By Greg Jones | Co-Editor, EarToTheGroundMusic.co
Writer types like to categorize things; musician types like to defy the rules and use their creativity to create “genre bending works of art.” When these two worlds clash, there ends up being a problem. However, for an artist, using a genre or a category is a way to cue the listener as to what a song might sound like and why it’s worth giving it a listen. In other words, although you might hope that random people will give your song a chance, they probably will not. Most people are not interested in new things or certainly music outside of their comfort zone. Providing a genre description for your music helps listeners prepare themselves for what they are going to hear for that vital first 10-20 seconds when a listener decides whether they like the song.
When trying to distribute music, the most important goal is to get a listener or potential customer to click “play” and hear the track. This is not something that can be taken for granted. The same is true for bloggers, who ultimately want the “clicks” and follows from our readers. So it behooves all of us to work with the same language. The music industry has particular sets of ideas of what a specific genre should sound like, so if we use those descriptors it will help us all present information to listeners about what they might hear from a band they’ve never heard of.
But let’s not let “typical genre conventions” mean that we are going to be boring. This is where the spin and marketing comes into play. For example, “country” music can mean anything from Appalachian roots folk all the way to contemporary “bro” country. On the one end of that scale, we might parallel it with Americana, bluegrass, or even folk music. At the other end, we might consider modern country as much rock or pop as it is “country.” These changing definitions make it all the more difficult to explain a sound. This is a reason that some give for discarding the entire notion of “genre,” since artists do not want to be put in such disparate and ill-defined categories. Try, then, using unique descriptors to put your music in a better-defined category. Instead of country, explain that it is “traditional country.” Rather than just “rock n’ roll,” consider qualifiers like jam, psych, or post-rock to help listeners with the right sound to expect.
What should you do if you are not happy performing one specific sound at a time? The short answer is if you are developing a sound that doesn’t fit the band, consider utilizing a side project. Take, for example, Seth Avett of Avett Brothers fame, who has a side project as “Darling.” The songs he plays solo are much more stripped down acoustic folk, while the music as the band is a four piece Americana outfit with a wide range of sometimes-rock arrangements. Avett can still be true to his identity as an artist while providing different sounds for his adoring fans.
What is the solution for a new band inventing a new sound? Find a genre that makes sense, but don’t let it hinder your creativity or your sound. Be who you are in the creative process and if you have to change the branding later on, that’s fine. You may find that genre can help the creative process, though. For example the instrument or chord choices are influenced by genre such as with the blues. Sometimes the tempo of a song is connected to a specific genre as well. Trying to step out of those genre conventions can make it difficult to market the music within that style, but if it’s necessary for the creative process then by all means do it.
From a blog’s perspective, though, sometimes these experimental types of tracks or even entire acts will end up not being a fit. On EarToTheGround, we tend to feature mostly roots, folk, and indie rock. However, we regularly have blues, jazz, pop, soul, and even some electro music on the site. Why do we branch out? Well first because the music is good. But also because that music is often related to the main branch genres we cover. That said, we rarely cover hip hop, rap, or metal on our site. Even within soul, one of the secondary genres we occasionally cover, we prefer more of a Sam Cooke “old school” sound to the modern digital beats and sampling-heavy style. We want to hear the heart of the singer over a simple real-instrument band. That’s just us. It’s a choice we make, but it helps to define the sound that we’re curating on our site.
My biggest advice for an artist on genre is to find something identifiable, but feel free to dance around it sometimes. If you’re a rock band, stick with mostly rock music, but if you bring in some electro elements for a few tracks on the set that can be okay, too. But also know that with the creative risk comes potential failure on the marketing side of things. It’s a risk that many artists have found worth their while. When your band is still making its rise, though, try to hone in on that signature sound for an album or two before going too far in a more unique direction. Learn to describe the genre quickly, succinctly, and interestingly. An example might be “we’re a roots rock band that really highlights the stand-up bass.” That would be a band that crosses genres in a way that doesn’t sound like a marketing gimmick, but an intriguing sound worth exploring.
Greg Jones is co-founder and co-editor of EarToTheGroundMusic.co. He writes reviews, artist spotlights, and interviews with a variety of artists in the roots, folk, and indie rock genres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ATTN: Greg.