The concept of genres is fascinating if you look at it closely. Before a song is categorized into a specific genre, it’s just a collection of sounds. But when that same collection of sounds is called rap or rock or EDM, it transforms into something completely different. Musicians are thought of as having an almost unlimited amount of creative freedom at their fingertips every time they set out to create new music, but when songwriters and producers focus too much on genre, they risk losing that creative freedom.
Every genre comes with the baggage of expectation
Humans like to put things into boxes mainly for the sake of convenience. If you choose to go to a barbeque restaurant, you do so with a certain set of expectations solidified in your mind. When listeners stream playlists organized by genre, the same idea applies. Expectation surrounding genre is so strong that we judge ourselves and others by the music we listen to. This isn’t anything new, of course. Genres carry expectation, and that’s exactly why adhering to them too much can hurt songwriters.
Pick a musical genre. Think about some of the musical characteristics that define it. Then, turn your thoughts to the non-musical cultural elements that surround it. What you’re thinking of is essentially a blueprint that helps the world understand and consume different styles of music. The problem for musicians happens when they use this blueprint to create music.
Define your work after it’s finished, not before
Genres are inescapable, and trying to create something completely new in music isn’t something most musicians can or have any interest in doing. Instead of trying to escape genre altogether, your best bet is to try to approach writing new music with a clear mind free of expectations. This isn’t easy. If you’ve been making music for a while, you’ll not only have the baggage of genre to contend with, but also the drawbacks of your unique writing habits. But the more you can identify and eliminate your musical expectations around genre, the better your music will be for it.
Waiting to define your work after it’s finished will give you more creative freedom and the best chance at making music that’s unique and compelling. Thinking about fitting your music into genres is important, but that can only happen after songs are written and produced.
Leave room for change
Another reason why tying yourself to one genre can hurt you is because the best songwriters are dynamic and adaptable. Just because you make indie rock today doesn’t mean you can’t make alt country or death metal tomorrow. Wrapping up your entire musical identity into one genre limits you creatively and makes transformation harder than it has to be.
Thinking about how your music fits into genres can be a good thing, so long as it doesn’t inform your work in a way that’s not genuine. The main thing musicians should focus on is the craft of making music. Songwriting is a perpetually shifting pursuit that has nothing to do with expectation and labels.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.