Is Classification of Music a Good Idea?

Eclecticism in music has been the hallmark of many great artists. Most musicians refuse to be clubbed under a particular genre or even referring their music to fall under a genre. However,  genre is a particularly controversial idea, which has been forced upon musicians and listeners by record companies in order to make recorded music more easily available on the shelf of a store. Though genre does have the advantage of classifying music into easy and recognizable groups, it defeats the purpose of making things easy for the musician and listener in many ways.

First, the musician may feel ‘trapped in a box’ or obliged to write music in a certain way, in order to please his or her existing fan base. Second, it may lead to complications between the record company and the artist for the company may feel the artist has digressed from the genre he or she was signed under. Genre also causes perceivable fatigue while creating and writing music, for a musician’s journey is to evolve themselves and also to evolve their own style of music. This part of the problem has troubled many musicians and artists have struggled to win the tug of war between the Genre and their own innate musical ‘urges’ if one could say that.

The listener or the audience has many problems to deal with too, when they are forced to think and appreciate music in its classified form. Firstly, the listener may expect an artist from a particular genre to sound a certain way, and be positively or negatively biased to all the artists under that particular genre. This also results in typecasting and artists may never be heard or bought, for it is assumed that “they all sound alike”. A listener intent upon staying faithful to his favourite musician and Genre may refuse to open up and try something new, for either it is an unknown territory or simply “not his favourite genre”.

A listener of the Ska genre may not think much about ever buying a Shoegazing CD, though there are chances he or she may really like it. Moreover, the same person who likes the Ska genre may have his or her favourite artists, and be prejudiced and biased against other artists who are seen as rivals are slightly different form the artist(s) he or she likes. These prejudices, biases, and typecasting is the result of mechanical classification of music, which is not only the record company’s fault, but musicians, listeners, reviewers and even critics force it on everyone involved including themselves.

There is of course the other side to the story where musicians, record companies, listeners and others involved in the saga have proactively fought against the classification and made the classifications seem only indicative. This perhaps is the better route to classify music; to have the genres play an indicative or supportive role, without laying emphasis on the name of the genre itself. Mainstream media, artists may find this sort of freedom a little too unnerving as it opens up opportunities and also leaves them in an unshackled and unknown commercial ocean.

The success of musicians in such a premise would depend on their own originality and capability to stand out from the rest and from themselves, without sounding predictable and creating comfort zones for themselves and their audiences. Most alternative artists have refused to be clubbed under a genre, even under the genre of ‘alternative’. Moby is one such artist who has forever changed his genres, to the point of confusing everyone involved, the record company, the fanbase and reviewers. He has experimented in Alternative Rock, Punk, Electronic, Techno and dozens of other styles.

This brings one to another type of classification, that is, being known as an ‘experimental artist’ who is expected to change styles and experiment, and never have a typical sound. The issue of typecasting, classification and staying within genres may exist as long as the music industry exists, but it has something to do with the comfort zone of everyone involved.

Artists having their own record companies may have more freedom to experiment, not experiment and ‘do their thing’. Radiohead is one such band that has refused to submit to one of kind of genre or to even create comfort zones for themselves while writing music. In the end, musicians and listeners may just need to accept and enjoy the freedom they always had, and listen, try and immerse oneself in various styles of music without feeling safe or comfortable in just one style.

This isn’t to say that genres have to be done with, for they do help one to choose music. However, genres shouldn’t be the end goal and the importance given to classification of music must certainly be minimal.

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