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The Democratization of Music

Adam Rachlitz, Creative Planner at FRUKT LA, unpacks the new 'curator culture' as music continues to sidestep traditional genre definitions

While I was one of the first generations to really “grow up with the internet,” I still got to see the heyday of physical music as a kid.   During this era, music discovery was limited.  The music you were exposed to was either mainstream music on the radio or MTV, or more niche music presented by your environment (friends, family, geography).   On top of this, music was expensive ($18.99 for a Britney Spears CD – LOL).  So I had to choose my allegiance carefully, picking a genre or two I could relate to and diving in to those.

Then came Napster, and everything changed. Almost overnight I was suddenly able to download almost any song I wanted, and a whole new world of music discovery opened up to me.  Now I could jump into any one of my friends’ libraries and download all sorts of music I had never been exposed to.  My music tastes immediately began to broaden.

Fast forward to today in the Spotfiy era, and I’d bet if you ask anyone under the age of 30 what kind of music they like to listen to, you’ll get the same answer 90% of the time – “everything.”  

That’s because the internet democratized music.  It broke down the walls of discovery, so that anyone can listen to anything. And now we listen to more types of music than ever before, which has had some interesting effects on how we interact with music, as well as the actual music and culture itself.

With the massive amount of music available to us, we are now into the age of the curator.  Because we like “everything,” we look for ways outside of genres to define our tastes. We subconsciously look for things like attitude, ideals, and mood to find music we like.  But we need help, which is way curation has become a big topic for Streaming Services. While, this phenomenon isn’t unique to music (see: Buzzfeed), it has had an interesting effect on the actual sound of music, blurring genre lines.

Take ASAP Rocky for example.  You used to be able to tell where a rapper was from based on the sound of his music – east, west, south.  But ASAP Rocky has built his career on being an expert curator, taking influence from everywhere and crafting it into something of his own.  In this way, artists have become curators of sound. 

Genres used to have strict guidelines around the sounds, wardrobe and ideals that made up their subcultures.  But these lines have also begun to blur.  In LA, the punk and rap scenes have begun to merge. You’re just as likely to see someone stage diving to a rap group as you are seeing hip hop fans at a punk show.

This shift can relate to brands in music as well.  Many brands who play in music still think they need to pick a genre when jumping in. This made sense when trying to hone in on one specific subculture’s attitudes and ideals that align with your brand, but as those ideals begin to disseminate across genres and as the lines grow blurred, more and more brands can start to play the role of curator.

A great example of this is Adult Swim.  In recent years the cable network has made music a big focus of their online presence, creating a summer singles program where they give away a new song from a selected artist every week.  The artists are wide ranging in genre, but all share elements similar to Adult Swim itself – a little left-field and internet culture inspired. 

So as we continue to traverse this new and vast land of on-demand music, brands can help play the role of curator, providing much needed guidance to their audience.  But don’t be afraid to transcend genres.  Instead, take inspiration from your brand (tone, beliefs, aesthetic) and match that with the taste of your audience.  Through this you can find threads that start to define the sound of your brand that transcend genres – things like attitude, level of mainstream, and values are a great place to start for a brand in this age of curation.