Genres Aren’t Holding Back Synthwave Artists. Here’s Why

There’s a common complaint and fear among synthwave artists that genre boundaries and classifications are the reason their music isn’t being promoted. The argument suggests that terms and perceptions of genres like “synthwave,” “popwave,” and “outrun” place restrictions on artists’ creative freedom, forcing them to make music within the boundaries of those genres or be exiled to obscurity. 

Sure, there are absolutely cases where music simply isn’t the right style for a synthwave curator’s YouTube channel, playlist, etc., but those cases are actually relatively rare, at least more so than the average person might guess.

Instead, synthwave genres and terms are among the many scapegoats that artists and influencers have embraced to avoid facing the much more difficult topic, which is that most synthwave music is too poorly made for anyone to promote it.

The reality is that genre names and categorizations have never held back synthwave artists, and there are two major reasons why. 

1. The Most Popular Synthwave Artists Were All Outliers on Their Earliest Releases…and They Are Still Evolving

The most obvious case for why genre names aren’t holding anyone back is the fact that all of the most popular synthwave artists were innovative and unique on their earliest recordings, and in many cases, they’ve continued to stay one or two steps ahead of everyone else, bending and redefining the edges of synthwave in the process.

Take a look at this list and tell me which of these artists hasn’t been a stylistic pioneer at some point their discography (and in most cases, consistently throughout their discography).

Carpenter Brut
Daniel Deluxe
Trevor Something
Dance With the Dead
The Midnight

In fact, if we go back further to the artists who released the earliest formal albums in the synthwave genre, the exact same story is true. Mitch Murder, MN84, Lazerhawk, and Kavinsky all have millions of streams on individual songs and each were remarkable and unique in the late ’00s and early ’10s.

Arguably the best example of genres not holding anyone back is Perturbator’s New Model, which cleanly left synthwave behind and chose to push further into the worlds of EBM, industrial music, and modern EDM. That album performed nearly as well as the artist’s earlier releases, with millions of total streams and enough sales on Bandcamp to make 99 percent of other artists cry in their soup.

New Model is not a traditional synthwave album by any stretch of the imagination, and yet it’s performed better than nearly all synthwave releases made in the usual style.

Which demands a follow-up question: if genre restrictions are preventing artists’ success, why are there are thousands of failed outrun / traditional synthwave albums?

I regularly encounter the complaint from struggling artists that they believe they have to make traditional synthwave music or they won’t find support, yet when they choose to stay within the boundaries of what is commonly understood to be “synthwave,” they still find little or no support.

If leaving the genre were a surefire recipe for failure, as so many artists believe, doesn’t it seem like staying within the genre would be a little more rewarding?

The producer behind the FM-84 project recently made it publicly clear to me that he doesn’t worry about genres when he makes his music, and that he’s mostly interested in them for promotion and marketing purposes. Notably, at the time of this writing, “Running in the Night” has nearly eight million streams on Spotify and it’s easy to find people who feel that song broke sharply away from traditional synthwave and even “ruined” the older sound of the genre. 

In other words, the guys in FM-84 are doing their own thing, forging a new path for synthwave music, and finding more success in the process than the vast majority of retro synth creators.

Synthwave artists who are able to be conscious of genres and markets without being a slave to them are nearly always the ones rewarded for their efforts. (Provided, of course, the music is well made.) 

I don’t blame artists for being confused on this topic, however, as I can confirm firsthand that creators are very regularly being told that their music “isn’t retro enough” or “isn’t synthwave enough” for influencers’ playlists, YouTube channels, blogs, etc. Unfortunately, there’s a very different reason for why those excuses come up.

2. Influencers Don’t Want to Tell Artists the Truth About Their Music

As someone who’s fielded thousands of synthwave submissions, I can tell you that it’s much easier to let artists believe their music doesn’t fit a playlist because of stylistic concerns than to tell them I think it’s bad music. This is particularly true because the second option almost invariably leads to hurt feelings and defensive, even aggressive email responses, public accusations of everything from pay-for-play to mysterious personal vendettas, and a cocktail of other forms of bitterness and resentment from rejected parties.

I’m currently responding to submissions with a non-specific message to the effect of, “I’ve decided not to add your music.” (If people ask for specific feedback, I try to take a moment to offer it honestly, but I’ve learned by now that most people don’t actually want feedback because it might contain something they really don’t want to hear.)

Significantly, when I send this non-specific rejection, the most common response I get is, “Well, I know my stuff isn’t exactly synthwave and it’s more like (fill in a genre name here) so I understand why you wouldn’t add it.”

Keep in mind that this response comes before I’ve given any indication of what I’m thinking or feeling about the music. I simply say I didn’t add it anywhere and artists leap straight to the genre conclusion without any input from me.

Ironically, and somewhat depressingly, these artists almost always fit cleanly within the average person’s idea of what synthwave music is. I’m not a psychologist, but there are two obvious explanations for why this happens, and both are part of the same problem.

  1. It’s much easier for the artists to believe their songs aren’t the right style of music than to confront the possibility that the creations they’ve put weeks or months of hard work and heart into simply aren’t good enough for the outlet they’ve submitted to.
  2. Influencers don’t always have the courage or energy to cut to the truth and tell artists outright that they believe the music is poorly written and produced, which makes it even easier for artists to settle into their mistaken belief about genre boundaries.

In other words, influencers and artists are sharing the same lie for the same reason: it’s much easier to fall back on genres as the villain than confront the fact that the music simply isn’t worth hearing. 

An Argument for Honesty

Here’s one thing that has been consistently true for the seven years I’ve been curating my Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist: if I hear something that doesn’t quite fit within my conception of synthwave but I think it’s well made and I enjoy listening to it, I’ll almost always find a place for it.

I’ve written reviews for music that wasn’t synthwave simply because I enjoyed it and wanted to help it reach a few new ears, and the stylistic scope of my Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist has steadily expanded over the years to the point that the current selection is nearly all music that I wouldn’t have classified as synthwave four or five years ago.

I rarely ever reject music that’s stylistically in the ballpark if I think it’s well made.

Artists are always pushing the edges of the synthwave genre, and my playlists keep adapting as a result. I make separate lists to spotlight specific flavors and moods, as with my Chillwave and Darksynth playlists, but even the main list is constantly evolving because I want to include great music. And right now, as always, the most talented artists are the ones exploring and redefining the edges of the genre.

The unfortunate truth for artists is that submission responses like “your music isn’t ’80s enough” or “it doesn’t feel like synthwave to me” are euphemisms for “I think this is bad music.” It’s much easier for influencers to say and much easier for artists to hear, and so all too often it becomes the default agreement for why things aren’t being promoted. 

Before I started this blog (and when I was just taking submissions for playlists) I was as guilty of delivering that lie as anyone, though it soon became clear to me that it was only causing complications to respond with that excuse and it often came back to haunt me in subtle ways.

Instead of kicking the can down the road, I’ve worked hard to reach a place where I never give a false answer for why I’m not promoting something. Ultimately, it isn’t doing anyone any good to keep recycling phony claims about genre issues, and although it isn’t always easy to say and certainly never easy to hear, it’s better for everyone to acknowledge quality as the deeper underlying issue in these conversations.

There are plenty of good reasons to embrace genres, most of all clarity and communication. But arguing that genres hold artists back suggests that all the potential for creators’ success is in the hands of music journalists and other influencers who reference them. As flattering as that may be, I can tell you I don’t actually have that much power over a creator’s career. (Do you really think The Midnight feels limited by how I’m labeling their music?)

What that argument really represents is a refusal on artists’ part to take personal responsibility for the success or failure of their music.

Great synthwave always finds its audience, not even, but especially when it defies genres.

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Special thanks to the following artists for their support on this blog. Click their names to learn more about their music.

Psyk     Mitch Hunt