The Illusion Of ‘Genre’

John Goldsby just tweeted a link to this article from the Wall Street Journal. It’s all about the falling audiences for jazz. A whole load of demographic stuff about who’s going to see jazz, and who now isn’t going to see jazz.

The problem with this is that any artist worth a listen doesn’t do ‘jazz gigs’. They play their own unique music. They play ‘John Goldsby music’, or ‘Miles Davis music’ or ‘Pat Metheny music’ or indeed ‘Steve Lawson music.

The ‘style’ might be jazz, but the intention, ideas and the 20/30/40/50 years of life experience that lead them to make the music they make are unrepeatable.

Thinking of what you do within the continuum of success or failure within a style is a sure way to alienate yourself from your audience. Whether or not there are people in my audience that have heard another solo bassist before, at that moment they are listening to me, means nothing. I happen to be on stage with a bass and some toys, but that’s where the ‘solo bass demographic’ should end. These are people who for whatever reason have connected with me and my music, and chosen to come and hear it.

Before they’ve heard me, I want to make a compelling case for checking out what I do, and make it findable wherever people who are likely to be interested hang out online.

I’m not looking for a ‘solo bass’ audience, or an ‘electronica’ audience, or a ‘new age’ audience. I want to be part of a process of letting people discover the story in music over and above the labels that we put on it. That requires a whole load of context.

What’s the one category of music that transcends everyone’s usual listening habits and leads to Coldplay fans buy orchestral albums, or blues albums, or medieval music? Film soundtracks! Soundtrack albums work outside of people’s usual self-defined genre preferences because they MEAN something. They have a reason for existing over and above the various weird psychological reasons for people wanting to listen to music that’s already popular in order to fit in.

A lot of film soundtrack albums are mostly instrumental, with a gateway-drug-vocal-track thrown in to entice people to buy it. Often the vocal track is the one that messes things up, thematically. No matter, at least people’s horizons are being expanded.

I don’t play jazz or electronica, or ambient music, or solo bass music, or whatever. I play Steve Lawson music. It may be taggable as those things – I don’t mind at all fitting into people’s categories – but it’s not what makes my music good – or not-good – that’s all about me saying what I have to say through whatever musical medium I choose to work in.

Look at the output of just about any artist that has lasted more than 15 or so years – Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Paul Simon, Tom Waits… even U2 – their music changes, evolves, sometimes isn’t even remotely definable as the same genre from one album to the next (especially in the case of someone like Metheny or Frisell) but the continuity is their vision, their voice, their intention.

I don’t love Bill Frisell’s music cos I’m a jazz fan, I love it cos I’m a Bill Frisell fan. When he stops playing jazz and starts playing country, the question of ‘is it jazz?’ is far less interesting than ‘is it good?’ or ‘does it connect with me?’ – it doesn’t have to: it’s OK to only like some of what someone does, to only connect with parts of an artist’s musical journey. But the value – and the potential audience – is a long way away from demographic surveys about how successful jazz or folk or metal or country are right now.

Connect. One potential audience member at a time, and make the resources available for those people to go and tell the story of what your music means to them. And you get on with making the music you can’t not make.

Question: Who are the artists you listen to that are most remote from the ‘usual stuff you listen to’, and how did you find them?

24 Replies to “The Illusion Of ‘Genre’”

  1. I’m not one to dig the genrification of music, but that’s something that all artists have to deal with. The question of what we do MUST be answered succinctly if we are to attract the booking agents and new audience we all want. And while I think Sivers is right about hooking them in, that only works with some of the people some of the time. Sometimes we have to cave in and just give someone an answer they can wrap their minds around, even if it’s only partially true.

    But in the internet age, I think what you said in a previous post about presenting yourself as an interesting person and letting that be the entre’ into your music is spot on. With blogs and Twitter and such it seems to me that the new model is to just talk to people, be yourself, and hopefully be interesting enough that folks will want to know more about what you do. As someone who thinks he is at least mildly interesting I love this new model!

    Love the blog…keep it up!

  2. C’mon Steve, don’t you know it’s a lot easier to SELL music by the bucket? 🙂

    I couldn’t agree more. Just last week I was talking with someone about an artist who’s name escapes me, but they were saying how they stopped following and listening to them as they didn’t like the direction they took. I personally don’t subscribe to this philosophy so I was probing them to learn more. In short, they were more interested in the songs than the artist who created them. Now I know how Bruce Springsteen felt after Born in the USA.

    Maybe its my roots in college radio, but I can’t say I have stopped following an artist, and have enjoyed their journeys into other genres or in collaborations, or whatever they came up with based on a drunken night in some far-off land!

    Genres should be like a word that sounds like them – guidelines. And of course you can have all kinds of niches – I remember the first time I went to Virgin Music in Paris, where I saw so many freaking genres I didn’t know where to start.

    Speaking of soundtracks, a movie director who used them well was John Hughes, who passed away last week. When I think of him I think more of the music from his films than the teen angst, maybe because I was a teen when his movies came out. One in particular, the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, is one of my favorites, now 20 years later.


  3. Can I both agree and disagree? Genre definitely has a place in helping me navigate new music: I like to go to live gigs, and I also like experimenting – seeing people I haven’t necessarily seen (or heard) before. Knowing how others describe someone’s music helps me decide whether or not to go to a particular gig; knowing that a venue has a reputation for one style or another helps, too.

    The difficulty with genre is that it is limiting – the examples you give of Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell work well (and had the advantage of getting me to put some Frisell on! Many thanks!!!). Knowing that Courtney Pine has different bands playing different styles means that I have stopped going to see him play live, unless I know which version of Pine I’ll be seeing (one I love, one I hate). This is of course my problem, not Courtney’s – he’s just making the music he wants to.

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