Genre is an obsolete method of classifying music, Grammys highlight need for different system

At the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday Feb. 10, musical greats from nearly every genre came together to celebrate music and honor the outstanding work from 2018. Every year, from nomination announcements to the conclusion of the event itself, there are passionate arguments about the winners, the losers and those who never even got a nomination. 

The issues extend beyond mere corruption within the Recording Academy though; it is systemic. Classifying albums, artists and music in general by genre is an outdated method and should be replaced with a more flexible categorization system.

“[Artists] now straddle, or exist beyond, genres that seemed set in concrete as little as 10 years ago,” music journalist Peter Robinson argued in The Guardian. “They represent a cross-pollination that makes it harder than ever to definitively state that you like or dislike one genre or another.”  

Ten years ago, when genre classification was taken as gospel, it was a decent system in theory. Since then, music consumption and production has evolved at an insanely rapid rate.

With the emergence of major music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, consumers have nearly all music from any genre at their immediate fingertips. Gone are the days of buying an entire album just to skip every track but the radio single. 

Now, trying a new artist or album literally costs listeners nothing. 

“Labels may still be getting their heads around how their business looks with no purchase journey, but consumers have already adapted,” Robinson wrote. “There is no financial imperative to stick to what you know you like.” 

Even if label companies are sticking to the archaic genre system, artists have started adapting and producing their music within this post-genre climate. For example, The 1975, notorious for releasing genre-less work, define themselves by their ability to genre-hop. 

“[The labels] looked at me and went: ‘Well, he’s weird for a start’, but they’d also say: ‘All the songs sound different. They don’t know who they want to be,’” The 1975 frontman Matty Healy said, according to The Guardian. “I’m there going: ‘That’s who we are. We create in the way we consume. We’re from this generation, and we don’t want to be from another time.’” 

While clearly not all music sounds similar, comparing the sound of The Beatles to Michael Jackson is still like apples and oranges; genre has never been an overly solid system. 

“[Genres] are broad umbrella terms that are used to describe music that vary greatly in their characteristics,” according to The University of Cambridge. For example, when someone claims to be a fan of rock music, they could be referring to anyone from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, two completely different artists.

David Greenberg from The University of Cambridge Department of Psychology has done research and offers an alternative, more precise system of music categorization. 

“A more accurate way to label music would be based solely on their actual musical characteristics (or attributes),” Greenberg said, according to The University of Cambridge. “Such a labelling system would also likely better account for diversity in a person’s music taste.”  

We need to reevaluate how we look at the massive amounts of music we’re consuming rather than just slapping societal nicety labels on albums or artists. 

It isn’t fair to pigeon-hole musicians into vast categories with very little wiggle room for creativity. It also isn’t fair to us as Grammy viewers; we’re restricting ourselves based on convention.

While the Recording Academy reviews this year’s Grammy selection process and winners, perhaps it is time for an entire overhaul. Eradicating genre altogether would no doubt completely alter the music industry and maybe that’s exactly what it needs.