About a year ago, I wrote a post on this blog exploring the meanings and nuances embedded within musical genres and categorizations. After discussing examples of variations and debates concerning different types of music and the meanings people attach to musical forms, I closed the piece by asking what analyses of genre creation, maintenance and change might reveal about social interactions, society, and popular music.
As a result, I was rather intrigued when a few friends this week alerted me to a blog post about a recently published study examining genre usage and structuring via musical profiles and interactions on a social media site. Rather than a monolithic structuring of musical tastes and categorizations, the authors found musical tastes and genres structured in forms of multiple, interlocking components that effectively revealed multiple – rather than a monolithic – musical worlds experienced by site users and marketed by musicians. Specifically, they noted the existence of three overarching genres or categories (i.e., Rock, Hip Hop, and Niche genres) that were composed by a wide variety of sometimes distinct, sometimes interconnected subgenres (i.e., rap metal, country rock, etc.). Further, they noted how the overarching categories took varied shapes and dimensions within and in relation to the diversity of subgenres and interconnections between genres.
Similar to some of the anecdotal and observational examples I noted in the blog post last year, their analyses suggests genres – or other musical classifications – are both more and less relevant to the experience of contemporary music than in the past. In the former case, genres continue to provide a broad structure for musical taste, communication, and interaction often utilized by industry insiders, marketing teams, and musicians seeking to gain entrance into given fields. In the latter case, however, genres rely heavily upon the interpretation of listeners, have less influence in an age where consumers are more likely to utilize social networking and other technology than to rely on industry insiders for musical selections, and have become so specialized as to create both more distinct and more interrelated characteristics or definitions for what constitutes membership in a specific musical category. As the authors note, genres now offer an example of both symbolic boundary differentiation and the ways contemporary interactions and technological use may blur or otherwise lessen the importance of such boundaries in practice.
I was thinking about this article and genres more broadly as I looked through the bins at a few local record stores over the past week. As I picked through the stacks of records, I found myself noticing another way genres may be both relevant and irrelevant in different spaces, communities, and contexts. In the first store I went into that day, for example, there are no genres, but rather everything in the store is simply categorized alphabetically. As a result, one may flip through records of 10 different genres in one bin simply because the artist names fit together in an alphabetical scheme. For shoppers in this store, genre distinctions or concerns disappear because they serve no function in locating music. In the second and third stores I visited that day, however, genres play a powerful role in the structuring of music. Both of these stores organize their musical selections in relation to genres (i.e., rap, soul, rock, punk, etc.), but even in this case, many of the same records are sorted into different genres in one store versus the other. One may find a record in the pop section of the first store only to find it in the rock or soul section instead in the second store. Similar to the findings in the article noted above, even when genres structure musical organization, variation may arise as a result of the different ways a given piece of music may be interpreted in relation to overall categories and / or sub categories within the broader musical worlds of the organizer.
All these observations lead me back to the way I finished the post a year ago. What might be learned from systematic study of musical classifications, genres, and interpretations? What insights might we gain about music, society, listeners, musicians, and broader arts markets and industries? If the recent article noted above is any clue, there may be much useful information weighting to be unpacked through such studies.