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. Thanks for including me in your blog post—I’m in good company with Lawson, Metheny, Miles et al!

    Since I’ve been playing music professionally—and pretty successfully—for over 30 years, I do not pay much attention to the types of statistic-filled articles that Terry Teachout wrote. The nerd in me loves them . . . “Oh look, the jazz-fan demographic is getting older and smaller, plus they take a certain type of music more seriously now . . .”

    Musicians can’t really respond to those statistics in any practical way—we can’t just play slightly different music and have more people pay attention. We have to build an audience by playing the music we want to play really well. It can only be done by believing in what we play and then bringing that across to an audience—any audience, one set of ears at a time.

    Building an audience can’t really be done with marketing tricks (We’ll do a cross-over grunge-bebop project, and then they’ll love us). We also can not try to disguise what we do (We’ll call our music adult contemporary but then we’ll play Giant Steps with a bossa beat).

    I never thought about the soundtrack phenomena, but that is true. A great movie (or even a mediocre one) has a story already attached to the soundtrack music.

    As far as the type of music I play, I won’t change that, no matter who is or is not listening. I think of my music as “jazz,” but I do not think I appeal only to “jazz audiences.” I just play the music I play, and as you said—try to connect.

  2. Genres were useful to physical music shops, but are generally too broad. You usually have Rock/Pop with most of the music, but I have been in shops with a separate Goth section. Now we have sites like that don’t even know what genre people might call a particular artist, but they know what sets of artists people listen to and can infer relationships. So they do a pretty good job of suggesting artists you might like. has tagging, but I don’t really use that.

    Anyway, I don’t really think in genres and don’t even know what genre some artists I like might fall under. I just like their music.

    I’ve been listening to Paul Morley’s radio series on various genres, but he seems to end up including all sorts of bands as originators of a style. As a music journalist is he more likely to think in genres as a way to reach a specific reading audience?

  3. I’m not sure who’s the most remote from “the stuff I usually listen to”, but in my regular playist, the most difficult to pin down in terms of style, I’d say, is Faithless. Are they Ambient? Chill? Rap? Hip-hop? Acid Jazz? House? Reggae? All of the above? They tend to be called “club music”, but I find that the big club hits are my least favourite tracks on their albums.

    I must admit to discovering them through their track “Drifting away” which was used as background in a number of TV series, so yes, the meaningful story element comes into it.

  4. I read the article you mentioned earlier then saw you comment on it here. First, I totally agree with your point, but secondly, this guy has obviously never been to Austin.

    I spend 2 or 3 nights a week at the Elephant Room (an incredible jazz club) and it is packed from 9pm to 1am every night. The key? the majority of the audience I encounter every night is under 40. He needs to get out more. The younger crew are flocking to jazz right now in my town, and it’s never been better.

  5. Good post Steve – I’ve always found it a bit bizarre, the idea of genres.

    So many people I know start bands and go: “Oh, we’re an indie band.” Or more recently: “We’re emo-metal.” or whatever it is.

    And I just think: “Why?!?” Why try to slot yourself into a genre from the start? It’s so restricting, and all the stuff I like doesn’t really fall nicely into tidy genre slots. And many of these genres turn out to be passing fads anyway.

    The most succesful bands that I can think of have never really fit into a genre, or if they have, they’ve ridden a wave of a genre (usually given to them by some journos) for the sake of exposure, and disowned it pretty quickly afterwards for the sake of longevity.

  6. Stuff that’s most remote from what I usually listen to, would include Joanna Newsom, George Hrab, Kyle Gabler, Professor Kliq and Nina Simone. Originally untypical music in my collection would come from hearing artists on program’s like Later with Jules, but lately more has been through recommendation on the internet, via blogs, twitter posts or music from podiobooks and most recently through @MethodDan’s RatholeRadio podcast. Recommendation and try before you buy, however its delivered is for me more of primer to a music purchase (be it a recording or a live show) than the Genre.

  7. I’m not falling for this! A Blog about the pointlessness of Genres, then ask what my favorite outside genre is?

    Is it fair to refer to ‘jazz sensibilities’ when trying to explain a more improvisational approach to music? I find New Orleans funk to have that kind of interplay (when done right) but with more Groove emphasis than harmonic complexity.

  8. When I was growing up I would be appalled if anyone thought I liked something else than rock or any “classic” music made before I was born, and I think the most important place for genre outside the location in shops, its got to do with identity and culture. I hate defining my music as a genre, but end up with a long winded “its melodic, alternative, acoustic rock with (take a breath) blues influence”, but it’s probably in the pop/rock section somewhere comfortably between Damien Rice and Skunk Anansie..

    As a punter, favourites include Nina Simone and Pearl Jam, Kemopetrol and Counting Crows… Perhaps eclectic, but surely would have insulted my 16r old self with my current messing around with what I call “guilty pleasure songs” such as Ace of Base and Britney.. ;o)

  9. At some point someone’s going to quote Duke Ellington that there are only two kinds of music ( good and bad) and the Louis Armstrong one about all music being folk music (because he’s never heard a horse play any songs). Now I don’t want to go against the flow here, but genres exist because of the artistic endeavours they choose to focus upon. Trad folk has a very clear element which pays respect to hundreds of years of oral history, in some sense the songwriter is sublimated to that goal. Some knew of hop focus on integrity and keeping it real. You could argue that electronica is interested in sonic experimentation and that neither keeping it real nor preserving oral history are particularly on it’s agenda.

    Sure, you can mix and match, but the drive of a genre is partly what makes it interesting. And if you’re not interested in what’s being shot for, you won’t be interested in the end result. Finally, I’m reminded of that Derek Sivers thing about describing your music. If a business contacted you saying “we do this great service, can’t tell you what it is, it’s totally unique, but if you drive to the edge of town on Thursday at 9 pm, I’ll show you”, you’d hang up (and then call the police). My saying “I do Martin Austwick music” will be greeted by the sound of a thousand slammed receivers…

  10. Your comments about soundtracks made me smile because the album I keep returning to that is pretty far away from my normal playlist is the soundtrack from Bladerunner. Technically I’m astounded that he can make synths sound so organic and rich. Emotionally it transcends the film it was written for and listening to it is like an out of body experience. I certainly don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiam but there is plenty of music to go round! This album just happens to push my buttons. I bought it a number of years after seeing the film based on a glowing review. Now that I think of it, I also bought the Cry Freedom soundtrack on vinyl from eBay (yes, I remeber vinyl and still have a record player…) for one song – the funeral scene. Makes my hairs stand on end just thinking about it.

  11. ha! I’m not saying Genres are pointless – just that to lock yourself into the fortunes of a particular genre and its generic audience is to deny the unique quality that your own musical expression has, regardless of the stylistic parameters you choose to work in.

    I think stylistic considerations can prove very useful for both artist and audience, they just aren’t a defining feature in whether or not you’ll be a) any good b) a success or c) find fans who like other people in that same style.

    For example, I LOVE ‘Machinations Of Dementia’ by Blotted Science – truly awesome record. Am I a fan of instrumental technical death metal? Not really. I just love that record, the writing the playing, the sound… the style is almost irrelevant to what I like about it. Looking for other music by those musicians would be a far more fruitful journey for me than music in that style. Probably even asking those musicians what their favourite music is would be more useful. Which is why it’s handy that I can quiz Alex Webster – aka @alexcannibal – about making the album 🙂

    Genre and style classifications have use… but there shouldn’t be any need for a kind of fatalistic attachment to the fortunes of other artists in your chosen style, unless you’re trying to second guess taste, which as John Goldsby comments above, is a damn foo’ thing to do 😉

  12. Martin, good points – as I said to Kennan, I’m not saying genre classifications don’t have any value, just that they are not a measure of the value of what you do. Your music has to be bigger than the style of music that you CHOOSE to work in. Stylistic constraints can be really useful, both for your own creative path and for the continuity of a project – we mentally attach images and feelings to particular styles of music (imagine re-soundtracking Paris, Texas with Daft Punk instead of Ry Cooder 🙂 ) – that’s why I brought up the film soundtrack element. Films USE musical style to enhance a story or narrative. I use style as part of the story of what I’m doing.

    There are much bigger areas to be explored here (thanks so much for all the contributions to this) – but for us as artists making music then finding the audience that are probably going to enjoy it, pre-prescribed stylistic affiliations are a lazy and ultimately unsatisfying furrow to plough.

    One of the huge joys of resourcing discovery online, rather than going the route of high-dollar promotional campaigns that rely on 3rd party agencies to sell what you do, is that you can tell your own story in any way you like, and your story can make you interesting without any reference to the music you make.

    There have been a lot of people who’ve heard my music after reading this blog, not because the music was described in a way that appealed to them, but just because I was interesting enough for them to wonder what it was that I sounded like. Some of them loved it, and I dare say a few weren’t remotely interested in what they heard. Some of those may come back if they stick around long enough and an explanation of what I do piques their interest once again…

    Genre-focus is a hit-and-run marketing tool. Like you say, Martin, if you’re on the phone to a booking agent who isn’t going to listen to you til you sell it to them, you need something succinct to suck them in. That’s so not how I find most of my audience, and I dare say, it’s a small part of how you find yours. Personal recommendation is worth way more than you sounding like a cross between James Taylor and Cannibal Corpse 🙂

    Anyway, keep those thoughts coming, I’m really enjoying this one!

  13. Wow, Steve.
    This is for me, one of the nubs of the matter: How do you market what you do (and in my case, it REALLY is genre defying, and I’m ecstatic about it) to an audience that is constantly asking me “what kind of music do you play?”. There’s no easy answer, and sometimes it seems as if some people really want a pigeon hole to put you in. (Americans?)
    Take for example, the owner of a hot restaurant venue in Peekskill NY. I attempted to book my group in there, but when I couldn’t answer to his satisfaction if we were a “Jazz” group or a “Rock” group or a “Blues” band etc, he just had no clue. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that it’s not so cut & dry.
    We never got a gig, and I gave up after 6 months. But I’m running into this problem elsewhere, especially when dealing with self promotion. People want to know what we’re about, in 2 words or less.
    The few fans we’ve earned are serious, and it’s rewarding. But I’m trying to make a living here. There aren’t enough students to make teaching viable, and performing has always been my first love anyway. I can get with what John G is saying – “It can only be done by believing in what we play and then bringing that across to an audience—any audience, one set of ears at a time.”

    To answer your question: I’m always on the hunt for interesting new music, and I mean really strikingly different stuff. Tho I don’t have time to scour the interwebs, I will often hear interesting stuff on late night FM radio, driving home from gigs. Once my friend Joe hipped me to Autechre; THAT was pretty interesting….!
    Thanks again for your spot on insights. 🙂

  14. Neil,

    I feel your pain – I’ve lost out on a lot of gigs through not being able to fit into any kind of box – Michael Manring and I have been turned down gigs as a duo because the venue wasn’t sure people would dig it!

    Sometimes you can get away with just making shit up – claiming you play standards or whatever, playing two standards, then playing your own. Sometimes that can REALLY backfire… the call is yours.

    …And sometimes you just play the music for the gig – we all do ‘money’ gigs too – and there, you just turn up, play the gig as required, and marketing it is secondary to doing what the person holding the purse strings wants us to play… But that’s not really what this is about, as you know 🙂

    So how do you market Nail? Seriously tough call. My next post (if it ends up being what I think it’s going to be) may address a little of that… hopefully!

    All I know is that the music I’ve heard from you has been outstanding – you’re a genius, and we need to find ways of people who dig that kind of genius discovering it. We’ll get there 😉

  15. If you’re someone who thinks you sound like “A cross between Cannibal Corpse and James Taylor” then you’re either Mike Patton or Spinal Tap. Or deluded. How *do* you hook people in when what you do doesn’t conform to a novelty genre? Is it possible to get people interested with a soundbite like that at all?

    It’s useful for people who aren’t booking agents too though. I personally think it’s a bit lame that when people ask me what I do, I say stuff like “well it’s sort of acoustic music… but I play electric guitar… it’s rocky but then there’s just one of me… uh… folk-jazz-rock?”. Sounds balls, doesn’t it? I would never want to listen to that. I think choosing a genre and then adding a vague prefix like “anti”, “alt.”, “grime” or “death” is the way forward. I think I’ve just had an idea for a new website…

  16. Interesting post. My most remote listening: The Sex Pistols. I got into it by playing guitar hero… Actually, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for rock by playing that game.

  17. I think more people listen to jazz than they realize; it’s ubiquitous. I recently played a gig with traditional Peruvian music and the bass player and I played all kinds of jazz harmonies. I doubt anyone in the audience realized it and yet they enjoyed it. After that gig I posted a tweet about how jazz works as a universal translator. Your comment about soundtracks is true, and it reminds me when jazzers played songs by Rogers & Hammerstein musicals, i.e., when Coltrane played “My Favorite Things,” I thought, “What in the world is he doing?” But as I listened, the smile on my face kept growing bigger.

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