds of music and genres, for example. That way, listeners can pledge their loyalty not only to the genre but also to the station.”
But that laser-focused approach creates bunkers of fans – and musicians – who never explore beyond the borders of their favourite genre.
One person who’s rejected those boundaries is Murkage Dave, an artist from East London who’s been praised for “fusing together different genres to create his stand-out sound”.
Growing up, he became a fan of UK garage, his tastes dictated by the pirate radio stations he could pick up. Now, he feels those limitations have disappeared.
“My introduction to new music was down to the part of London that I grew up in, the school I attended, the barbers and the parties I went to,” he told the BBC.
“Whereas now, because everything just comes through your phone – there’s no barrier to being into a scene.”
He believes genre represents a lot less than it did before the streaming era. For most listeners, he says, it’s become almost “irrelevant”.
“Today, I feel like the infrastructure of the music industry cares a lot more about genre than the fans.”
‘Old communities still matter’
Listening to music remains a social experience but Sanneh says tribalism is dwindling compared to the pre-internet days. Back then, music was relatively scarce and expensive, encouraging fans to coalesce around a scene.
However, he says the celebrations around the 50th anniversary of hip-hop prove that genre is still useful for charting the development of a sound.
“In the US, you’ve seen debates over country music, the political identity of country music and who gets to decide the rules of country music – and so that’s another way in which even now, sometimes these old categories, these old communities, still matter.”
Nathaniel Cramp is the founder of the record label Sonic Cathedral, which focuses on shoegaze, a subgenre of indie and alternative rock. He feels that genre has become a very data-driven way of “compartmentalising music” in a digital world.
Cramp has also noticed a recent shift. Where artists used to hate being pigeonholed, now they do the pigeonholing themselves.
“In the past, genre was something that was applied to an artist’s music by external forces – be that the music press, or whoever – whereas now, you have to choose your genre yourself in order to describe and release music. That is a weird twist.”
Simultaneously, there’s been a rise of listeners who class themselves not as fans of a genre, but of a single act.
“We use music to express our individual identity, which means coming together at certain moments and breaking apart at others,” Sanneh says.
“You’re a Swifty, you’re fan of K-pop and part of the BTS army. You’re going to war for the Rihanna Navy, right? So there’s a whole community based on fandom of a single artist in a way that’s a kind of micro genre too.”
Sara Sesardic, an editorial lead at Spotify, says the company has had to adapt its strategy to shine a spotlight on what’s happening culturally around genre.
“What we’ve noticed, especially over the last few years, is that artists are becoming a lot more fluid with the kind of music they make, and that genre, too, is becoming more fluid,” she tells the BBC.
“It’s more about building those communities around artists as opposed to fitting them within a stereotype of only being pop, or only being indie, or only being dance, or something like that.”
Genre remains a key part of how the streaming service recommends music to its users, as well as making it easier to search for tracks, but it’s just one factor Spotify considers, both algorithmically and editorially, when it attempts to match a listener with the right track, at the right time.
“Audiences are becoming more open to listening, experiencing and enjoying different types of genre, and different types of music,” says Sesardic.
“There are artists who would struggle to fit in playlists that we had for genres, but actually they’re creating a new sound that has already engaged with fans. so, we need to create a home for that. We’re constantly reacting so our users get the best experience.”
Murkage Dave also feels there’s crossover – fans of his music are also into The 1975, he says – but finds the industry is often hesitant to class his music as pop because he “doesn’t look how a pop artist looks like in their heads”. (Streaming services often incorrectly classify him as “UK alternative hip-hop”).
In this ever-changing musical era, total accuracy can be a challenge. On occasions, his songs have been miscategorised by algorithms or on editorially-curated playlists, and believes that has been damaging for him as an artist.
“I’ll be in some kind of grime mix and I’ve never made a grime record in my life,” he says.
“Somehow, I’m the face of this algorithmic grime mix [and] it kind of holds me back. You’re not going to find fans of my music there.”
US musician and visual artist Joanna Sternberg, takes a similarly genre-agnostic approach to music. For them, the listener’s interpretation is more important than anything else when it comes to categorising their music.
“I know jazz musicians who only listen to jazz, they only like jazz and they’re not interested in checking anything else out – I’m sometimes envious of that just because they get to focus so much on one thing, but I’m definitely not that way at all.
“I definitely want to cater to the listener [rather than streaming services] in the sense that if they decide my music is a certain genre, and they want it to be that, I won’t fight them on it.”
Bronx drill, ambient lo-fi and gym phonk were some of the fastest growing genres on Spotify in 2023. As these micro-categories become increasingly specific, Sanneh says the concept of genre could cease to exist in the streaming era, but communities will continue to matter.
From an artist’s perspective, Murkage Dave – who likens genres to cake ingredients that can combine to form something new – hopes he remains unrestrained by genre.
“Personally, I would like to get to a place where I’m just taken on the merit of the work that I do, rather than every time I have a meeting with someone on the business side of things they’re saying. ‘What box can we put this in?’
“I find that can be demoralising at times.”
Streaming services certainly aren’t going anywhere, and neither are personalised playlists tailored to each individual user. For that reason, the number of micro-genres will likely only increase as streamers continue to build ever-more-accurate algorithms.
Perhaps the biggest shift is the move away from genre in favour of recommendations based on mood or the time of day. As the lines between traditional music genres have blurred, they no longer define a listener’s taste quite like they did pre-streaming era.