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, say, techno is all about 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. 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 country 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.
"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.
How new music genres emerge in a new digital-first reality
It's not like people tag genres, thus creating new ones, or artists who label their demos with epithets.
Rab Bradlea believes there's no set way genres are created: "Music researchers can categorize it in certain ways: periods of classical music, as determined by specific shifts in composition and style, are a great example of this. Fans of a specific artist (or set of artists) may come up with a name for the style of music they love organically. Beyond that, marketing and ad people can group music together because they want to better utilize it for selling you things," Rab says in an email to Kill the DJ.
When writing this piece, I looked through dozens of Reddit threads and comments on X about the bizarreness of genres on Spotify and stumbled upon a take that Spotify seemingly groupes genres by the topic. It's partly true.
On Spotify, the new genres might emerge simply owing to a song's topic, since song topics can be grouped on a user's playlists, and specific genres always have stereotypical topics in songs.
"Let's say users want to have songs about getting rich for manifesting. You might have all kinds of pop, hip-hop, R&B and maybe country music thrown into that. But more likely, it’s always going to be grouped by genre itself. Genres are always going to have stereotypical topics (country with 'bro country' topics of ladies and pickup trucks, hip-hop exposing the hardships of gang life and peer pressure), but people need to think outside of that because hip-hop is not all sexist and country music has stupendous storytelling songs," Nicole says.
However, thematic elements aren't something that can solely define a genre.
"I'm almost certain there are more songs about devil worship in Norwegian black metal than pop-country music. But while lyrical themes can be common in certain genres, I think it'd be a mistake to assume a song's topic is always a strong indicator of genre. 'Fast Car' by Tracy Chapman rips your heart out lyrically in ways you might not expect if you heard the music alone," Rab adds.
"TikTok makes people love music again"
Online communities, social media, and streaming services contribute to the formation and identity of music genres. Young artists experiment with sounds, get inspired by older generations, leverage the latest tech advancements, and push boundaries of creativity. No wonder the mix of all this might conjure a new genre that is later labeled on Spotify as something like "pony core."
"TikTok comes up with the wildest terms for beauty and fashion trends. We do this with music or really anything we love in life. I’m happy that TikTok made people fall in love with music again because for the longest time, I would surf message boards like Reddit without having a Reddit account and Twitter and read about how people insisted music was 'over,' that 'all the good music has been released.' No, it hasn't. Every month, I find new work and add it to my personal playlists. If you look at one of my alternative playlists, that is filled with artists I know I would have never discovered if I had gone by traditional media coverage and the old MTV music video lineup," Nicole adds.
"Genre is a source ingredient"
When I saw my Spotify Wrapped 2022 (and it's likely to be the same this year), I thought those genres I've never seen before were totally made up. And I know lots of people reading this would agree, so I'd say, if those genres aren't made up, they're at least too niche or subjective since they're overly specific and only relevant to a very small audience.
Nicole disagrees: "A genre can never be too niche. What is rock and roll to you? Is it rockabilly, Lana Del Rey inspired by Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails, or a teen pop queen Christina Aguilera performing a new version of 'What a Girl Wants' live at the VMAs with Fred Durst? Rock is the source ingredient like peanuts can be turned into peanut butter or a great pad Thai but not the final descriptive. We need terms like glam rock, pop rock, heavy metal, hair band, alternative and other genres within genres to separate everything. Marilyn Manson and Billie Eilish use similar track production on 'Beautiful People' vs. 'Bury a Friend.' What makes one a track by an alternative pop princess and the other a rocker?"
Rab believes that's completely relative: "Returning to heavy metal as an example: if you’re a fan of the genre, the discrepancy between 'power metal' and 'thrash metal' is enormous. If you’re not, you could hear those subgenres back to back and not notice a difference. But overall, I’d say if a genre only covers a few bands, it’s a useless category. It’d be like calling Jethro Tull 'flute rock.' How many other 'flute rock' bands could you possibly be talking about?"
What about region-specific genres?
After Spotify's expansions to new markets, more regional genres have been penetrating the ranking. And, as The Pudding smartly noted, in 2023, Spotify users from Europe and North America represent a much smaller share than they did seven years ago:
51% of Spotify users are currently from Asia and Latin America.
So Spotify adds "new" genres by labeling the existing ones with regional tags like "latina", "mexicana", "mewati", etc. Which is great, since regional genres on Spotify, such as Ukrainian modern pop or Irish post-punk, are subcategorized to highlight and celebrate the diversity of musical styles within different cultural contexts.
Similar logic applies to K-pop, where the genre encompasses a range of styles within the broader category of popular music originating from South Korea. Someone might say K-pop isn't a distinct genre because it's "simply pop made by Koreans." But as for me, this is exactly why it is and should be a distinct genre. Pop isn't identical across the globe, after all.
"The other day, K-pop was appearing on my workout track suggestions and when I listened to some of it, it was really similar to the initial work that Justin Timberlake put out when he went solo mixed with a more 2020s sound. Those younger people who were not born when Justin Timberlake went solo are now probably discovering the original songs. Imitation is a form of flattery. No music would exist if music before it hadn’t been around in any century," Nicole says.
As more users from South Korea, India, or Latin America join Spotify, the more streams music from these regions acquires.
"The same way any other art form can be regionally defined. In film, for example, you have Italian Neorealism, French New Wave and German Expressionism. Artists working in the same place, at the same time, often find inspiration in each other and create a regional version of a genre. There are exceptions to everything though, and K-Pop is one such example for me. Independent of lyrics in Korean, I personally find it doesn't sound radically different from pop music created elsewhere," Rab says.
What's more, Spotify delineates genres by specifying the country in their names, which builds the formation of more "precise" genres that avoid overlapping with broader categories, potentially catering to a local audience familiar with those specific cultural references.
"Take a term like 'country music' and it means something different in the UK, where the average British person thinks country music is a UK group with a folk cover of 'Brand New Key.' UK country music is different than the country music of America and Canada, where we follow bluegrass, folk, mainstream pop and at times hip-hop and R&B ideas ('Rich' by Maren Morris having very Rihanna influences with country mixed in)," Nicole adds.
Mellow Gold, Escape Room, Color Noise & other gems
You might be thinking: there's nothing surprising with region-specific genres. What about this "mellow gold,", "neo mellow," "stomp and holler," "comfy synth," "emotional black metal" (surely, black metal isn't emotional if you don't specify so), "color noise," or "escape room" stuff?
In 2016, journalist Cherie Hu delved into Spotify's music genres and discovered the interactive tool "Every Noise at Once," created by Spotify data expert Glenn McDonald. This tool serves as a "scatter-plot of the musical genre space," analyzing the sounds, aesthetics, production era, and regional influences of songs to identify similarities. By leveraging these connections, Spotify generates algorithmic playlists that seamlessly transition from one song to another, facilitating the discovery of new music tailored to individual preferences, no matter how niche.
As disclosed by The Fader in their report, Glenn McDonald, a "data alchemist" formerly employed at Spotify, shared that he coined the term "escape room" for a distinct genre. He explained, "I made up the name myself, because I couldn’t figure out any existing one to apply. The vibe is kind of an underground-trap/PC-music/indietronic/activist-hip-hop kind of thing, and I thought of 'escape room' both for the sense of escaping from trap, and for the ideas of excitement, puzzle-solving, and indoorness implied by the actual physical escape-room phenomenon."
The term "Bubblegrunge" emerged as a niche genre tag, gaining attention when it appeared in users' Spotify Wrapped playlists in 2021. It's a fusion of "Bubblegum Pop" and "Grunge." According to a report by Newsweek, the genre is applied to artists such as "The Pixies and The Smashing Pumpkins," representing a more "light-hearted" and "poppy" rendition of grunge music.
Dream SMP's genre name isn't rooted in the realm of music, but rather, it finds its origin in the world of Minecraft. According to NME, "Dream is the online pseudonym of the YouTuber who created an exclusive 'survival multiplayer' server (or SMP) in Minecraft." So, where does music come into play? Interestingly, some of the players on the Dream SMP server are also musicians, giving rise to a genre on Spotify that now encompasses artists who share a sonic resemblance to the musical creations of a Dream SMP player.
These are a few examples, but you've grasped the idea.
How does Spotify feature so many genres—does it make them up?
Yes. Sort of.
Spotify's former genre researcher Glenn McDonald noted that some genres on Spotify are indeed made up because they emerge from "users' listening patterns."
In an interview with McDonald, a distinctive approach to defining genres has been unveiled. Unlike relying solely on the labels assigned by recording studios, producers, or artists themselves, McDonald employs an algorithm that assesses music based on "subjective psychoacoustic attributes" — essentially, the auditory qualities of a song. The genres linked to an artist are influenced by a myriad of nuanced factors, including "tempo," "duration," "color," "modernity," and "femininity." The algorithm then evaluates the artist's similarity to every genre within Spotify's system. McDonald's website, Every Noise at Once, allows users to explore Spotify's ranking system.
To the Spotify algorithm, an artist's genre is more of a "cluster of collective listening patterns" than a traditional label you might find on a record store sign. As for Glenn McDonald, if he discovers a group of sonically similar artists without a clear genre designation, he doesn't hesitate to create one. These he terms "emerging genres," and he closely monitors them in case they evolve into something significant. This is how "Escape Room" ended up on many users' top genres lists; McDonald made up the term to characterize a group of artists who share a connection to trap but lean more toward "experimental-indie-r&b-pop" than traditional trap. Artists associated with Escape Room include Charli XCX, Kaytranada, and Ashnikko.
"The third set is things that don't quite have names yet, and maybe they're not exactly genres yet," says McDonald. "But I can name them and then I can watch them and see if they turn into a thing. One genre may not turn out to be a single 'thing'—it may be a bunch of things that will resolve into their own bits, and then the tentative genre will go away. But it's interesting to watch," said McDonald in an interview with Spotify for Artists back in 2018.
"Spotify goes by what people listen to after listening to other tracks. So if Billie Eilish were to put out a slower track that has more acoustic guitar on it and lots of people listen to that after Miranda Lambert and other country artists, her track is going to show up more as a recommended track for people who love country music. An artist on Spotify can have your work recommended in a handful or more of genres and within them, niche genres, because each song you release may have specific tiny little tweaks to it or a vocal delivery that changes everything. The mix gets more eclectic if you are involved in different main genres (rap, country, pop, etc.) or have a mix of vocal and instrumental releases like say, Pharrell Williams! Spotify is great with knowing what to do when artists cover more than one genre," Nicole says.
Shiva Rajaraman, former Spotify's VP of Product, articulated this vision, stating, "What we want to do is make Spotify more of a ritual. You'll begin to use it for a set of habits, and we will start to feed content for every slot in your day."
Surely, for Spotify, it's not all about making your listening experience more pleasant; it's also a clever viral marketing trick that keeps people talking for months, eagerly anticipating their Spotify Wrapped.
So don't rush to tweet that unknown genre you've spotted in your Spotify Wrapped is rubbish. Even if it doesn't exist (but we now know it's hard to define a genre), it's been created by Spotify according to your listening patterns.