Whether you are a proponent of strict genre labeling or prefer a looser interpretation of musical categories, it’s easy to notice that genre titles have become increasingly more creative since the dawn of electronic music. Before “EDM,” everyone called anything remotely electronic “techno.” House went “deep,” but also went “gangsta.” Bass branched off into “future bass,” and all along the way, critics, artists, and music industry buffs have been there to either praise a new, innovative sub-genre or scoff at the saccharine sheen of yet another fad category.
The innocent desire to label things is an innate human quality–we just can’t help it–but oftentimes it results in artists feeling boxed in and bound to one sound. Can we ever reach a middle ground?
Debate over music categories is nothing new. When technology was introduced into musical compositions in the ’50s, even famous composers could not settle on what to call their new electronic music. As outlined by Thomas Holmes’ Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition, Schaeffer and Henry called their infant brand of electronic music “musique concrete,” Eimert and Stockhausen coined the term “elektronische Musik,” while Luening and Ussachevsky simply used the phrase “tape music.”
Maybe “genre wars” are all the more magnified when it comes to electronic music genres. When we think of rock, jazz, or any other genre that typically uses acoustic instruments, it’s assumed that the musical output from these instruments follows standard music notation. Most electronic music cannot be described by standard music notation–even the great composer Igor Stravinsky confessed (as relayed later in Holmes’ book) that “you will rarely find an electronic work that can be transcribed and reproduced from sheet music.” This is because electronic music has no restrictions to traditional composition–essentially making the genre possibilities infinite too.
But inside this infinity, whose opinion matters? The arguments and disagreements would lead us to believe that some people know better than others when it comes to music classification.
Mixmag published an impassioned article in 2014 which urged listeners to “stop calling it deep house” in reference to a new breed of bass-y dance music. The article was met with mixed reviews, generated countless forum feeds to discuss the inner workings of the genre; people even called out the author for still being unable to properly define deep house for the readers. The author, whose knowledge and background on the subject are actually very extensive, could not rally unanimous agreement around his forceful plea–but could any one person make a mob agree on the definition of a specific genre?
What makes an expert in today’s electronic music scene? Usually listeners assume that the artists behind a track are the expert of their genre (or if you prefer someone more scholarly, music historians), but ask an artist why they create a certain type of music and you’ll most likely be met with an unwillingness to define their music in words–pigeonholing, as they commonly call it. So instead, average fans are left to fend for themselves by referring to blog articles, Wikipedia sources, or the ill-informed opinion of a few pretentious scenesters.
GTA (pictured above), who run an eclectic mixtape series called Death To Genres, feel a pressure to continually produce a sound that abides by fan demands.
“We think getting ‘pigeonholed’ is making it hard for us to be creative in the way that we want to.”
But GTA members Van Toth and JWLS have their own solution to the common problem.
“There are a lot of artists that make all these different styles of music, and you’ll sometimes never hear it or they are forced into making another identity. Thankfully, we’ve built our fan base to expect anything from us whether they like the one track or not. Obviously, some don’t get it at first, but we’ve had an amazing response and love how 99 percent of our fan base gets what we’re about.”
In their defense of a more unrestricted approach to music labeling, their Death To Genres series highlights tracks that might not pertain to a sound that fans associate with their style. It is their hope that fans keep an open mind when it comes to music that might be unfamiliar.
“We love all kinds of music and have always wanted to produce all kinds of music, and that can be very difficult for fans to accept because they are so used to one sound from that artist. For example, we’ll post a video of a trap track we’re working on, and some kid will say ‘Wow, this sucks, what happened to Intoxicated?’ This is what we want to avoid. We want people to enjoy good music for what it is, not for what genre it is or off what is ‘hot’ now. Hence, ‘death to genres.’”
GTA understand the bounds imposed by genre labels, but they also realize the necessity.
“We’re not trying to say that genres as classifications shouldn’t exist, we’re just trying to push the idea of not hating on something just because it’s ‘EDM’ or ‘trap’ or ‘Progressive Gregorian Jungle Black Opera Metal’.”
So maybe it is not the genres themselves that create discrepancy so much as it is the negative connotations associated with certain types of genres–associations that are too often assigned by the media and listeners themselves. When an artist creates a sound that is labeled as something considered to be “out of fashion,” “no longer trending,” or even “mainstream,” it creates a preconceived notion before anyone has listened to even a single note of their work–to the extent that some will go so far as to not listen at all if they have already decided that they do not like a particular genre.
While labels can be a burden, what happens when there really isn’t a name for what you make? Or at least not a good one? The music of Vindata has been classified into the ambiguously labelled sub-genre “future bass.” Members Branden Ratcliff and Jared Poythress (pictured left to right, above) are alright with the term, but being solely branded with the sound is a different story.
“It doesn’t bother us that blogs and magazines categorize us as ‘future bass,’ however we’ve never been keen on labeling our music and pigeonholing our sound to one specific genre,” Poythress said. “Luckily, the “future” movement connotes a variety of different influences that the listener can expect.”
Humans categorize things; it’s what our brains are wired to do. Whether at a conscious or subconscious level, we split up everything from very obvious categories like dogs and cats to edible and inedible. Electronic music was made a category when technology was integrated into music, and from that point on, it was dissected into smaller and smaller classifications as new influences and innovators continued to change the structure.
Tom Purcell, better known as Wave Racer, is another popularly pigeonholed artist who confesses that he doesn’t “really know what “future bass” is, to be honest.”
“I’ve often heard the term used to describe music that is quite bright, bouncy and colorful–in other words, music in which the bass is not necessarily the primary driving force of the song, which is kinda weird.” Even without the term “future” to precede, he thinks that it would be odd to describe his music as “just bass” since the label does not accurately describe the full spectrum of his music.
No one person wants their life’s work and passion boiled down to mundane genres and categories. We have already seen the outcry when someone outside of this realm attempts to describe all electronic music simply as “EDM.”
Is this why Dillon Francis chooses to perform deep house as his DJ Hanzel alter ego, or why Eric Prydz produces his darker brand of music under the Cirez D alias, or any of his countless other monikers? Clockwork, who creates a different type of music under his RL Grime pseudonym, pointed out in an interview that he loves “house music and dance music and “EDM” or whatever,” but also loves that he “can go back to RL Grime and not be tied down to anything.” An alter-ego gives an artist opportunity to create music freely, away from the bounds and expectations placed on them by the genres with which they are associated. The same could be said of music labels who create sub-channels devoted to specific genres–take Anjunabeats’ own deep house offshoot, Anjunadeep.
Even the line between these alter-egos is not always so clear-cut to fans as an artist’s sound morphs through constant innovation. Assigning genre tags to new works becomes increasingly more complicated. When it comes to the fledgling “future bass” sub-genre, Vindata and Wave Racer agree that it is not something that is supremely definable, and yet, the term is used like a weapon by media and listeners alike to continually describe music and validate music preferences. But whether music is defined too generally or too specifically, those who use certain terminology will be met with opposition.
It’s up to us, whether fan or media, to remember that an artist is not defined by the sound of their latest work and to nurture his or her career as they continue to trailblaze new sonic territory. On the opposite end, it is the artist’s decision to create productions that are defined by a genre or to create productions that define a genre.
There will always be disagreement upon what makes a track genre-A versus genre-B, and we might not yet have “experts” in infant genres like “future bass,” “tropical house,” “G house” and the like, but maybe that doesn’t matter. At the end of the night, all that really matters is whether you like what you hear and that it makes you dance. New and strange sub-genres are going to populate your SoundCloud feed so long as musical innovators feel the need to create. The best defense in this relentless industry is to persistently seek knowledge of the music you love and keep an open mind as it continues to transform.
“One of the coolest things about music culture is that we get to watch it evolve in real time every time something new happens. It’s really exciting to be a part of that evolution, but to me the most exciting part is that it’s happening right now, in the present,” Purcell said. “So just enjoy the ride, and try to keep up.”