Editorial: In favor of musical genres (and subgenres and micro-niches) despite full awareness of the drawbacks

So my buddy Scott called me up (no not literally, we’re both up with the latest technology of beepers and paging) and told me he’s having trouble getting any articles since his staff keeps getting poached by other local publications that pay in actual money as opposed to ‘scene cred’. I’ve written to him and other local music sites/blogs previously that I write a bunch of random, very specific ‘editorials’ (more like what I’d call ‘musings’) about subjects like indie and post-rock music and definition and all kinds of crazy stuff that I’d be happy to share with him. Now he’s finally taken me up on it. So if you like it, great! let Scott know that you want to see some more! If not, great! Tell Scott that it’s his fault for giving me a podium and he’s an asshole!

I know that most post modern musicians hate the genre labels they’re given, they’re often devised by marketers as a tool to sell records (e.g. grunge), and cool people pretty much uniformly despise them.

It’s also obvious to anyone familiar with the new media landscape that there are a whole host of new options available to us to help find new music that we like with far less research than was needed in the past. The prime example of this is the availability of streaming services. And I know artists REALLY hate these primarily as a result of the fact that they get far less compensation. However, eventually professional musicians (those unlike myself and my peers, none of whom make or expect to ever make any actual money from music) are going to have to accept that there’s just less compensation to be had. Culture is atomized, there’s a much bigger and more available pool, and so everyone kind of has to dive for what little change is now availabe. And for consumers such as myself (and probably you, even if you stand on principle against streaming services like Spotify Apple and Amazon) have to accept how much better these services are for our ability to find new music. Back in my day, you couldn’t even listen to an album OR even snippets before you bought. You just had to buy a record you’d either read something about, was by an artist you already had records you liked by, or you’d just heard of and wanted to find out about. Which meant lots of misfires and crummy records you couldn’t get rid of — check your parents record collection if they still have one. There will most likely be albums that are such duds they’ll tell you they don’t know why they didn’t throw them out!

The streaming platforms, even if you don’t pay the monthly fee, allow you to listen to any artist, any album, any song that’s on their platform. Which is increasingly becoming most albums that were on record labels and in the current era any artist that paid a few bucks to get their songs listed on streaming services. In addition to having the ability to just listen to any music from any artist of any era on a whim, right on the platform there are suggestions, the ‘Recommended If You Like’ (RIYL) apps, and plenty of other ways to find more new music you’ll like.

But in the past, musical genres were indispensable to finding stuff you wanted to listen to. Especially when the only alternative was pretty much randomly buying records that, say, had a band on the cover that didn’t have big hair, or a psychedelic sleeve design, or wasn’t in the cut-out ‘dance’ bin. And I know that a lot of that’s been changed by the new media landscape, but I’m pretty sure genres are still useful for plenty of other reasons.

When I was a kid I learned about grunge, I saw the movie ‘hype’, and I thought genres were lame. But the more I read about them, the more I used them to find new music. And the more I used them, the more I realized what a necessary evil they were. And eventually I came to realize that they weren’t all that evil, and in fact I was being introduced to great underground music I never would’ve found out about otherwise. The most obvious genre label for anyone that grew up in the 70s or 80s was ‘punk’. Back then of course it covered SO much more than it does today. In a lot of ways you could tell whether a record was going to be commercial or glossy or, in general, something you and your friends probably wouldn’t like if it wasn’t labelled ‘punk’.

So when smaller genres began to emerge, I started to pay attention and grab stuff based on genres alone. And I found out what a great tool they actually were…

When I began listening to Sebadoh and loved them, I wanted to hear everything that was even remotely doing the things they were with music. It was punk, but it was some kind of really crazy off the wall poorly produced played wrong on purpose punk. So when I looked up/read about the ‘lo-fi’ label the media had given them, I came upon other ‘lo-fi’ bands like say, Pavement early on. So I had their first 2 albums and worshipped them. If I’d heard them on the other hand by the time they got on MTV I probably would’ve bought Crooked Rain, decided there were some good songs on it but it wasn’t for me, and never have enjoyed the transcendence of Slanted and Enchanted. Another group I got into was called Truman’s water, a band I never would have heard of otherwise, not even today with all the RIYL and free streaming. Though I also should mention the negatives; I bought a Guided by Voices album that I didn’t really care for since they were considered one of the ‘big 3’ of lo-fi back then. Unfortunately, I was too young to get a job at the time, which meant the fact that I spent money on the GBV album I didn’t like meant that I wouldnt have enough for a different new album for months.

Slo-core: When I started listening to a band called Codeine I got interested in what was being called ‘slo-core’ at the time. As a result, I was introduced to the foremost ‘pioneer’ of the genre, Low, a group that I’m still a huge favorite of and own nearly a dozen albums by. I was also introduced to plenty of others, including Cat Power. I probably would’ve heard of them evnetually anyway but perhaps later when their music had gotten crummy at which point I would’ve dismissed them, never having heard the depressive beauty of Dear Sir or What Would the Community Think. I also found out about Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, etc.) Galaxie 500, the Microphones, Bedhead/The New Year, and Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co).

Perhaps most importantly, I was introduced to a group called Idaho, a slowcore/sadcore/dream pop group. If I hadn’t done research into Slowcore (and then the confusing nearly identical ‘sadcore’, then dream pop which led to shoegaze, etc.), I most likely never would have found out about this west coast regional act. Instead, their albums like Alas (a record I have an early illegal download of and STILL to this day can’t find a legit copy of), Hearts of Palm, Three Sheets to the Wind and Levitate have enriched my musical palette, my conceptions of what’s possible, inspired me (songwriter Jeff Martin famously uses an electrical 4 string tenor guitar to get his signature ethereal sounds which inspired me to begin experimenting with baritone guitars), and in general enriched my life with a series of albums I loved then and haven’t stopped since.

Finally and most important for me both personally and professionally (if you know me you’ll laugh at that, if not just know that despite my prolific output and performances over the past 20 years I’ve never made any money whatsoever on my music) I was introduced to the genre ‘math rock’ when I was so enamored with the group Polvo that I wanted to hear everythingthat was in any way similar or that could explain how they formulated their intensely unique songs. For over a decade I followed the genre to the nth degree, from the career of Nick Sakes (the Dazzling Killmen, Colossamite, etc), to the evolving definition of the term from its beginnings as a spinoff of post-rock into a more revitalized rock subgrouping that used dissonance, angularity, jarring time changes and stop/start dynamics to reinvigorate indie rock into a more formal definition of overly stylized music with increasingly unusual time signatures and pretentiously baroque treatment of instruments in manner similar to the progressive rock of the seventies which diverged so far from rock’s roots punk music started as a protest against it…

I got so into ‘mathrock’ and studied it so deeply I could go on and on. A particularly telling example of how the invented genre itself took me in SO many directions is the fact that I eventually got into and obscure midwestern indie rock/math rock band called Bear Claw. Years, later, my band was playing a festival in the Upper Peninsula with a band called MegaMaul, who’s lead singer happened to be Scott Picco, the very same guy who played drums and was the lead singer in the band Bear Claw. When I met him and told him what a fan I was of his new band and Bear Claw, he was elated to hear a guy from Albany had heard of not only his old band but him personally and really liked them. So I made a friend, was very happy to have flattered a fellow musician who I genuinely admired, AND later on I discussed slowcore band Low (who played later in the festival) with drummer Tony Aimone from a fantastic noise rock (another genre I haven’t really gotten into here but got into and found out about the band the guy was from through looking up the genre) called Nonagon. Playing that festival was like being among friends and colleagues I really looked up to, even though I’d never met or talked to any of them personally before and hadn’t even been to the midwest or Chicago before. All because I’d looked up and become familiar with genres like ‘math rock’, ‘noise rock’, and even more specifics like ‘midwestern post/math rock’.

And someday when I meet someone like Jeff Martin (Idaho) and/or Jeff Mueller (Rodan, June of 44, Shipping News, etc.), I’ll let them know that however much they hate the name of the micro genre they were given, it gave me the ability to find and love their music which I otherwise probably never would’ve heard of.

So maybe micro genre/niche labels arent quite as useful as they once were. And yes of course they’re superficial and reductive and can be used for EVIL moneymaking purposes. But if they can help someone that might otherwise not hear you find you and your music or anyone else and any other music they love, it is completely worth all the negatives and then some. I know it certainly was and is for me.

yr pal,

-k.

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