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Now mattering less than ever, genres have a bright future

The current models of all the big streaming services are only stepping stones. To see what they’re stepping stones towards, look at the paradox of genre.

Genres are baked right into the heart of our language around media and entertainment, they’re the signposts we navigate around. Back in olden times before our digital world they were essential for retail and media to organise their stock and their output so consumers knew where to look and roughly what to expect.

But in today’s world of unlimited shelf space and personalised recommendations that utility has seriously diminished. Playlists and collections are frequently organised around mood or activity rather than genre and content is selected just for you by the unseen algorithmic force.

You can click around and sample anything and the cost of sampling the new and unfamiliar is now zero. And this is all reinforced by the fact that you can also now easily avoid ever admitting to your guilty pleasures (would Fifty Shades of Grey have been the success it was without the no-one-knows-what-you’re-reading Kindle?) or inadvertently demonstrating your areas of cultural ignorance.

The upcoming launch in the UK of new classical radio station Scala is only possible because so many of us are cultural omnivores now and don’t care so much about genre - we just like what we like. Scala is going to explicitly target people who have come across the music in non-classical music environments - scores to films or orchestral re-workings of pop and dance hits for example. People who heard this music and realised they liked it. No genre-navigation or expert knowledge required.

The genre comeback

Yet paradoxically just as we are witnessing the end of so much strict categorisation, genres are on the cusp of a big return. Rather than gently fade away with our analogue era memories, genres are going through their own evolution, exactly as they have done before with every major tech shift.

If a new technology is to make it past the early adopter stage it by definition has to have mass appeal. Think when radio first emerged as a mainstream medium, the stations and networks that succeeded were relatively few in number and so contained programming designed to attract as wide an audience as possible. TV too followed this exact pattern and now streaming services are as well.

At the moment the big services - Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, etc are heavily targeting mass audiences. This is not to say there isn’t niche material available, there is, but it isn’t as deep as you’ll find on other smaller platforms (eg Soundcloud or the countless niche film channels on Roku).

After the centre comes the niche

And that makes perfect sense, to get big you need to get the biggest mainstream audience you can. But once the bulk of that mainstream audience signs up, the niches will beckon again as a source of continuing growth. Spotify and Apple Music have tens of millions of tracks. Soundcloud has over a hundred million.

Over 99% of those highly unlikely to be of any interest to the mainstream consumer, but the super fans, the obsessives, the crate diggers, always want more. A service targeted at the mainstream will never have enough deep niches to satisfy them, which is where the opportunity lies for targeting those super fans with a service tailored to them. Netflix in particular doesn’t have much deep catalogue. For cinephiles or genre buffs (eg horror or sci-fi aficionados) the DVD postal service is way better than the streaming service for serving their desires. There’s no contest.

So while genre is becoming less important for mainstream consumers, once the services reach saturation point with that audience, a future targeting niches beckons.

Just as multiple specialist cable TV channels emerged over time complementing the mainstream networks and earning big profits, streaming services aimed at fans with stuff they aren’t finding on the mainstream services could be very lucrative.

Get it right and fans will pay extra for that, very likely in addition to the mainstream offer as well. They just have to know its for them, that it speaks their language. The language of their genre world, with all its depth and riches.

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