Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Varied tastes in music — or art in general — are nothing new. Typically, each new generation listens to music that differs (sometimes drastically) from the music of previous generations. And though musical genres have existed in one form or another for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1920s that musicians, producers, radio stations and record labels began using genres to strategically reach their target audience(s). This helped fast-track the commercialization of musical genres in the 20th century, allowing individuals to quickly find artists and styles they liked.
However, we are entering an entirely new era of music consumption that may redefine traditional conceptions of the “genre.” While it is readily apparent in the realm of music, it is happening with other art forms, too. The algorithmic approach taken by large streaming companies is catering content to our individual preferences. Broader genres like “jazz” or “hip hop” are now being subdivided into niches, and then niches within niches, creating smaller and smaller groupings for extremely diverse music tastes.
The Evolution of the Micro-Niche
What’s difficult for many 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 to reflect how people are feeling — or how they want to feel — right now.
This happens at virtually every stage of music production and consumption. And, when you think about it from a marketing standpoint, it makes perfect sense. New artists getting into the game for the first time have to find an audience. But when you’re competing against huge names like Kanye West or Ed Sheeran, it’s nearly impossible to just brand yourself as a “hip hop” or “pop” artist. Instead, you have to find niche audiences who are actively looking for highly specific sub-genres of music. This helps even the playing field and increases the chances of gaining an audience.
Take Pop Smoke, for example. In his newly released song, “Merci Beaucoup,” he said: “І wаѕn’t thіnkіn’ аbоut thе mаѕѕеѕ уеt, І’m thіnkіn’ ’bоut mу hооd, wаіt/Yоu knоw whаt І‘m ѕауіn’ І’m lіkе, ‘Nаh, І gоt tо drор аnоthеr оnе fоr thе hооd.'”
The rapper is clearly speaking to his target audience — and even referencing his marketing strategy at the same time. From my perspective, he’s not thinking about the “masses” when he writes his lyrics; he’s thinking about the people from his home in Brooklyn, New York. He is literally targeting the audience who will most likely want to hear his style and unique lyricism.
And this is just one of many examples from my firsthand experience where we’re seeing 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, appealing to hip hop fans who also grew up in the Bible Belt. Merlaku is one of a stable full of genre-bending hip-hop artists managed 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 (in the same fashion as Prince), creating wholly unique music, an alternative, off-the-beaten-path hip hop that defies traditional genre classifications. (Full disclosure: Author’s company has worked on various projects with Merlaku Ra, Gary Biddy and Kevin George.)
Thus, as an artist, you must now make music with a very specific audience in mind. Once the creative part is done, you can use various avenues to market music directly to your listeners. This process is often intertwined with a strategy for distribution, wherein getting in the right playlists helps get you in front of the right fans; though the streaming platforms also use data gathered about users to push them the kind of content they’ll like. But again, it goes much deeper than microgenres. It’s about figuring out what people want to listen to from one moment to the next.
Do you want to listen to something that could help lift your mood? Consider a playlist of “Good Vibe” songs from artists whose style and tone match other musicians you like. Or perhaps you want something to help you be more productive? Try out a playlist with instrumental background music designed to stimulate brain function. Even if you just want to bask in the comfort of familiar songs from your favorite artists, streaming services can deliver them to you instantaneously. So, in order to find success as an artist, you have to think like a modern consumer — one whose immediate desires can be filled by micro-niches.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Musical Genres?
While musical genres will still exist in linguistics as a way to quickly categorize different types of music, we could argue that they are losing their functional purpose. Why? Because humans are collectively coming to the realization that music is so much more than mere entertainment. It has the power to fulfill various needs and desires. At the same time, the ever-growing diversity of musical styles and sensibilities makes it so that there’s virtually no shortage of music to choose from — no matter how picky you are.
It’s also important to note that genres are not completely dead — but our conception of them is evolving rapidly. Rather than working primarily as a marketing tool for the music industry at large, micro-niche delineations now serve a more functional purpose for listeners and artists alike. As an artist, you can cater your music to a specific audience or niche, while your fans can pick and choose the exact kind of “experience” they want to have. In my opinion, it’s a win-win, even if it means that larger genres no longer hold the same significance they once did. While the old conception of genres may be dying, a new era of hyper-categorization is just beginning.