published Thursday, March 7th, 2013

In Tune: Why music labels are a necessary, if occasionally amusing, evil

The longer you listen to music and the more widely you explore its many corners, the more you realize the form is so vast that coming up with categories to describe it is almost an art unto itself.

In recent years, finding terms to define the music being created by the growing number of independent artists has tested the collective wit of listeners, journalists and bloggers. Without label executives steering bands into easily marketable genres, music is growing organically, leading to a bevy of subgenres that are as amusingly named as they are apropos.

Yes, we’re all familiar with the biggies — rock, jazz, country, hip-hop, etc. — and maybe even some subgenres, such as rockabilly, dubstep and garage rock. But the fun really starts when you get even more specific.

Some of my favorites are portmanteaus of better-known genres.

The Joy Formidable? A nu-gaze band. DJ Spooky? Illbient, of course.

Some styles are named for artists originating at the same place and time, such as when the ’60s gave rise to Motown (Detroit), krautrock (Germany) and the Muscle Shoals sound (Northern Alabama).

Want newer examples? Try Madchester, early ’90s alt-rock/dance from Manchester, England, and Nortec, early 2000s techno artists from Northern Mexico.

Crust punk, glo-fi, dark wave, homo hop, metal core — the rabbit hole just keeps on going.

Of course, the inherent problem with subdividing the musical spectrum into increasingly narrow bands is that we’ll eventually end up with labels so hyperspecific that they serve no useful purpose.

Bands tend to find labels restrictive at best and misleading at worst, but there’s a reason we have them. An artist’s name by itself does not generally communicate enough information about what the artist sounds like — excepting groups such as Metallica or Monsters of Folk. Simply getting an audience in the door is hard enough without expecting them to do so without a vague idea of what to expect.

We rely on labels to make existence digestible. Sometimes that’s for the worse, as in racism, but in general, labels help us to order our lives in positive ways. Without them, we wouldn’t know the difference between “Harry Potter” and “Pet Sematary” or between Waffle House and Macaroni Grill. And God save the man who tries to order a triple, smothered and chunked at a Macaroni Grill.

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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