What kind of music are you in to?
That's a common question that at one time told us a lot about you – as a person, as a radio listener, and as a music lover.
But more and more, the silos and walls have been eroding, making it difficult if not impossible to categorize consumers – or should we just refer to them as people – by the genre of music they listen to?
Back in the '70s and '80s, when format radio perhaps enjoyed its most success, the industry reveled in labels. They provided the maps for how radio stations were programmed, the trades were structured to keep track of “adds and drops,” and how record labels were structured to be able to sign, release, and market artists. Conventions had format rooms (in public radio, they still do). Genres provided a common language so programmers and salespeople could communicate with one another.
And it worked…mostly. Most listeners self-categorized, placing themselves conveniently in industry cubbyholes. “I'm a rocker,” “I'm into country,” “I love soft rock,” “I'm a smooth jazz fan.” More often than not, radio listeners parroted back these same labels.
But all the while, there was an underlying feeling this categorization of music genres was too simple, and not nuanced enough for many people. Some refused to be put into those convenient format boxes. A few claimed to have “eclectic tastes,”undescribable by a single genre – or even two.
In radio, we love our formats They make up the structure that makes it possible to have constructive conversations about music, audience tastes, and trends. In the case of country, the genre has its own annual conference, the Country Radio Seminar. How's that for looking at a relatively narrow window of taste?
But there are artists like Jelly Roll, Yelawolf, or the Zac Brown Band who defy characterization. Where do they fit exactly – a topic of much debate. To that point, I ran across a website called Country Rap Insider to address the dilemma of “Who's In? Who's Out?” These guys have even created established guidelines.
Absurd? Who thinks like this?
I'm not saying this website represents anyone, but it is this type of defined thinking that defies the emotions of how many people think about the music they love.
And to some degree or another, it's the same way in every format. As programmers, we make judgments as to who is/who isn't “Classic Rock.” They either are added to stations or they aren't. And while some research companies test “fit” on established market stations, the process of designating an artist as “Classic – or not?” is subjective, clunky, and often frustrating for fans.
When did the traditional lines between formats and genres start to get blurry? I trace it back to the proliferation of the Apple iPod just over two decades ago, a device that allowed consumers to structure their own music. It was not the first mp3 player, but it was the most elegant and workmanlike. Features like listening to playlists on “shuffle” allowed us to jumble and mix up the music even more, creating an even greater sense of variety and “oh wow.”
“Train wrecks” became standard, even desirable, as Dolly Parton would live next to Insane Clown Posse, Weird Al Yankovic,, and Jon Batiste. More and more, consumers heard their “guilty pleasures” on their iPods, making for an even more enjoyable experience. (And we still don't know if Dolly remains a country artist, now that she's crossed over to rock.)
The other sweeping effect of the iPod was its ability to obliterate time. That is, it doesn't really matter whether a song came out last week, last year, or in 1973. If it's on a playlist, what's old is new – if you've never heard it before, it's new to you – even if it was first released in the Carter Administration.
Personal playlists, first on iPods, and now standard equipment on digital streaming platforms have allowed eras to cross, blend, and mix. And yet in radio, we continue to “era code,” often using lines of demarcation (like “decades”) that only make sense to those of us building the architecture behind these systems. To listeners, whether “Another Brick In The Wall” is a '70s or an '80s song is irrelevant. (It was released in December 1979.)
You'd think Spotify would be well ahead of the curve, especially when it comes to genre bending. While they still can't figure out a way to turn a profit, it still makes sense for them to encourage users to listen to as many different sounds, styles, and genres as possible. (It was announced as this post published, Spotify is laying off another 1,500 employees – or 17% of its workforce – its third round of cuts this year. CEO Daniel Ek predicted the company would be profitable in 2024.)
When they send us our “Spotify Wrapped” annual summaries, we learn about our most-listened-to “genre” during the past year. And yet, many people not only don't like to be labeled – they believe their diverse tastes defy categorization into a single category. A friend sent me her “Spotify Wrapped” video. And as she said to me in frustration, “There's more to me and my eclectic tastes than just being labeled ‘Pop.'” (I added the green circle on the graphic below.)
Last week, BBC News took the popular DSP on with a story aptly titled:
Reporter Christian Brooks takes the reader on a tour of Spotify's spotty way of categorizing music, noting they now use more than 6,000 genre classifications. (You can peruse the most popular of the bunch here.)
It's a provocative story you'll find interesting, if you have feelings about the way music is coded, sliced, and diced – now by the biggest streaming service of them all.
A few of the high points and some thoughtful quotes:
- Many fans eschew genre in favor of being core fans of an artist or group – Swifties, the BTS Army, and other artists.
- Murkage Dave, an East London artist: “Today, I feel like the infrastructure of the music industry cares a lot more about genre than the fans.”
- US journalist/music critic Kelefa Sanneh: “(Genre has) 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 to the station.”
- Nathaniel Cramp, founder of record label Sonic Cathedral, specializing in “shoegaze,” a musical sub-genre: “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.”
- US musician Joanna Sternberg: “Defining music is complicated.”
But the last word goes to Murkage Dave who cogently expresses the frustration artists themselves feel over being pigeon-holed:
“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 demoralizing at times.”
Too often, we need a genre reference point in order to have a dialogue. I vividly recall frustrating meetings with the sales teams at stations we had just flipped to the “all new Classic Rock format.”
After I described the philosophy, the core artists, the audience, and the station's style, inevitably a rep would ask, “But what other format is it like?” meaning they could only process this new kind of station by associating it with an existing format.
As much as I pushed back – “It doesn't sound like anything else! That's the point” – the meeting still devolved into wishful thinking I could somehow jam Classic Rock into a familiar box so they could package and price it.
In even more profound ways, this is how many artists see the “invisible fence” labels, radio people, and DSP's like Spotify erect in order to keep a genre pure while pushing anything that may be outside the boundary lines out.
That's why I was surprised while listening to SiriusXM the other day, and heard John Mayer voice a promo for his new channel called “LIFE.” At a very accessible Channel 14 in their lineup, it is bound to get sampled.
Marketed as “The channel that changes with you,” Mayer stresses that the new genres in our lives aren't labels like “pop” or “Americana” – but instead, songs we love hearing on a rainy day or ones we remember from junior high school.
In many way, the premise behind this genre-busting channel is emblematic of Mayer's own career, cutting across conventional boundary lines that include deep dives into pop, rock, blues, and the Grateful Dead. In many ways, his career defies categorization, which is precisely his point.
Here's his “take” on a channel where Mayer himself will curate the music:
“I've had a dream over the last several years to create a dynamic, real-time music channel that focuses less on genre and more on our changing emotional states throughout the days and weeks. I look forward to creating and fostering a sense of community through this channel, and shining a light on what music does best – providing the soundtrack to our lives.”
If anything, SiriusXM is one of the most genre-driven music services available to consumers. With exceptions like “Little Steven's Underground Garage” or “Spectrum,” most of their channels are fairly narrow in their music selections.
It will be fascinating to chart Mayer's progress with this channel. Not being rated, of course, has its benefits. But SXM will no doubt watch the listening metrics carefully on this one.
Radio that matches an attitude, a feel, a moment, a vibe is actually in-line with how some auto companies envision their infotainment systems. Some are employing additional cameras, trained on the driver, rather than on the road ahead. This technology uses AI to assess the state of mind of the person behind the wheel, and deliver music programming to match – or counter – that mood. If you're stressed, the system will attempt to deliver relaxing, calming music. If you're pumped up about that sports event you're headed to, you'll hear adrenalin-pumping songs.
The simulator Paul is “test driving” at CES a couple years back uses a “mood watch” to track his emotions (pictured).
Those of us who program music radio may be thinking about an entire new set of criteria in order to satisfy a changing audience before long. Rather than concentrating on “The '90s to Now” or “Today's Best Country,” our challenge may be to help listeners better feel what they're listening to.
Will a breakdown of genre silos change the way we approach programming FM radio moving forward? Does AI technology provide insights into mood and mindset?
Or will we be simply continue playing rock and AC hits, adhering to our formats?
P.S. Sometimes you get an omen you should take a certain action. While writing this post over the weekend, I logged onto The New York Times to play “Wordle.”
Here's how it worked out. Suffice it to say, I felt better about this post.