The Lifespan of a Genre
When Ralph Peer’s father, owner of a furniture store in Independence, Missouri, started selling Victrolas in the early 20th century as a sideline, Peer became fascinated with the problem of providing sufficient content to satisfy the demand created by this new technology. While Columbia and RCA Victor had started recording the likes of operatic tenor Enrico Caruso and Irish tenor John McCormack as well as the comedy team Gallagher & Sheen, the market seemed to be limited to the upper middle class parlor crowd. The question of how to discover and create an audience for this new technology became, for Peer, first an interest in sales and then the passion of a lifetime. With the advent of race records and hillbilly records, Peer was largely responsible for opening and developing new audiences of listeners among black and mountain people. This interest helped develop jazz and country music, which became major genres for both home consumption and, soon, the radio. Below is the first song recorded at the 1927 Bristol sessions by Ernest Stoneman.
What is genre, anyway? According to Wikipedia, “Genres form by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones is discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.” When playing recorded music moved from being a novelty to being an entertainment commodity, greater choices became available to attract more audiences, and the concept of genre developed. And then it became broken into segments to attract specific audiences who responded to sub- and sub-sub genres. Thus, music became country music became bluegrass music became traditional became … you get the progression. Here’s a song by the Carter Family that kicked off their recording of what became bluegrass music.
The convention of song length was set by the length of time the recording technology of a particular era could encompass. It also fit well to provide broadcasters with periods of content to hold listeners between the real objective of radio: having listeners tune in for the commercials. The two needs coincided to create a song length standard of roughly three minutes. Holding listeners (and viewers) has become increasingly complex and difficult as the transition to digital communication has progressed. At the same time, it appears our attention span has been shortening. For instance, on my own YouTube channel, the average time a viewer plays a song is about 1:57, while the average length of the songs themselves remain about three minutes.
Recently I wrote a review of a marvelous biography of Jimmy Buffett, who has managed to defy genre. During his long career, extending over 40 years, Buffett has remained popular while rarely rising to the top ten in the singles or album charts except as a guest on others’ recordings. Meanwhile, he has established a brand that includes a successful chain of restaurants, an online radio station, best selling books, and more, making him one of the most financially successful performers in history. His career has been built on successful (and extensive) touring, attracting sell-out audiences from clubs and bars to arenas and stadiums. This career, while built on the lives and proclivities of Baby Boomers, appears to be continuing, despite changes the musical interests of the succeeding generations. How younger, more plugged in and connected generations receive and consume music, making it their own, will determine the future of many genres as well as the concept of genre itself.
Recently, PBS ran a seven-part history of recorded sound, the last work of fabled Beatles producer Sir George Martin, called Soundbreaking. This fascinating view of how recordings have been conceived and produced, from the beginnings of recorded sound, through the history of rock music, to hip-hop, techno, and beyond suggests the richness of recordings and their enormous variability, as well as opening, for those willing, the intellectual and emotional taste buds of listeners to new and varied kinds of music.
As the distribution of music has become ever more complex, so has the understanding of how it develops, who consumes it, and how to market it to the increasingly varied number and variety of people who love, even define themselves, by the music they consume. Meanwhile, is the lifespan of genres shortened or extended? Why is it that bluegrass music, a now aged genre dating back to 1945, continues to attract and develop fans, while newer musics have continued to proliferate? Perhaps it’s because bluegrass continues to grow within its own confines, as the world continues to change around it and within it.
Late on Saturday afternoon, a new, young group of musicians calling themselves Twisted Pine, their name suggesting the pine tree so often immortalized as a symbol of home in bluegrass songs as well as announcing their own twist on this theme, broke into their rendition of Blondie’s Heart of Glass at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival in Connecticut. This venerable festival, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is viewed by many as a traditional bluegrass festival, and yet a ripple of recognition, followed by what sounded to me like joy, greeted this acoustic representation of this club song from the late ’70s. Here’s the original and the Twisted Pine interpretation, acoustic style.
At the same festival, The Lonely Heartstring Band, begun as a Beatles cover band four years ago, demonstrated the flexibility of bluegrass with a couple of sets that included music from Bill Monroe, Paul Simon, Credence Clearwater Revival, and more, as well as their own originals. Music that had begun by bringing new life to the sounds of the 1930s along with inventive ways to present that music in an acoustic setting has continued to demonstrate both its staying power and its flexibility.
The power of the concept of genre lies in the suggestion that the listener, viewer, attendee can and will find something familiar in the music being played. However, catalog can become a trap to creativity. Bands can often become the prisoner of their own earlier creative drive. The songs they wrote and performed early in their careers, the music that brought them fans as well as, sometimes, wealth and fame, are demanded through the years by these same fans. At some time the burden of the catalog becomes a bar to creative genius, experimentation, and forward movement as bands bow to their audiences’ demands for the familiar and comfortable. There’s a temptation for a band to become its own cover band, sacrificing their own creativity to the comfort of earlier success and the stream of income that continues to accrue as their aging fans refuse to allow them to follow their muse. Perhaps the majority of the catalog reminders should be left to the cover bands, whose most egregious manifestation is found in the so-called tribute bands which seem to proliferate. There must always be a balance between the old, comfortable, and familiar and the new, ground-breaking, and experimental. Great bands are able to find and maintain that balance without becoming impersonations of themselves. Meanwhile, Americana emerges as a non-generic genre.