Author: Vanessa Ague

Genres Won’t Go Away But They Won’t Be The Same

Vanessa Ague Out of the Box

[Ed. note: Last month, we launched a new series of articles under the banner “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The first installment of this series is a provocative essay by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley. Our second contributor is Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague.-FJO]

When I think about music 10 years into the future, the one thing that jumps out in my mind most is the perennial question of genre: How we define it and how it’ll change. Will there be any genres in 10 years? What will post-genre and cross-genre and everything in-between look like? Which new genres will emerge and take over the musical landscape? To me, genre and its evolution is one of the most fascinating aspects of music and music history. They’re imperfect descriptors, yet we cling to them. They’re constantly morphing, yet they stick to certain boundaries that contain them. People want to identify with a genre, or against a genre, and that becomes a defining part of their character. Genre encompasses more than the words that describe them. But will we someday land on words that finally feel right?

I’ve been considering this question even more lately, as I recently completed a Master’s capstone that touched on them. (Parts of this essay draw from that research and writing.) My writing is often dictated by genre, as are record store shelves and digital sales, for better and for worse. I personally find myself more and more drawn to the “post-genre” and “genre-blending” music—or, music that defies categorization yet is categorized in imperfect ways. As I think about the next ten years of music making, I hope we’ll grapple with how we define, use, and think about these signifiers. Some of the most compelling music made today, in my opinion, is born out of a conglomeration of genres and styles, and in the next 10 years, my idealistic dream would be for us to shift to talking about music in a way that foregrounds appreciation of the sound and the people who make it instead of boxes that don’t always fit.

Our struggle to find the perfect genre tags aren’t anything new, and neither is crossing over from one genre to another, or mixing them together into one. The trend of genre mixing perhaps most famously came to the fore in New York in the mid-20th century, and The Velvet Underground is one of the best known genre and medium-bending groups from those days. Their early albums, like 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico, united La Monte Young and Tony Conrad’s drone composition with singer-songwriter structures; the sound became a mix of long-held tones with chugging four-four rhythms and hazy speak-sung vocals. The band’s legacy has been long-lasting: They’ve inspired many other alternative rock bands to extend boundaries, from ambient pioneer Brian Eno to shoegaze band Galaxie 500 to indie rock darlings The Strokes.

More recently, we’ve had the community of the internet to power our genre discovery. In the 2000s and 2010s, the internet would make more genres than ever before, from all over the world, available to anyone who wanted to listen. On the internet, all kinds of music became available to everyone and anyone and sounds from across the globe became easy to access. On sites like Limewire, and later what.cd, redacted, and soulseek, the music-obsessed could download as many MP3s as they wanted, taking in every single sound and throwing it back in the art they’d make later on. Today’s streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music tried to follow suit, providing a constant stream of new music for listeners and makers (though none of these platforms support artists financially, which is another, separate issue I hope we address in the next 10 years). With such easy discovery, it’s no wonder mixing and matching in music has continued to proliferate and the barriers between genres have come down. Access has allowed us possibility.

Much of our music discovery today is centered around genre. Streaming sites make playlists geared towards specific genres and their algorithms recommend similar artists. In 10 years, I don’t see this type of recommendation changing—but I do think those algorithms will need to continue to expand and get more detailed. There are general playlists for umbrella genres like pop and experimental, but will more playlists show up that cover subgenres? Will algorithms begin to detect the smallest shifts in sound, linking together artists from completely different parts of the musical landscape? This certainly happens occasionally—Spotify in particular touts itself as a bastion for this kind of discovery—but I wonder if it’ll start to happen more as our genre barriers continue to dissolve. And, with radio and podcasting on the rise, I wonder if in 10 years we’ll see those formats become major agents for discovery again, too.

  • "My idealistic dream would be for us to shift to talking about music in a way that foregrounds appreciation of the sound and the people who make it instead of boxes that don’t always fit."

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • The trend of genre mixing perhaps most famously came to the fore in New York in the mid-20th century.

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • More past trends and styles will be resurrected and repurposed in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be music that mixes baroque composition with field recordings, or medieval chant with ambient—perhaps there already is.

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • Genre is a way of describing what we hear so that it can be contextualized and understood. Genre isn’t going to go away for this reason—it helps us categorize and understand the world of music. But can it become more malleable?

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague
  • I don’t know if we’ll ever have the perfect solution to categorizing music, but as the next 10 years continue, we’re going to hear new kinds of music that question our assumptions of what genre is and what it means, just like the past 10 years and the 10 before that.

    Vanessa Ague (Photo by Kat Lin)
    Vanessa Ague

Musically, I don’t see the impulse to mix genres and form new ones changing anytime soon. A lot of today’s genre blending seems to mix old trends that have come around in popularity again with new ones (like mixing minimalism with modern electronic dance music). More past trends and styles will be resurrected and repurposed in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be music that mixes baroque composition with field recordings, or medieval chant with ambient—perhaps there already is. There will probably be more shoegaze-y drone and electronic dance and hyperpop variants, which are genres that seem to dominate the recent conversation around experimental music. Whatever sounds do appear, though, will likely be those that glean influence from past sounds to make something current, building on past innovation to drive it into new directions.

Will the music industry respond to future genre shifts? Today, buying, selling, awarding, and discovering music is tied to arbitrary genre tags. Many of them feel like dusty conventions we haven’t brushed off yet. In the utopian future I imagine, these tags will be determined by the album we hear, an attempt to discuss and share music from a place of how it actually sounds. After all, genre is a way of describing what we hear so that it can be contextualized and understood. Genre isn’t going to go away for this reason—it helps us categorize and understand the world of music. But can it become more malleable? With the continued breaking and reassembling of genres, the industry as a whole needs to become more open-minded about changing how we talk about, understand, and think about musical categorization. I wonder if in the future, we’ll have entirely new, as-of-yet to be discovered genre tags that actually encompass the meaning of the music outside of a convention established years ago, supported by record labels and venues and marketers who start to adopt new tools and language to talk about the music they present. Maybe those new genres will be a better representation of the artists and the art.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have the perfect solution to categorizing music, the box to box genre boxes back into. But I do know this: As the next 10 years continue, we’re going to hear new kinds of music that question our assumptions of what genre is and what it means, just like the past 10 years and the 10 before that. I hope we look for solutions that stay true to the sounds and to the artists who make them.

A New Music Halloween Playlist Curated By Vanessa Ague

One of the exciting ways to use the New Music USA platform is user-generated playlists. Our goal with playlists is to give you the power to curate the music you love on our site. You can now save, organize, listen to, and share videos and recordings from both projects and profiles by using playlists.

Using playlists is simple and intuitive. When you are logged in and on a profile or project page, if you see a video or sound recording that you want to add to your playlist, just click “Add to Playlist.” Once you do that, you can access your playlist at any time by navigating to “My Playlist” underneath the user tab at the top right of the page. The recordings you’ve added will now appear in your playlist.

Our friend and colleague Vanessa Ague agreed to curate a Halloween-themed playlist with works that she sourced from across the New Music USA platform. She found some great tracks that include performers such as Atlantic Guitar Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, Nadia Sirota, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and more! Vanessa’s picks are helping us get into the Halloween mood. Click the link and take your Halloween listening to the next level.

LISTEN TO VANESSA AGUE’S
NEW MUSIC HALLOWEEN PLAYLIST