Can a streaming platform create a niche music genre?

At the start of March, Spotify created a new editorial playlist called “Webcore.” It’s a collection crammed with songs that, on first, second, third, and tenth glance, have very little to do with each other. Video game-themed footwork and breakbeat music (Acetantina, NANORAY) tilts into actual video game soundtracks. A stray Aphex Twin tune sits beside two Urban Outfitters bargain bin indie songs by Temporex. Maybe the only qualities shared by these songs are that many of them come from pockets on the internet, with electronic and vaguely futuristic overtones—like a lost-and-found box for alt-TikTok ephemera or something a nerd playing Minecraft with Audio-Technica headphones strapped over their ears would relish.

Why did Spotify make this playlist? To map out the culture, so it can feed its version of the culture back to listeners. While mapping seems useful on the surface, here it’s partly a misguided tour. Despite the fact that “webcore” isn’t a music scene and the artists in the playlist work in an array of genres and styles, Spotify’s initiative has been relatively successful, racking up tens of thousands of likes and generating chatter online. The playlist follows others like phonk and hyperpop as the latest example of how Spotify is trying to conceptualize and market niche music scenes without fully recognizing the depth of the communities behind them. It’s also an example of the amount of influence the biggest streaming platform in the world has to inflict genre names that stick.

Until now, the term Webcore has mostly applied to a visual aesthetic, often used synonymously with gauche tags like “Old Web” and “internetcore.” Think low-res computer screens, the infamous Windows XP green hill, Pictochat. This gif of a yassified Lin Manuel-Miranda biting his lip in pixelated perpetuity. [1]The aesthetic is also associated with the blue-and-yellow animated character Ena, who stars in Joel G’s YouTube videos. Perhaps the one true webcore song is “ENA Remix,” a tribute track and … Continue reading Although there are numerous “webcore” mixes made by listeners that predate Spotify’s editorial edition, these are aesthetic-oriented, in the same way someone aspiring to live in a cypress-wood hut in the forest with a pet gopher named Otto might sculpt a “cottagecore” soundtrack.

While Spotify’s playlist doesn’t explicitly claim that “webcore” is a genre, the only context the playlist offers about its existence is the description: “Would you like to save before closing?” The cover art shows a digitized cityscape of skyscrapers soaked in bluish-green light. Clearly, it’s meant to evoke feelings enmeshed in the internet. Brain drunk on open tabs. But there’s zero intel about why these songs and not others landed in this genre-polygamous mishmash, or what “webcore” even means. Anyone who’s not tapped into this music might stumble upon the playlist and accidentally think it’s a full-scale genre, and that these musicians are its practitioners. Ah yeah, Aphex Twin, he makes killer Webcore. The platform is boosting the collection, too. I examined the playlist’s artist’s profiles and found that “Webcore” appeared first on their profiles, positioned ahead of other playlists (including editorial ones) with more likes.

A label like “webcore” is peculiar especially in the case of an electronic music playlist, because the history of the electronic genre is tied up with the suffix -core. The frantic early 90s style “hardcore” birthed an uproar of cores: breakcore, frenchcore, happy hardcore. If you think about electronic music and genre formation like a bloodline, “core” is the dynastic surname. Progenies include “flashcore,” a sound characterized by volleys of harsh noise, that was born out of a manifesto published by the Hangars Liquides DJ La Peste. The name “speedcore” reportedly accelerated into use after it was deployed in a ‘97 project title, while the electronic punk term “digital hardcore” was invented by Alec Empire, the frontman of the subgenre’s first champion, Atari Teenage Riot. “Nightcore” was launched by a Norwegian duo of the same name. The term “moombahcore,” a derivative of moombahton (which itself was coined by a DJ in 2009), mushroomed in popularity through sample pack creators propagating it, according to RYM’s Ultimate Box Set. The appellation “J-core,” or Japanese hardcore, may have spawned out of messages on a forum in 2006.

Many of these cores became normalized through an organic process of artist, label, and critic arbitration and consensus. [2]For a recent example of a core’s collective absorption (and annihilation) in the culture, see dariacore. Spotify is severing the tree from its roots, effectively spreading taxonomic misinformation even if you consider the playlist a “vibe” and not a set genre.

Of course, some would say, ‘What’s the harm here?’ After all, on a very basic level, artists benefit from curated, platform-boosted mixes because they funnel them more streams and raise their profile. But looking beyond these immediate and individual benefits, these playlists can have negative long-term ramifications. Peek at phonk, the woozy rap subgenre that took over the internet in the early 2010s through people like SpaceGhostPurpp. The sound has many sides: languid, contact-high beats; frenetic breakbeat phonk; bass-heavy bangers punctured with a trillion cowbells. But it’s this last form, which has grown especially popular in Russia under the name “drift phonk,” that’s devoured all the other styles. This is because Spotify created a popular editorial playlist in 2021 called “phonk” that almost exclusively features drift phonk, according to a YouTuber who made a video on the topic. “It has the potential to kill the genre,” he says, by flattening the vibrant phonk panorama into simply “trendy cowbell music.” [3]The YouTuber points out that ironically, the algorithmically-generated “Sound of Phonk” playlist on the platform is truer to the genre’s roots and diversity than the editorial selection. Like the “Webcore” playlist, “phonk” tenders no context, only a flaccid tagline: “the beat of your drift.”

This sort of thing has happened before. Once an umbrella term encompassing everyone from Burial to James Blake, “dubstep” became narrowly associated with the blaring sub-style brostep when Skrillex and co. exploded. The many concurrent flavors of the genre got squeezed out of the story or marginalized, replaced with monstrous wubs and Pavlovian drops. But “webcore” feels different because rather than the shift taking place within the collective consciousness of fans, critics, and deejays, this is a profit-driven company unilaterally imposing a genre name where one never existed.

Another recent example of a platform-pushed, foisted-from-above label is “hyperpop.” What started as the title of a small Spotify editorial collection in 2019 became the most widely-used name to describe a vast swath of musicians making pop, electronic, rap, and experimental music, thanks to the playlist’s increasing popularity. Some of these featured artists were making metallic pop with PC Music in the mid-2010s; many like quinn, glaive, and midwxst, who are also often referred to as “digicore,” grew out of Discord and SoundCloud-oriented communities during the early days of the pandemic. Other choices, like Yung Lean, appear to be the work of a fuck-it-let’s-just-put-him-here-lol mentality (and listener data, probably). But as a result of this framing, nowadays when one of these associated musicians makes cloud rap or drum n’ bass, it’s likely to get labeled hyperpop. The descriptor has evolved into a macro-genre term so amorphous it’s sometimes meaningless.

When many of these artists started making music as an undefined “scene” in late 2019 and 2020, a communal coziness swirled in the air. Five, six, seven, sometimes ten musicians would pool vocals and rap on the same track. They all hung out on Discord, running Minecraft Bed Wars and other games together. There was an overlapping web of friend groups and collectives that functioned like indie publishing houses with unrelenting supply, everyone churning out new songs and styles each week. I recall discovering the scene in April 2020 via a semi-ironic tweet that read something like, “Your girl doesn’t listen to,” and then a list of musicians like quinn, capoxxo, and d0llywood1, none of whom could’ve had more than a few thousand followers then. There was this goofy self-assuredness that seemed to inspire sonic experimentation, because everyone was on equal footing and having fun knowing no one was looking.

But then the Spotify playlist jumped in popularity and became a sort of SparkNotes for industry carpetbaggers. After that initial boom, the labels swarmed and snatched the artists with “the most appealing sound,” quinn told me, and “milk[ed]” the creativity out of them. Friend communities fissured. Some artists soared while others saw their growth suspended. “Everything we’ve done is being shit on by the niche sound of the industry,” quinn recently wrote on Twitter as part of a longer thread about how the most popular, label-endorsed musicians from the scene now are cis males using a formulaic sound, displacing the offbeat trans artists who supported the scene in its early fetal moments. “Face it,” she wrote, “if you’re not a white guy sticking to the saw[tooth] waves [a shiny synth sound], you’re weird irrelevant or corny.”

“The creation of the Spotify hyperpop playlist and the invitation of labels led directly to the erasure of trans influence,” she told me. “What it’s about for us, is us trans and POC people not having yet another thing ruined or taken away from us by the guys in suits.” She said she doesn’t want to blame the signed artists, but “you can still cite your influences and carry on with what you do at the same time, or at least push your influences out there more often than not.”

Despite its rise, “Hyperpop” remains a comparably niche music genre (your divorced boomer uncle who eats croutons out of the bag has probably never heard of it), which makes its namesake playlist all the more crucial for outsiders craving a lick of the scene. There’s no hyperpop radio station, no MTV channel with hyperpop videos, no hyperpop books, no glossy hyperpop mags. Type “hyperpop” in Google, and the first result beyond the Wikipedia page is Spotify’s playlist which, like “phonk” and “webcore,” extends no context or information about the scene’s origins. For a small music genre with little real-world infrastructure, this playlist and its aesthetic associations necessarily becomes a huge part in defining The Canon. Like a party reporter shaping the public perception of a clandestine function because their report is one of the only documents of its existence, the “hyperpop” playlist has had a massive hand in delineating (or making a mess out of and confusing) this scene’s subcultural identity. What is hyperpop? Dunno, check the playlist. 

There are positives to the promotion—the publicity “puts a lot of money in artists’ pockets,” quinn told me—but clear downsides, especially when labels swoop in and selectively promote artists. “It’s deeper than any numbers can go, I just want my people to be recognized for their creativity,” she said. “Too many trans people are recognized as victims and I’d just like to push out all of us trans artists as something other than that.”

Music genres, like anything mediated through language, are composite signifiers carrying a multitude of meanings for different people. If you ask a group of ravers what breakcore means to them, you’d probably receive the whole gamut of replies: Venetian Snares, dopey anime girl profile pictures, Y2K, neon warehouses in East Williamsburg, hourlong “ADHD” study mixes, ketamine bumps. Music genres are caverns with layers upon layers of sediment, fossils, reservoirs, eroded surfaces. Shiny rocks that dazzle the eye, icicles hanging from the ceiling with curled ends. Folds and crevices that bleed into other caverns connected by interstitial tunnels and dark streams. They’re spatial and temporal—networks of musicians and aesthetic contexts that have emerged over time, some of them forming in response to media that came before them. It’s practically impossible to grasp a music genre or scene in its totality, aware of every manifestation and influence, but you can dig deep in the ground and turn over as many rocks as possible. What playlists do is rub sandpaper over a music scene so there’s no dimensionality left (just a top-down list, usually organized with new popular songs near the top) and no timestamps (there’s no archive for what the playlist looked like before).

On a core level, playlists are not too different from monthly music lists in magazines, guided radio sets, or books telling you what the best alternative rock records are. It’s all a method to recommend music and make order out of chaos, the abyss of singles and albums. But increasingly, the power to categorize and create nomenclature has centralized around one platform with an outsized influence to apply lasting labels around groups of musicians unchecked. Back in 2018, Liz Pelly wrote of the rise of a “total Spotify genre,” a streambait pop composed with the perfect calculus of emotion, chill, melody, bounce, and warm softness, like a duvet for sad ears. She described the style as tailored for playlists and “data-driven systems of mood-enhancing background music,” just thrilling and personal enough to “prevent users from clicking away.” Perhaps the biggest feat of homegrown internet music scenes over the last decade like hyperpop, phonk, “drain” pop-rap, the new gen of house and breakcore artists, is that they’ve largely pushed against the background-ization of all music. It’s a hopeful sign that even as playlists shape perceptions of scenes in weird ways, the music will remain too shapeshifting to lock down. The sounds will out-maneuver any language that tries to define them.

References

References
1 The aesthetic is also associated with the blue-and-yellow animated character Ena, who stars in Joel G’s YouTube videos. Perhaps the one true webcore song is “ENA Remix,” a tribute track and TikTok microhit by Brazilian producer Cótiles that twists a short sample of ENA’s voice from a video into a rush of stutters. But that track isn’t even on Spotify’s playlist, since it was only uploaded to SoundCloud.
2 For a recent example of a core’s collective absorption (and annihilation) in the culture, see dariacore.
3 The YouTuber points out that ironically, the algorithmically-generated “Sound of Phonk” playlist on the platform is truer to the genre’s roots and diversity than the editorial selection.

9 thoughts on “Can a streaming platform create a niche music genre?”

  1. Yeah, it’s remarkable to me how much music exists right now that exists without almost any context that a decade ago would’ve at least needed some amount of written blog support to find a niche but that can happen without such gatekeepers. It’s a bit of a bummer a lot of the infrastructure that used to give so much meaning and context to music is increasingly melting away.

    Reply
  2. how can you claim trans erasure from hyperpop when laura les is the cover artist?

    it seems like people just sweat having their music compete for attention on a wider stage, but the upside of doing so is more support and better music so i can’t imagine the ones who benefited have any regret, right? in other words the only ones who have a problem with Spotify’s playlists are the ones who didn’t get on one.

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    • if we say 50% of hyperpop artist are trans, but then 80% of signed artists were cis, doesn’t that seem like a whole lot of artists that were pushing the movement got ignored? I guarantee the number of trans hyperpop artists was higher than 50%, too

      Reply
  3. I’m just thinking about how spotify poisoning the well with these playlists has to be directly linked to the prescience of the weird genres that kept popping up in people’s spotify wrapped in 2021. Learning that hyperpop was basically a corporate astroturf of a grassroots experimental movement makes so much sense given that context, too. genre doesn’t mean anything on spotify anymore, but people are going to keep acting like it does

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    • Wasn’t hyperpop already fully embracing its own financialization in every aspect? Isn’t that part of the aesthetic and don’t those people all sell NFTs now? Honestly if a single playlist on a streaming platform can destroy a “grassroots experimental movement” then it wasn’t much of one. Heck even vaporwave for all its ephemerality seems to have “survived” being made more widely known via public playlists. Maybe it’s a good thing?

      Reply

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