Quick – what, in a nutshell, is the genre category of your music?
If you can’t answer that succinctly, you’re not alone. Every artist goes through a period of exploration and experimentation while they discover their particular voice, and, with the exception of a few purists, no-one likes to think of themselves as a derivative act fitting neatly in a box. But it is a question you will need to come up with an answer to if you are going to get your music to the people who most want to hear it, so what follows are notes I’ve collected over the years on the subject of defining your subgenre, style or microniche.
Finding your genre niche is a lot like finding the perfect pair of jeans. You will need to try on a lot of pairs, from many different places and manufacturers, before you find the style, size and fit which is most comfortable for you. It might even change from season to season. But when you do find the right fit, you will swear by it.
Excuses are for assholes – Start with your influences – Combos and portmentaus – It’s not all about music – Listen to your listeners – If you’re not with the band, stay off the bandwagon – If in doubt, get creative – …but not too creative – Is ‘Singer Songwriter’ a genre?
Because no-one likes being put in a box, there is a temptation when starting out to shun the whole business of naming a genre, leading to two common lines which will get your promo binned immediately by any industry professional that reads them. If you answered the question at the top of this article with any variation of these lines, consider yourself warned.
1 – “We’re so original it’s impossible to categorise us – we’re influenced mostly by ourselves.”
First of all, get over yourself. Pitching yourself as the new zenith of music that renders all else obsolete just makes you look up your own backside. Secondly, musicians that say this tend to have one very obvious influence which anyone with an experienced ear will recognise at once. Pitching your Green Day inspired band this way will get you instantly labelled Yet Another Green Day Rip-off, when you might have had a shot as A Promising New Band In The Vein Of Green Day.
2 – “We’re really versatile, we can turn our hand to anything”
That’s lovely for a jobbing session player or a covers band playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, but for an original artist it just says Newbie Who Hasn’t Found Their Voice Yet. It also flags up someone too green or conceited to understand the intricacies and cultural contexts of different styles of music. Are you really an equally experienced expert in every aspect of technical metal, urban r+b, Mongolian folk music and Bavarian OomPah? Acknowledge your roots, then explore and incorporate other influences respectfully. Selecting the “Argentine Tango” accompaniment on a Yamaha home keyboard does not make you the King Of Latin, especially if you’ve never left Reading, England.
It’s important to realise that genre definitions exist not as a limiting framework for artists (though in practice you may have to observe certain conventions and fashions to avoid alienating ‘scene’ audiences) but as a headline to give people an idea what to expect. It does not have to be definitive.
We all stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before, so the best place to start is with whatever and whoever got you excited about creating music in the first place. You probably had at least one favourite artist growing up, so think about them first. For me, that would be A-Ha (my favourite pop band as a child and I still cite influences from their second album), Iron Maiden (metal in general, but mostly Maiden at that time), Paul Simon/Simon & Garfunkel, Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock (my introduction to jazz). I have a looong list of favourite artists that have influenced me subsequently, but for now we’re getting on the psych couch and going back to childhood.
Once you’ve identified your early influences, go to their Wikipedia pages and look at the summary box in the top right hand corner of the page, which will include a short list of genres associated with that band. Wikipedia is not a definitive source, but it is good for getting a rough consensus you can follow up on further. If you find any obvious joke edits discard them.
For the artists I just named, this gave me:
A-Ha – New Wave, Synth Pop, Pop Rock, Alternative Rock, Soft Rock
Simon & Garfunkel – Folk rock
Iron Maiden – Heavy Metal
Duke Ellington – Jazz
Herbie Hancock – Jazz, post-bop, fusion, jazz-funk, electro, classical
Now do this for any other artist you can think of that has influenced you at various points in your life. For example, I could add:
Bobby McFerrin – Jazz, A Capella, Vocal, World, Classical, Smooth Jazz
Ian Dury – Rock and Roll revival, pub rock, New Wave, punk rock
Toyah – New Wave, punk rock, gothic rock
Thomas Dolby – New wave, synthpop
Frank Zappa – Rock, experimental, jazz, classical, pop, avante garde
New Model Army – punk rock, post punk, folk rock.
St Vincent – Art rock, indie rock, chamber rock
…and so on. Keep going until you’ve got enough to look for patterns – remember that not all of these will apply to your own music and especially not your music at a particular time, but it will start giving you context.
One more thing while you’re at it: for your very favourite artists, look up their stated influences and trace back a lineage. For example, if you are into Madness you need to go and listen to original Jamaican ska (specifically Prince Buster), which in turn took influence from American rhythm and blues.
Music and culture grows through fusion, so the simplest form of subgenre puts together two disparate influences; pop punk. Folk rock. Electro klezmer. Something Something-Else is a practical shorthand with no downside that I can see, so long as you can back it up with great music. The same goes for <contextual adjective><style>; historock! Sophistipop! Rugby Polka!
Just beware of anything that will give you a limited shelf life, specifically New (tomorrow’s Old), Nu (naff, utterly) or Neo (can carry unwanted political connotations).
Along with your musical influences, think about other things important to you and your mission as an artist. Politics, activism, religious belief, cultural identity, other forms of art and media or pretty much anything it’s possible to be passionate about can form part of your genre niche. But if you do base your identity on a particular position or issue, bear in mind it may be hard to move beyond that without alienating fans.
By and large scenes and genres are defined not by musicians (who don’t like being pigeonholed) but by fans, DJs and journalists. So if someone tells you your sound fits a genre you haven’t thought of you should at least consider going along with it, so long as it doesn’t radically change your direction or is based on some kind of terrible misunderstanding or hijacking (for example if you find your pro-equality punk anthem being adopted by neo-nazis).
Some artists go out of their way to reject labels applied to them, or movements they have clearly had a hand in shaping. Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters Of Mercy has repeatedly asserted that the Sisters are not a goth band. Millions of goths and countless gothic rock bands he has inspired disagree.
There are few things sadder than an irrelevant artist desperately trying to piggyback on the latest Big Thing. While you can by all means learn and take influence from popular trends and express your own context in relation to them, constantly reinventing yourself into a lame copy of whatever’s currently popular will just make you look like a cheap phoney, while claiming to be something you’re not will alienate fans who check out your music only to find it’s not what was advertised.
Iron Maiden’s leader Steve Harris said in interviews that the band could have been signed a few years before they were, if they had agreed to cut their hair, dumb down all their songs and become a punk rock band, to cash in on what was the biggest musical movement in Britain at that time. Instead they stuck to their virtuosic heavy metal identity, went on to spearhead the 80s NWOBHM scene and became one of the world’s biggest and most influential bands.
One more note in this connection on cultural appropriation, which you can find yourself accused of if you misjudge the line between respectful influence and superficial theft. To me it’s is a matter of respect and commitment, the difference between seeking out and learning from representatives of other cultures and marching in like a conqueror, reducing everything you take to fashion items.
I say this as a white middle class male-at-birth who plays jazz, blues and funk, frequently in female guise. If anyone accuses me of appropriation, I can’t really argue except with the assertion that everything I do comes from a place of respect and honesty.
The ultimate fulfilment is if you manage to coin a niche genre that catches on with you listed as a groundbreaking pioneer. You ideally want something linked enough to existing genres that people will find and relate to it, but exclusive and interesting enough they’ll want to know more and maybe even be a part of it.
This is a good opportunity to flatter music journalists by quoting and adopting terms they come up with or know from music folklore – being able to cite inspiration can help with credibility. For my own music, I’m currently working around the term Antipop, which I’ve seen used by a variety of writers (each claiming to have thought of it) in reference to the recent crop of independent artists making poppy music celebrating individual difference over popular demographics.
It’s no good being a pioneering exponent of Eggjam if no-one knows or cares what Eggjam is. If your snazzy, ultra creative new subgenre doesn’t catch on you may have to let it die and try something else.
So, to finish up, here is the number one burning question that always comes up in discussions of independent musicians and their genre categorisations:
I’m going to get mail about this (my blog, my opinion – if you disagree, you can comment below), but:
No. Singer Songwriter is not a genre, for the same reason House Designer isn’t a style of architecture.
It is a genre category available for selection in iTunes and other libraries, and is most commonly associated with guitar wielding troubadours haunting cafes and open mics, but as a descriptive, “I feel like hearing some _____ today” genre it says absolutely nothing. Besides, everyone and their dog is a singer songwriter these days, it’s as likely to conjure up an image of a David Brent-esque wally on a mid-life crisis as whatever it is you want it to mean.
Get specific based on mood and context. If you’re a protest singer in the Bob Dylan tradition, start with folk and acoustic. If you’re more along the lines of Lou Reed or John Cale, try art rock or some variation of alternative. Maybe you have jazz influences, like Joni Mitchell or Marianne Faithful. Whatever it is, the right combination of introspection, research and vision will pay huge dividends in building your brand, bringing fans to you and showing you the way forward.
Got an interesting subgenre you’d like to share? Did I miss anything? Do you want to argue that singer songwriter is too a genre? Leave your comments below!