musical genre
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Genre Isn’t Dead, It Just Smells Funny: Rethinking Musical Genre for the Streaming Era

Is “genre” really dead, dissolving, or disappearing? Are traditional categories like hip-hop, rock, R&B, folk, soul, and jazz less meaningful than before?

There’s no denying that streaming services profoundly shape how we listen to music. The cheap, on-demand access to millions of songs on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music makes exploring new artists and styles easier than ever. Personalized playlists and other recommendation features also drive music discovery, often leading to more fragmented and diverse listening habits than in the pre-streaming era.

As our listening behavior changes, so does our understanding of genre and its role in musical culture. In recent years, streaming’s influence has prompted headlines such as “The Dissolve of Genres” and “Genre Is Disappearing”. But is genre really dead, dissolving, or disappearing? Are traditional categories like hip-hop, rock, R&B, folk, soul, jazz, and classical less meaningful than they used to be? We must first consider what “genre” actually is to answer those questions.

What Is Genre?

Identifying a musical genre is usually intuitive. Even without extensive training, most listeners can differentiate country from classical and pop from punk. But it’s not so simple when pressed to define what genre actually is. That is because genre isn’t one thing; rather, it’s a constellation of musical markers, social behaviors, and marketing tactics.

Most people primarily associate genre with a set of aesthetic signifiers, including instrumentation, performance practices, song forms, album artwork, and lyrical subject matter. A banjo is more likely to suggest bluegrass than heavy metal, for instance, and extended improvisation is more common in jazz than electronic dance music. Each genre has a loose set of musical “rules” that most artists adhere to, either consciously or unconsciously.

In addition to musical features, genre has a strong social component. Many genres develop communities or “scenes” of fans, artists, record labels, venues, and other musical institutions. A genre is not just what you listen to; it can also be about who you hang out with, what clothes you wear, where you go to gigs, and what your values are. Even in online and virtual spaces, music remains a social act intimately tied to our sense of identity, binding us to others with similar musical tastes and mindsets.

Because music is so closely connected to identity, genre is also an effective marketing strategy. Genre has been essential for identifying audiences and establishing consumer expectations since the earliest days of the music industry. From record store bins to radio station broadcasts, how music is categorized affects its branding, listener demographics, and distribution channels. Although the digital interfaces of streaming services have largely replaced the physical constraints of the record store, music is still grouped in meaningful ways, such as on playlists.

However, categorizing music is never a neutral act since it shapes how music is presented to and perceived by audiences. What constitutes “world music”? What artists are considered “urban” or “indie”? As Amanda Petrusich reflects in the New Yorker, genre labels are often bound up in discriminatory ideologies, a practice that dates back at least as far as the 1920s with the distinction between “race records” and “hillbilly music”.

Furthermore, genres are not always stable. In Categorizing Sound, musicologist David Brackett claims that musical genres constantly change over time as conventions evolve, and their definitions differ from context to context. “Genres are not static groupings of empirically verifiable musical characteristics,” Brackett writes, “but rather associations of texts whose criteria of similarity may vary according to the uses to which the genre labels are put” (2016, 3–4).

If we view genre as a fluctuating combination of aesthetic, social, and marketing features, we can identify a few significant ways in which streaming is changing genre: a new emphasis on contextual playlists instead of genres, the blurring of genre boundaries and the proliferation of micro-genres, and traditional genres becoming niche instead of mainstream markets.

In the Mood: The Rise of Contextual Playlists

With subscription streaming services, listening is no longer bound to purchasing discrete recordings, either as physical media or digital downloads. The turn from ownership to access has led to the immense popularity of playlists, which have supplanted albums as the primary way listeners engage with music. Although playlists have precedents in mixtapes and compilation albums, unlimited streaming access has opened up new opportunities for grouping music together.

Many playlists on streaming services are contextual and organized around specific moods or activities rather than traditional genres. Even a cursory browse through Spotify yields thousands of human-curated and algorithmically generated playlists, including “Morning Run”, “Feel Good Dinner”, and “Sad Bops”. These playlists rely on what scholar Anahid Kassabian calls “ubiquitous listening”, “a mode of listening dissociated from specific generic characteristics of the music. In this mode, we listen ‘alongside’, or simultaneous with, other activities” (2013, 9). Through ubiquitous listening, contextual playlists are designed to elicit effects ranging from mood regulation to improved focus to better sleep. 

Ubiquitous listening has a long history, including Muzak and mood music LPs, but streaming has made it more popular than ever. Music theorist Eric Drott argues in his 2024 book Streaming Music, Streaming Capital that streaming services are incentivized to promote contextual playlists and passive listening because they facilitate continuous consumption, allow platforms to collect granular data about listening activity, and can lead to highly targeted advertisements. He claims that “Not only does playlist targeting encourage the multiplication of interest-based, lifestyle, and psychographic audience segments that can be rented out to advertisers, it also expands the range of attributes that may be added to user profiles, increasing their detail and thus their potential value” (2024, 117).

In some ways, contextual playlists serve a similar function to traditional genres: they are a way of categorizing music and identifying audiences. But when music is called “workout music” or “study music” instead of “rock” or “hip-hop”, for example, the aesthetic and social elements that previously characterized genre become less important than the music’s “vibe” and its function for listeners (though some types of music are certainly more conducive to particular moods and activities than others).

Blurring Boundaries: Genreless Music and Micro-Genres

Streaming services and their playlists also contribute to a blurring of boundaries between genres. Some of Spotify’s most popular playlists—such as “Oyster”, “Pollen”, and “Lorem”—are explicitly advertised as “genreless”. The contents of these playlists are not strictly informed by musical features but rather by data about listening patterns. As reported by Music Ally, Spotify’s Sophia Olofsson claims that “we realized there was a gap where we needed to curate for culture rather than genres… Genres were expanding, and artists are experimenting with them”.

From the Beatles to David Bowie to Björk, there have always been artists who defy genre conventions or find crossover success. However, eclecticism is increasingly becoming the norm, with many of today’s biggest stars, like Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, and Olivia Rodrigo, resisting easy classification. Most recently, Beyoncé’s genre-spanning Cowboy Carter has sparked debate over whether it is really a country album, echoing longstanding prejudices against Black artists performing country music.

Streaming services have arguably played a key role in establishing new (sub)genres of music as well. Terms like “Spotify-core” and “streambait pop” have been used to describe chill pop music that is especially conducive to the kind of ubiquitous listening described earlier, and the hyperpop phenomenon, represented by artists such as 100 gecs, was popularized in part through a Spotify playlist.

Indeed, while traditional genre categories are blurring, highly specific subgenres are proliferating. The website Every Noise at Once, created by Spotify’s former “Data Alchemist” Glenn McDonald, maps over 6,000 distinct musical genres, some of which McDonald named himself (including “Escape Room” and “Permanent Wave”). McDonald recently told Billboard Canada, “It was not a goal to invent names… but when you have all this listening data, you sometimes find that you can see patterns that exist before they have come up with names for themselves in the world”. (Following McDonald’s departure from Spotify in the company’s late 2023 layoffs, Every Noise at Once is no longer being actively updated; a petition on Spotify to restore the website’s full functionality can be found here.) 

As with the genreless playlists described above, these “micro-genres” are often based on listening patterns, which can only be determined through data-driven platforms like Spotify. In that sense, streaming services functionally create new genres based on data analysis, with traditional gatekeepers and tastemakers to some extent being replaced by playlist curators and algorithmic recommender systems. Genre becomes less about social behaviour, more about data.

Genre As Niche

Despite the rise of contextual playlists and the blurring of genres on streaming services, many users still listen intently and are committed fans of individual genres. There are, after all, many different types of listeners, and even the same person may oscillate between lean-back and lean-forward listening, depending on the context.

To address genre-focused listeners, Spotify, Apple Music, and other platforms still have countless playlists devoted to specific genres, and even their contextual playlists often feature a genre component: “Happy Folk”, “The Rock Workout”, “Calming Classical”, and so forth. A user’s aesthetic preferences also shape their personalized recommendations, so if you listen exclusively to indie music, you’re more likely to be suggested Mitski than Megadeth.

Yet this is not enough for some listeners, many of whom seek services that cater to their particular genre preferences. That is reflected by a growing number of niche, genre-specific streaming services, such as One Drop (for reggae), Jazzed, and ROKK. Classical music, with its unique metadata requirements and historical association with “serious” listening, has also led to several dedicated classical services, including Apple Music Classical, Idagio, and Presto Music

Such services typically serve fans through genre-specific content, curation, and community; they also often feature additional context for recordings in the form of editorial content and liner notes, responding to the common complaint that mainstream streaming services decontextualize music.

Genre-specific services reveal that traditional genre categories remain essential for many listeners, even if mood-based listening and so-called genreless music are on the rise. In many ways, genres have begun to function more as niches in the streaming era than the mainstream marketing categories they once were.

Genre Is Dead—Long Live Genre!

Streaming services have undoubtedly changed how musical genres function and how we think about them. From the popularity of contextual playlists to the increasing amounts of musical cross-pollination, traditional genre categories just don’t mean what they used to. While many people’s identities are still wrapped up in their musical preferences, the strict genre allegiances that led to phenomena like the rock versus disco feud of the 1970s, fortunately, seem less prevalent in the mainstream today (even if gatekeeping and elitism continue to manifest in different ways).

But this is not to say that genre no longer exists or matters. Music charts and the Grammy awards are still organized by genre, radio stations often revolve around genres, and niche communities continue to coalesce around certain styles of music. Even if genre has changed, it still shapes how many people discover, listen to, and find value in music—for better and for worse.

It will take a lot more than streaming services to override the human tendency to categorize and find meaning in labels. To (mis)quote Frank Zappa, one of the most genre-defying artists, “genre isn’t dead, it just smells funny”.

Works Cited

Brackett, David. Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.

Drott, Eric. Streaming Music, Streaming Capital. Durham: Duke University Press, 2024.

Kassabian, Anahid. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.