Why Music Gatekeeping Isn’t a Thing

Gatekeeping, that vilified practice in the music industry of choosing who makes it onto a playlist, YouTube upload, record label roster, etc., is rampant. In fact, it’s so prevalent that it’s safe to say every single person covering or curating music is doing it. That’s right, every single one of them.

And as an artist, you’ll never avoid it.

There’s a very good reason why the practice of gatekeeping is so widespread, however, and it has nothing to do with money, personal relationships, or even genre classifications: “gatekeeping” occurs the second a person makes any decision, no matter how large or small, about what to include or feature on their outlet.

Accusing music influencers of gatekeeping is like accusing baristas of serving coffee. Yes, they’re gatekeeping. It’s practically the definition of what they’re doing.

Music artists are fond of complaining about gatekeeping as the reason they never make it into an influencer’s particular form of promotion, and the argument goes that establishing boundaries–for example genre lines–is an unnecessary, narrow-minded, and even oppressive thing to do with a playlist, etc. The argument continues that an influencer should be open-minded enough to include things that don’t fit into a genre or otherwise aren’t fully in alignment with the music that person normally covers.

If boundaries are unnecessary limitations put in place that restrict artists’ opportunities and keep specific people down and out, then logic says we should remove those boundaries and let everyone in, right? Although that argument at least sounds reasonable on a micro level–again, for example, arguing that genre lines should be a little more flexible–there’s a fatal flaw in the overall logic. 

Music creations exist in endless spectrums, with genres and production styles blending evenly across every single form of music on the planet. It’s theoretically possible (though immensely difficult in practice) to build a playlist that shifts subtly from one song to the next across nearly every genre of music ever created–from classical to death metal to minimal synthpop–so that changes in style aren’t even noticeable from one song to the next but by the time a hundred or a thousand tracks have played the music no longer bears any resemblance to the songs at the beginning.

In the case of synthwave music, it might seem realistic or even desirable to broaden the scope of a playlist to include music that doesn’t sound exactly like, say, old school outrun, but what then? That doesn’t change anything on a fundamental level; there’s still a boundary line, it’s just in a different place now.

The Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist, carefully “gated” to exclude old school synthwave

The immense overlap and unbroken stylistic spectrums spanning the world of music demand that boundary lines exist either arbitrarily–as the result of a person’s opinion, for example–or not at all. This means the only way for music promoters and curators to not gatekeep is for them to include every single song they hear.

The instant a boundary is drawn or a decision is made to exclude something, anything, from a playlist, podcast, etc., a “gate” is established and the person choosing the music has decided to open or close it for particular music.

In turn, this means that every person who has created a playlist and decided to exclude something–literally anything–is gatekeeping.

Incidentally, no one who has the urge to create a playlist does so with the intent to include every song in the world, for obvious reasons. Not only would that make for a horrendous mix of music marked by such poor overall quality and remarkable genre clashes that no single human being could possibly enjoy it, but there are practical limitations on even attempting it.

It’s a full-time job just to keep up with new synthwave (a not-so-small genre, it turns out), and people spend their entire lives covering particular genres like jazz or hard rock. Attempting to include or cover everything an influencer comes across would be impossible, just from a perspective of time and energy.

On a more practical, observable level, Spotify has a 10,000-song limit on its playlists. Considering the platform contains well over 30 millions songs in its library, this means there’s a staggering amount of “gatekeeping” happening on every Spotify playlist ever made, even ones that hit the 10,000-song song limit.

Last week I explained how genre names aren’t holding back synthwave artists and why that excuse is more accurately a refusal on the part of creators to take personal responsibility for their careers. Gatekeeping is no different; it’s a scapegoat that struggling artists point to in order to avoid acknowledging a much more difficult possibility, which is that their music simply isn’t wanted anywhere. So the accusations of gatekeeping and pay-for-play come spilling out, just like the frustration vented at doormen turning away club-goers for not being tall enough, thin enough, young enough, fashionable enough, etc.

As it turns out, the doorman probably doesn’t love rejecting people for the club, and especially doesn’t love people’s reactions when they’re told they can’t come in. 

“You’re a doorman…doorman!”

But he also knows that if he just opened the doors and let everyone in, the club would be so packed that no one would enjoy their time there. It would be a crowded, sweaty collection of humans with no common interests and everyone would ultimately stop coming to the club. (There’s also a very real connection between exclusivity and desirability, regardless of whether a fire code is being broken or not.) So the doorman limits who gets in to keep the club as enjoyable and desirable as possible. 

You can argue against the criteria for who’s being let in and who isn’t, and you certainly don’t have to like those criteria. But suggesting that a music promoter is “gatekeeping” as though it’s a deliberate or evil thing that had any conceivable alternative simply isn’t acknowledging reality.

Of course music influencers are gatekeeping, it’s the most fundamental aspect of what they’re doing. Let’s just go ahead and say it right now so we’re all on the same page: music promoters and influencers are gatekeepers. Every single one of them.

And if you’ve ever created a playlist, mixtape, or even made artist recommendations to a friend, you’re a gatekeeper too (…gatekeeper!)

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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