Categorizing (One’s) Music

by Thomas Brett

If you want to set up, as I recently did, an artist account at CDBaby to sell your music, you will be directed to a screen where you will be asked not only to succinctly describe your sound, but also categorize the material in terms of pre-existing labels. For my description I wrote this:

This collection of ambient electronic instrumental music features haunting modal harmonies, lush textures, and evolving percussive patterns to create a contemplative soundscape.”

I felt that this blurb was pretty accurate in describing the elements of the music collection I had submitted (“instrumental” and “modal” music with “percussive patterns”) albeit a little subjective too (are the harmonies really “haunting” and is the overall mood really “contemplative”?).  The truth is that it’s difficult to describe the workings if music (especially one’s own) because how music works on us is not entirely a direct result of how it works itself.  In fact, the sounds of music both create and co-opt our social lives to weave their spell.  Music is, to use critic Robert Christgau’s memorable phrase, “a rather insidious socializing agent.”

But I digress.  It’s one thing to describe music, and it’s another thing to categorize it in terms of pre-existing labels.  CDBaby makes available a huge list of styles from which to choose.  The idea is that if you can fit your music into a neat box, others will more easily be able to find (or avoid) you.  So, you make electronic music you say? Well, be a little more specific and choose one additional qualifier from the following list:

acid house, acid jazz, acid techno, alternative dance, ambient, Baile Funk, Big Beat, Baltimore Club, Breakbeat, Breakcore, Broken Beat, Chicago House, Chill out, Chiptune, Dance, Dark/Terror/Speed-core, Deep House, Detroit Techno, Disco, Down Tempo, Drum ‘n Bass/Jungle, Dub, Dubstep, Electro, Electro House, Electroclash, Electronica, Euro-Dance, Experimental, Folktronic, Freestyle, Funk, Gabber, Ghetto House, Glitch, Happy Hardcore, Hard House, Hardcore Techno, Ni-NRG, House, IDM, Illbient, Industrial, Latin Dance, Latin Freestyle, Lounge, Microhouse, Minimal Techno, Nuskool breaks, Nujazz, Pop Crossover, Progressive House, Progressive Trance, Psy-Trance, Schranz, Soundscapes, Synth-Pop, Tech-House, Techno, Techno-Dub, Trance, Tribal House, Trip Hop, Virtual Orchestra

Lists like these, while useful, are problematic because each of the electronic music styles listed above have deeply intertwined and overlapping histories as well as countless musicians working within their parameters.  Also, lists are inevitably one step behind musical innovation, and new labels are popping up all the time.  (Where, for instance, is Turntablism?  Where is UK-based Wonky?)  And if you think that your music is definitely situated in one established style such as say, ambient, don’t be so sure: What about Electronica, or IDM, or Minimal, or Experimental, or Soundscapes, or Field Recordings?  Chances are that your music falls between the categorical cracks that are out there to help us make sense of it.

But perusing lists can also inspire new understandings of one’s music.  When I’m asked to select a second stylistic category to describe the music I’ve uploaded, I take a chance and choose New Age.  Okay, well be more specific and choose from the following list:

Adult Alternative, Ambient, Celtic New Age, Contemporary Instrumental, Energy Healing, Environmental, Ethnic Fusion, Healing, Meditation, Nature, Neo-Classical New Age, Progressive Alternative, Progressive Electronic, Relaxation, Self-Help, Shamanic, Solo Instrumental, Space, Spiritual, Techn0-Tribal, Yoga

Now this begins to feel odd because I’m becoming aware of the wishful thinking involved in this “what exactly is my music?” check-the-right-box process.  Is this healing music?  (I hope so.)  Music for yoga?  (Yes, that might work.)  Space music? (I like the sound of that!)  Music for meditation?  (Maybe.)  I want to choose “contemplative” but there is no such category, so I settle for Progressive Electronic because I’m taking “progressive” to mean proceeding in steps and moving towards change.  And with that I am done: the sounds could be categorized as progressive experimental ambient electronic music.

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