Music is often criticized for being too mainstream, or straight-up weird, but an individual’s favourite music usually boils down to its uniqueness or simplicity
Today’s musicians juggle an oversaturated market, leading them to question how they can stand out among the herd. With Apple Music and Spotify playlists updated weekly, musicians clash as they struggle to reach for the top of the list.
Artists who can incorporate popular and inventive elements in their music offer new, palatable experiences to the average listener. When a new track sparks discussion, whether it is outlandish or watered-down, it often still plays a pivotal role in the progression of music culture.
Here are some ways artists can navigate the vast landscape of the pop industry.
The popular and the experimental
Experimental music is a genre in itself, but if we look at Fiona Apple, for example, we find an artist who is innovative within the popular scene. Fringe music, another label for this category, may be too inaccessible and isn’t a realistic approach for budding musicians hoping to make a living off of their music.
We can take a look at Hallin’s spheres to better understand the spectrum of modern music. Named after Daniel C. Hallin, this communications theory is defined by Oxford Reference as a negotiation between three concepts of journalistic objectivity. In this diagram, the centre circle refers to the consensus of public opinion, the middle circle follows ideas of legitimate controversy, and the outermost circle describes fringe society.
If we repurpose this diagram, we can look at how music can be received by an audience. That is: music in the mainstream, music that tests what a listener can enjoy, and music that is disliked or misunderstood by a large audience.
When music is labelled as artistic, it is usually because it strives to add something that has not existed before, or improving on something performed in the past. In contrast, the popular artist is hoping to gain recognition for a widely accepted sound.
Art music may be an appropriate way to label it, then.
Lady Gaga, for example, who has ruled over the popular scene for the last decade, recently dropped a reimagined look at her 2020 album Chromatica. One year later, Dawn of Chromatica takes the core structure of her popular dance hits, and reinvents it with help from extraordinary talents like Dorian Electra, Mura Masa, Rina Sawayama and many other experimental artists.
This eclectic album redux broadens Gaga’s audience and takes a real turn towards the eccentric. For Lady Gaga, her embrace of the weird isn’t abnormal, but it gives us the chance to explore Chromatica’s “what if” moments.
So, in my definition, art music represents a form that leads away from wide recognition in the hopes of finding new and refreshing avenues for a song, style, and genre.
Music stuck somewhere in the middle
Between charting music and music far outside the mainstream exists the middle, where we find music that aims to entertain the listener and also test their limits.
Within the genre of pop, we find new approaches from artists like Billie Eilish, who makes pop music stylized by her dark, carefree personality, and Hubert Lenoir, who brings a free-spirited, offbeat energy to his pop music.
The rise of music curation in streaming services has also created new opportunities for musicians to stand out, even in an oversaturated market.
Due to numerous specialized playlists and radio stations, listeners can find more and more unique music experiences. This wide-ranging curation tends to favour popularity but highlights emerging artists or bands as well. Under streaming services, there is a renewed desire to find obscure music that does something novel.
It’s worth noting that music evolves, and so does its audience. What may be received at first as fringe music can become accepted over time. Playboi Carti’s discography, strangely enough, shows this within a short timeframe. His singles and albums have often been received as underwhelming at first listen, but increase in popularity over the following weeks.
Virality plays a role in music progression too, as one single can establish a new music style and become a highly sought-after product. One example is Justin Bieber’s remix of “Despacito,” which brought forth a wave of reggaeton music to North America. Recently it has become equally important for record labels and streaming services to care about both experimental and popular music.
The scope of music
Upon observation, art and pop music function as a dichotomy. Together, they add balance to music culture with a centralized approach that places the audience first. You couldn’t have smash hits from Doja Cat without Nicki Minaj paving the way, and there also wouldn’t be an Anderson .Paak without pretty much any R&B or funk artist ever.
Releases that are too accessible can quickly start to feel commercial, as if it were a product. Oftentimes, artists are hired to make promotional music for a movie, which usually leads to safer music that panders to an audience. One example is the soundtrack for Suicide Squad, which featured a diverse range of artists but led to music with small thrills and inconsequential impact.
Music that is too experimental is susceptible to gatekeeping and can distance and confuse a fanbase. The reason why a fanbase becomes confused arises when an artist chooses to reinvent itself to the point of a loss of identity. For example, after nearly 15 years of transformations, Ye’s last three albums have left many longtime fans feeling left behind.
More generally, pop cannot continue existing without innovation, however minimal, and too much attention to experimentation can unravel a demographic. Therefore, both streams of thought cannot live without the other.
In the end, consider what you would like from your own music favourites. Do you want your music to be at the cutting edge of the industry? Would you like it to continue perfecting sounds you have grown to love?
Regardless, music pushes forward and it’s interesting to remember what your favourite artists contributed to the ongoing evolution of music.