By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

In a recent article for the New York Times, technology columnist Farhad Manjoo suggests that if music streaming services like Spotify have their way, we might all be thinking of genres a lot differently.

Manjoo tells the story of his own children who recently discovered the joy of Simon and Garfunkel through the fluid act of streaming, much like they did Maroon 5 and Michael Jackson before that. In their latest incarnation, the streaming service is betting on a move away from traditional genre labels as the driving force in making us all custom playlists and instead using activities or oddly specific feelings like “Epic Uplifting Sunrise.”

“According to executives at Spotify, my children offer a peek at the future of music consumption,” Manjoo writes. “Spotify, which has just introduced a new version of its app, says that because online streaming services let us call up and listen to anything we like, and because its curated playlists push us toward new stuff, we are all increasingly escaping rigid genres.”

As a rule, genre names are often coined and beloved by music journalists looking for a way to make sense of a torrent of new music, useful for fans trying to find new artists or communicate their musical tastes as a social indicator, and loathed by musicians who often insist upon questioning that “it’s just music, man.”

Modern genre labels were in large part a product of marketing by record companies trying to categorize recordings for consumers. In the early 1920s, titles like “race” or “hillbilly” records (later renamed “rhythm and blues” and “country and western,” respectfully) were created by companies to describe music styles outside of classical concert halls and Tin Pan Alley that much of the country might not have encountered. Even at that stage, musicians were often pigeonholed by the labels as someone like legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson, an itinerant musician who could play in a number of styles including pop and “hillbilly,” was only recorded playing delta blues.

So if streaming services — which in some ways have replaced record stores and companies as the primary distributors and marketers — see merit in leaving traditional genre labels behind, it could be a significant change.

For classical music, could that change signal easier discovery? Maybe. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that a customized playlist for “Moody, Contemplative Evening” could slip in a rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata after Radiohead’s “Karma Police” to see how you react. Streaming services look at many factors beyond genre. For example Pandora’s Music Genome project uses 450 pieces of musical criteria that use more qualitative and character traits of a song rather than relying on taxonomical labels.

More importantly, a change in the way music fans, commentators and publishers think about the concept of genre might offer a chance to break up the awkward umbrella term of “classical music.” There are several issues with that genre label. For starters there is the big C/little c problem where “Classical” refers to the Classical period of music from 1750 to 1820, and “classical” somehow means four centuries and counting of what musicologists call “western fine art music.” Those musicologists would also point out that the term genre for them is more descriptive of the form of a piece like symphony, overture or art song.

But beyond technical confusion, there is the issue of oversimplification. If someone hears a Bach cantata and don’t like it, then they might be wrongly convinced that they don’t like classical music as a whole. As a catchall, it fails to convey the vastness of musical thought and variety of creative energies. As a title, it carries the heft of a weighty tome placed before a new listener who must study for hours rather than trust their gut, emotional response to a piece that might captivate them.

As critic Alex Ross wrote about the term, “It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. … The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype.”

For living composers, music writers have invented new, specific subgenres in the classical world — though those are often unappreciated by the composers labeled with them. Philip Glass has a famous disdain for the term “minimalism,” and Nico Muhly recently dismissed the term “indie-classical” given to he and his peers.

Despite what Spotify may try, genre names are unlikely to go away, and that’s not entirely bad. If music were a city, a genre name is like a zip code that can help guide listeners to a particular neighborhood to find a new artist they’d like. But what streaming services have realized is that there are back roads connecting those neighborhoods, and there might be things we don’t know we like outside of imaginary lines on that map.

Perhaps we could all be well served to occasionally think of music in terms of “Epic Uplifting Sunrise” instead of just “rock,” “country” or “classical.” After all, it’s just music, man.