The Future of Music: The Mono-Genre & Micro-Genres

Music sales for 2010 broken down by genre were released last week, and the numbers illustrate what I have been asserting for a long time: popular music is condensing into the two super-genres of country and hip-hop, which eventually will morph into one big popular music “mono-genre” while the rest of music sinks into the independent music underground.

The only genre of music with increased sales last year was rap, with 3%. Country actually declined just slightly (2.4% of all music sales), but accounted for the #1, #3, & #9 best-selling artists (Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, and Zac Brown Band respectively), and Swift’s new album Speak Now wasn’t released until October. But take a look at the dramatic contraction across the rest of music’s major genres:

  • Rock -down 16%
  • Alternative – down 25%
  • Metal -down 16%
  • Christian/gospel – down 13%
  • Classical – down 26%
  • Jazz – down 25%
  • Latin – down 25%
  • New Age – down 29%
  • R&B – down 17%
  • Soundtracks – down 14%

Now think about one of the trends that has marked country in 2010: the rise of country rap. Colt Ford’s Chicken & Biscuits has spent 48 weeks on the Billboard Top 50 Country Chart, and counting. Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party includes a Colt Ford rap song “Dirt Road Anthem,” and Jamey Johnson and Kevin Fowler both have duets with Colt.

Meanwhile Kid Rock is more and more considered a country artist. He hosted last year’s CMT Awards, his music has found it’s way onto many country stations, and his picture hangs on the famous front of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in downtown Nashville. In 2008, when Kid Rock played the CMA Awards, many wondered what Lil’ Wayne was doing with him on stage, and even more curious, why Lil’ Wayne didn’t sing. I asserted then that this was Music Row slowly warming up the country music public to the hip-hop influences that would be infiltrating the genre in the years to come.

Now Justin Bieber is recording with Rascal Flatts, and Chris Brown is saying he wants to get into country. Darius Rucker already has, and is doing quite well. You can even contend that two of the three artists who comprised the top selling artists of 2010, that being Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, are in fact not actually country acts. And the other, Zac Brown Band, has said as much about themselves, that they consider themselves a rock band using the resources of country to get noticed. The formation on two super-genres is almost a forgone conclusion, and the idea of one big mono-genre of music with very little distinction sonically between artists does not seem as far fetched as it might have years ago.

So where does this leave artists who are unwilling to compromise style for commercial considerations, or that don’t fit in the very collusive top tier of popular music? Micro-genres.

In the last few years, cataloging the dizzying amount of names that have been associated with music that sometimes is fundamentally the same has become almost impossible, while true sonic variations on the 12 traditional genres abound. Bogged down arguments about who is what, and what to call it feel so tired, unproductive, and irrelevant, and as the outmoded systems of music distribution and radio promotion continue to erode, classifying your music in one of the traditional 12 genres is becoming less necessary. Yes, artists and fans still need ways to classify and label music, but as influences and styles mix and mingle the “micro-genre” terms for music have become more commonplace and more useful for articulating a musical style.

Larger terms like the recently-proposed XXX could take these micro-genres and lump them together for the sake of pooling resources and garnering attention. Looking at the list of proposed bands just for XXX, a dozen or more micro-genres would be needed to help define the diversity of the artists included.

The size of the micro-genres with be their weakness, and their strength. Without a necessity to conform to one of the 12 traditional genres, artists can have more freedom to innovate. Also the bloated infrastructure of the traditional music industry will not need to be supported by taking money out of artists hands to fund extraneous support staff, bloated executive salaries, or leases of high rise buildings. However these independent/underground artists will have to work together to form larger organizations that can still offer support for distribution, touring, promotion, accounting/legal services, etc.

The destruction of the current American music business will, and can be very good, and very bad for music. In regard to the mono-genre, experimentation and variety will continue to disappear, image and youth will continue to be more emphasized, and the music will be judged on mass appeal above all other parameters. The micro-genres will foster innovation and creative freedom, but will struggle for attention and resources.

The main difference between the super-genres or mono-genre, and the micro-genres will be the fans. The fans of popular music will continue to be more accepting of whatever is presented to them as popular. They will continue to be more apt to steal their music rather than pay for it, though they will be even more willing to pay increasing prices to see the performers in a live setting. They will continue to be more obsessed with image, show decreasing loyalty towards acts, and be more susceptible to short-lived trends.

The fans of the micro-genres will be less in numbers, but will continue to increase as popular music offers less variety. They will be more likely to purchase their music rather than steal it, though they will engage in robust live recording/bootleg sharing, as well as supporting their favorite bands by buying merch. Eventually recorded music will be seen as a promotional tool instead of a revenue generator, and will be completely free. Unlike mono-genre acts, micro-genre artists will be forced to keeps ticket prices to their live shows low, but there will be pockets of extreme interest in bands that will create wealthy, wildly-successful artists, that are not household names and remain virtually unknown outside of their circles.

The one exception to the mono-genre / micro-genre makeup with be the legacy act: aging artists who have been very popular in the past. With the decreasing substance of popular music, legacy acts will continue to capitalize off nostalgia from mono-genre fans, while the more musically astute micro-genre fans will continue to support them for their previous contributions to music.

And how do I know all of this?

Because I’m The Triggerman, and I’ve been to the future. There’s also going to be flying cars.

Believe.