The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of the editors or editors of Rolling Stone.
Varied tastes in music – or art in general – are nothing new. As a rule, each new generation listens to music that is (sometimes drastically) different from the music of previous generations. And although musical genres have existed in one form or another for centuries, it was not until the 1920s that musicians, producers, radio stations, and record labels began to use genres to strategically achieve their ( s) target audience (s). This helped accelerate the commercialization of musical genres in the 20th century, allowing individuals to quickly find artists and styles they liked.
However, we are entering a whole new era of music consumption that could redefine traditional conceptions of ‘genre’. While this is evident in music, it also happens with other art forms. The algorithmic approach taken by the big streaming companies is to tailor the content to our individual preferences. Wider genres like “jazz” or “hip hop” are now subdivided into niches, then into niches within niches, creating smaller and smaller groups for extremely diverse musical tastes.
The evolution of the micro-niche
What’s hard for a lot of people to grasp is that micro-niches go way beyond subgenres, or even sub-subgenres. Rather than creating genres to suit general tastes, artists, labels, and music streaming services now want to create experiences that reflect what people are feeling – or what they want to feel – at present.
This happens at virtually every stage of music production and consumption. And, when you think about it from a marketing standpoint, it really makes sense. New artists entering the game for the first time need to find an audience. But when you’re competing against big names like Kanye West or Ed Sheeran, it’s almost impossible to just portray yourself as a “hip hop” or “pop” artist. Instead, you need to find niche audiences who are actively looking for very specific music subgenres. It even helps the rules of the game and increases the chances of winning an audience.
Take Pop Smoke, for example. In his new song, “Thank you very much” he said: “I wasn’t thinking about things to come, I’m thinking about my head, from / You know what I’m thinking”, ‘No I have to leave one another for the hood. ‘”
The rapper is clearly addressing his target audience – and even references his marketing strategy at the same time. From my point of view, he doesn’t think of the “masses” when he writes his lyrics; he thinks of the people of his home in Brooklyn, New York. He is literally aimed at the audience who will likely want to hear his unique style and lyricism.
And this is just one of many examples from my direct experience where we see this trend continue to evolve. Coming from a religious background in South Carolina, Merlaku Ra infuses elements of his experiences as a teenage preacher into his songs, drawing hip hop fans who also grew up in the Bible Belt. Merlaku is part of a stable filled with genre hip-hop artists led by Gary Biddy of The Heard, infusing new sounds and elevating storytelling with each new release. Connecticut-born artist Kevin George mixes a wide range of genres (much like Prince does), creating very unique music, alternative, off-the-beaten-path hip hop that challenges traditional genre classifications. . (Full disclosure: The author’s company has worked on various projects with Merlaku Ra, Gary Biddy, and Kevin George.)
So, as an artist, you now have to make music with a specific audience in mind. Once the creative part is finished, there are various avenues you can use to market the music directly to your listeners. This process is often tied to a distribution strategy, in which getting into the right playlists helps you get in front of the right fans; although streaming platforms also use data collected about users to deliver the kind of content they will like. But again, this goes much further than microgens. It’s about figuring out what people want to listen to at any given moment.
Do you want to listen to something that could help put you in a good mood? Consider a playlist of “Good Vibe” songs by artists whose style and tone match other musicians you love. Or maybe you want something to help you be more productive? Try a playlist with instrumental background music designed to stimulate brain function. Even if you just want to enjoy the comfort of familiar songs from your favorite artists, streaming services can provide them to you instantly. So, to be successful as an artist, you have to think like a modern consumer, whose immediate desires can be met through micro-niches.
What does this mean for the future of musical genres?
While musical genres will always exist in linguistics as a way to quickly categorize different types of music, we could argue that they lose their functional purpose. Why? Because humans collectively realize that music is more than just entertainment. It has the power to meet various needs and wants. At the same time, the ever-increasing diversity of musical styles and sensibilities means that there is virtually no dearth of music to choose from, no matter how picky you are.
It is also important to note that the genres are not completely dead – but our conception of them is changing rapidly. Rather than functioning primarily as a marketing tool for the music industry as a whole, micro-niche boundaries now serve a more functional purpose for listeners and artists. As an artist, you can tailor your music to a specific audience or niche, while your fans can choose the exact type of “experience” they want. In my opinion, it’s a win-win, even if it means that the larger genres don’t have the same meaning as they once did. While the old conception of genres may be dying, a new era of hyper-categorization has only just begun.