If there’s anything I get intimidated by while writing about music, it is attaching a genre name to a sound. Use the wrong genre for a band, and you can lose credibility. It’s much easier for me to describe specific elements in a song than it is to state what the genre is. Genres are subjective, regional, and are an exercise in language. Time also comes into play. The term emo was used in the 90s, but many of those bands twenty five years later would be called dreamo, and would certainly not be considered emo today. So to use a genre name, you have to be very knowledgable about certain sounds, groupings of bands, trends, changes over time, and generational uses of terms, etc.
Prior to sources like Pandora, who rates every song manually, or Spotify, which tracks listening habits, data, and audio analyzation to create connections between artists, it would take an enormous dedication to break down genres of our times. Now, it’s a matter of taking the massive amounts of data that has been gathered and analyzing it in ways that are understandable. Visual graphs and maps tend to be the easiest way to comprehend something that is enormously complex. (Keep in mind that Apple, YouTube, and other services also gather their own data.)
As of May 5, 2011 (when I wrote this), Spotify identifies 4,318 genre-shaped distinctions. Spotify identifies dream pop as distinct from modern dream pop (and “modern” doesn’t mean it’s more “current”). It also identifies specific genres for a given city where that genre is strong. Louisville Indie is a genre that Spotify recognizes as being distinct from Cincinnati Indie.
I’ve seen a number of these genre visualizations. They typically try to link genres together based on influence, and many of these studies are quite interesting.
Every Noise At Once
There’s one in visualization that I found especially interesting, and it’s quite possible you’ve seen it since it started in 2013. It’s called Every Noise At Once. Every Noise takes all 4,318 genres and maps them on a scatter-plot. “Every Noise at Once is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 4,318 genre-shaped distinctions by Spotify as of 2020-05-11.” At first, the map looks like thousands of genres scattered around. Two genres next to each other aren’t necessarily related, as far as genre influences are concerned. So the map seems a little chaotic.
But at the bottom of the page, researcher Glenn McDonald explains a key piece of information: “The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.” After reading this, the map is far more understandable. (As a user experience designer, I would love to help him redesign the map so that this critical information is communicated clearly.)
So genres at the top right are mechanical/electronic and spikier/bouncier, for example. You’ll find UK tech house, Serbian electronic, dark techno, and many others that are all “electronic” and “spikier” or “bouncier”. Keep in mind that this is from software analyzation of WAV files. Scrolling down and looking to the left, you’ll find more “atmospheric” genres, and the further down you scroll the more “organic”. What’s “organic” according to Spotify? Opera, piano, strings, choir genres are all “organic”, and also tend to be more “atmospheric” (to the left).
Clicking on a genre name will provide a 15 second sample of that genre. Dream pop is represented by Concteau Twins’ Cherry Coloured Funk. Modern Dream Pop is represented by Orchid Mantis’ It Was Gone. What’s less obvious is that you can click on the “>>” next to the genre name and you’ll be taken to a scatter plot of hundreds of the “hottest” artists of that genre (this is updated regularly). The dream pop page has recognizable names such as Wild Nothing, The Radio Dept., Beach House, etc. (and many who might be less recognizable). The more popular a band is, the larger the name.
Each band in a genre page is charted according to the same calibration. The more atmospheric artists are to the left, while the more “bouncier” bands are to the right. More organic acts are near the bottom of the page, and electronic acts are closer to the top. With this view, you are more likely to find bands that are similar in sound, and listen to them. Clicking on the “>>” will take you to their Spotify page.
At the top right of the page, you’ll find a search bar where you can search for artists. If the band isn’t on a genre page, it will suggest genres that related bands are found in. This is quite useful when trying to identify a general genre for an artist.
If the scatter-plot map is too much to look at, Glenn provides a sortable list of these genres. You can also listen to one song from every genre in the Sound of Everything playlist with annotation of these songs. You can also find what 3,680 cities around the world are listening to (click on a city will reorganize the list according to related cities according to listening habits, as well as a genre list, and a Spotify playlist of songs). Or you can look at other things that Glenn has created with this data and articles he has written.
Let’s talk about genres
When I say that I write about dream pop, shoegaze, bedroom pop, yacht rock, and some folk (mostly chamber pop), Spotify breaks it down further. I’ll list out the genres according to Spotify and allow you to explore them. The easiest way to find a genre is to do a page search (command-f on Apple).
Let’s break down shoegaze:
Taking dream pop further:
Modern dream pop
Indie dream pop
Japanese dream pop
There’s only one Bedroom pop genre.
I shy away from saying that I write about folk, but I do on a limited basis. Spotify recognizes 161 folk genres, which is why “folk” carries less meaning. The term “Indie” is even more diverse. Spotify shows 409 indie genres, partly because enough bands are identified as indie that Spotify recognizes quite a few regional indie genres.
Stylistically, indie is so diverse that the term has become generic. If you’re a little more specific, like indie folk (even this is a large genre), you’re likely to recognize dozens of bands. You will also find twelve indie folk genres (mostly regional).
But let’s be honest. I’ll write about chamber pop, chillwave, small room, indie rock and indie pop (as generic as those label are), indietronica, art pop, indie folk, indie surf, slow core, stomp and holler, dreamo… you get the picture.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t hold much stock in genre names, though I do find them interesting. I’d rather give you a genre name at the beginning just to give you a basic idea of what to expect. You might find that I’ll combine genre names. I mean, why aren’t there bedroom folk or dream folk genres?
Here are a few interesting observations based on this map concerning the bands/artists you’re likely to find on Puddlegum:
- Modern dream pop is less organic and more mechanical or electronic than dream pop (both appear to be equally atmospheric).
- Indie dream pop sits somewhat in between modern dream pop and dream pop.
- There’s also Japanese dream pop, which I’m less familiar with.
- Bedroom pop is dead center on this map.
The more popular acts on Spotify will appear in multiple genres. DIIV is not only a shoegaze band, they are considered modern dream pop, nu gaze, neo-psychedelic, chillwave, and dream pop. And if we’re honest, many of these genres are interchangeable.
I’m passing this along because I find that it’s a really useful tool for understanding genres, and for discovery. When you study genres, you find that it’s far more diverse yet subjective than you might expect. But since Every Noise is data-driven, this takes some of the subjectivity out… some, but not all, since genre names begin with subjectivity.