Spotify Wrapped is around the corner, and what does it mean? Dozens of posts on X (formerly and perennially known as Twitter) that inquire: “What the hell is [you name it], and why do I love it, Spotify?”
If you google that genre, you’re likely to see a bunch of stories with headlines like “Spotify features music genres you’ve never heard of.” But could you? Do these genres even exist?
Since 2016, Spotify has been keeping a record of the most popular genres it features on the platform and ranks them by streams.
In their recent study, The Pudding has dived deeper into how genres on Spotify have changed throughout time and which ‘new’ genres have risen to the top of the ranking in 2023. Check their amazing essay for more, but we’re here to speculate on what Spotify considers a genre, who defines what a genre is, and if some of the genres on Spotify are actually made up.
A music genre is somewhat of a social construct now, or..?
Back in 2016, there were 1,482 genres on Spotify. Today, it’s 6,000. This impressive collection begs the question: What exactly constitutes a music genre? It’s not just about beats and tunes; we’re talking rhythm, instrumentation, cultural roots, and even thematic threads that songs within a genre should share.
For instance, jazz is often characterized by improvisation and swing rhythms, while techno is known for its electronic instrumentation and repetitive beats. But now, this categorization is too simple and even ignorant, for reality is somewhat different, as it’s not so easy to actually distinguish between music genres now. Let alone define them.
“In the olden days, critics and journalists were the ones who said something was a genre. Artists had to have an entire album sticking to the same sound without much room because the media disliked any albums that moved around. You could view this as shocking today with how, on a single album, someone like Rosalia mixes hip-hop with flamenco and slow tunes. She would have been scolded by her record label many decades ago, and that last big hit album of hers wouldn’t have been released,” Nicole Russin-McFarland says to Kill the DJ in an email interview. “Without people who have been long dead wanting creative freedom, Taylor Swift going from county artist girl next door to ‘1989’ to indie rocker light and every album change would never have happened.”
For some listeners who aren’t sonic nerds, music genres still limit to the basic 10, or perhaps, 20 at a pinch. “It’s admittedly fun to get pedantic about your favorite type of music. Fans of heavy metal have been doing that for years now. But I don’t think music necessarily has to be categorized as it’s created,” says Rab Bradlea, ALIBI’s East Coast Music Supervisor, in an email interview to Kill the DJ.
The reason why all those new genres emerge, among others, might be social media, TikTok more precisely, which has enormous impact on the music industry and brings this taxonomy to the table, making music changing ever faster. For some, it’s hard to believe that genres like post-teen pop (it’s just pop, right?), melodic metalcore, Bronx drill, or Sad Sierreño actually exist.
💡According to The Pudding data essay on TikTok’s impact on music, “of the artists who charted on Spotify from January 2020 to December 2021, 332 had never charted before. 25% of them came from TikTok.” More — in our piece on the latest Spotify and TikTok integration.
“Music was always changing that fast. TikTok did not cause this. Humans love change,” Russin-McFarland says.
“Some people get what they think are weird ones, but the fact that there’s a cluster of listening means that the genre is a real thing, even though I might have made up the name,” Glenn McDonald, Spotify genre researcher, told Spotify for Artists in 2018.