What Is “Escape Room” And Why Is It One Of My Top Genres On Spotify?

Using data to understand how genres understand us.

Anderson .Paak (right), your classic Escape Room artist, performing at his NPR Tiny Desk Concert.

What makes reliving one’s year in music so appealing and enjoyable? In 2016—and in every other year—it’s all about the weirdness.

Every December, Spotify publishes a data-driven annual recap of individual and collective listening trends called the Year in Music. For 2016, the streaming service decided to take a slightly more subdued approach, opting for a one-off email campaign and a collection of playlists on the service as opposed to the colorful, standalone websites that we saw in 2014 and 2015.

If you listen to a wide-enough range of music on Spotify, some pretty bizarre genres can emerge in your year-end roundups. For instance, one of my top genres in 2015 was “dreamo,” an obscure combination of “dreamy” and “emo” that only came up on my list because I binge-listened to MUTEMATH’s discography (and no other dreamo artist) that year.

This year proved to be even stranger. Spotify’s delivery to my inbox yesterday afternoon revealed my top five genres of 2016: Indie R&B, Deep Indie R&B, Indietronica, Indie Rock, and…

Escape Room?

The first thought that came to mind when I read that email: Escape Room is not a genre. I grew up playing tons of lo-fi, point-and-click escape-the-room adventure games online, so the term “escape room” carries a rather specific cultural significance to me that is completely unrelated to music.

I was further intrigued and confused when I found virtually nothing written about “escape room music” online. The “Escape room” and “Escape the room” Wikipedia entries refer to the physical and digital manifestations of the game, and do not mention music or sound. There’s an Escape Room Music Pack available for purchase from $58 (or for free on SoundCloud—see below), and its composer Jan Baumann gives some good tips on how to optimize music for an escape-room setting, but he doesn’t allude to any wider genre of the same name.

That being said, who am I to claim singlehandedly what does and doesn’t constitute a genre these days? Boxed-in genre definitions are a thing of the past; genre classification is no longer a fixed, top-down affair at the hands of senior A&R, marketing and creative executives, but rather a fluid, bottom-up phenomenon that relies more on crowdsourcing.

In fact, while you and I may have never heard the name, Escape Room is more popular this year than ever before—ranking in the 93rd percentile of all 1,482 genres on Spotify—and can’t be tied down to any particular geographic location, implying a more or less universal appeal.

If Escape Room is so popular, though, why doesn’t anyone talk about it? Does anyone even know what it is?

Sort of.

After some archaeological Internet digging, I found a partial answer in Every Noise at Once, an interactive “scatter-plot of the musical genre-space” developed by Glenn McDonald, a Data Alchemist at Spotify (via The Echo Nest). Every Noise maps all of Spotify’s genres and their [dis]similarities by pulling from the Echo Nest API, which characterizes every song uniquely along 10 internal indicators, including tempo, loudness, danceability and emotional positivity.

I experienced McDonald’s bottomless music knowledge firsthand last month, when he spoke on a music-tech panel I moderated at MIT’s Hacking Arts conference. He riffed candidly on technology’s ability to provide infinite shelf space and discoverability for music, creating an unprecedented global archive of otherwise niche and isolated genres (Norwegian hip-hop was one of his favorites).

Now, on this frigid winter evening, I decided to put his work with Every Noise to good use.

What Spotify tells us about Escape Room

According to Every Noise, Escape Room currently ranks #107 out of 1,482 in popularity on Spotify, placing it snugly in between crunk and punk. On a granular level, Escape Room also sits in the 70th to 91st percentile for modernity (#434), femininity (#327), emergence (#260) and youthfulness (#126).

With regards to user behavior, Escape Room has a particular affinity for “passive listening,” ranking #538 in background and #944 in engagement (i.e. it’s in the top 50% of genres suitable for background music, and the bottom 50% of genres that attract intentional user interaction on Spotify’s service). Unsurprisingly, it also clocks in at #1375 for Christmas-ness, marking the genre “xmas-free.”

To dive deeper into the artist-members of the exclusive Escape Room club, I pulled up its artist map on Every Noise, which does indeed feature several of my favorite musicians from 2016—including KAYTRANADA, Anderson .Paak, BJ the Chicago Kid, TOKiMONSTA and LION BABE. A handful of the musicians on the Every Noise artist map have also collaborated with each other.

A subset of what Spotify deems to be “Escape Room” artists.

Spotify further classifies Escape Room into a three-tier algorithmic playlist system: The Sound of Escape Room, The Pulse of Escape Room (“the music that serious Escape Room listeners play”) and The Edge of Escape Room (“mostly unknown music that serious Escape Room listeners have discovered”). These tiers are replicated across nearly all of Spotify’s micro-genres where the data allows, and can be accessed at the top of any given genre page on Every Noise.

Below the Escape Room artist map, I found a smaller map of similar sub-genres. The names are slightly more recognizable here in their incorporation of staples like pop, dance, hip-hop and house. In addition, the sub-genres allude to several different countries (Aussietronica, Danish pop, Dominican pop, Estonian pop, French indietronica, Indian rock, Indonesian indie, Polish indie, Thai indie), reinforcing how Escape Room can’t be pinned down to any particular origin city.

Here’s a detailed, ranked list of the 20 genres that are most similar to Escape Room (you can find the full list here):

Moving beyond artist and genre networks, Every Noise also tracks genre-title associations, posting the results on the page Genres in their Own Words.

The most popular words in Escape Room song titles comprise a healthy mix of expletives (f*ck, b*tch), festive/religious allusions (party, power, holy) and ambiguous instrumental terms (interlude, outro, untitled, remix). The most popular title words for Escape Room’s two most similar genres, indie R&B and indietronica, give off vibes of rebellious, sun-kissed millennials:

We can infer certain aesthetic characteristics from Escape Room’s affinity for words like “instrumental,” “interlude” and “outro”: its artists likely release albums and EPs with a specific format that weaves instrumental intermissions (interludes) throughout a collection of high-energy, danceable tracks, ending with a dedicated instrumental conclusion (outro).

…OK, but what’s the REAL answer?

If you’re anything like me, you find all of the above statistics and lists compelling, but somehow unilluminating. The visualizations juxtapose a wide range of artists and genres in really thought-provoking ways — I definitely wouldn’t have thought of grouping rap + noise pop + chillwave or Neon Indian + Run the Jewels + Crystal Castles into the same bucket—but without additional background information, the mappings remain incohesive.

Hence, after spending hours falling down this rabbit hole, I was still at a loss for what exactly defines Escape Room as a genre—so I asked McDonald himself for his take. He provided the following insights (emphasis added after the fact):

This is one where the genre comes from collective listening patterns, but 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.

McDonald’s description has so many nuanced layers to it: the double entendre with “escape,” the clear blurring among genre lines, the particularly insulated, intense audio characteristics of video game soundtracks.

Moreover, membership in the Escape Room is driven by collaborative filtering, not just by audio. In other words, the genre’s inception would be impossible if Spotify were using a purely musical algorithm, like that developed in Pandora’s Music Genome Project. User curation is more relevant than ever.

Wait, so why should we care?

Genres still matter—just not the way you might think they do.

As I type, streaming services are transforming the way we consume and create music. Streaming users on average devote less time to any given artist or album than in the pre-streaming era, implying that the way we listen is more active, more diverse and more discovery-driven. Some have suggested that streaming services could replace record labels in the future, as they invest more funds in direct artist development (read: Apple Music).

With respect to genre, Spotify is changing the game by combining editorial expertise with unparalleled data science—analyzing and preaching the compelling story behind our evolving musical tastes, supplying puns and double entendres when appropriate.

Put another way, Spotify is a hybrid between a tastemaker and an aggregator. It aggregates our noisy listening activity in real time, then merges man and machine to present this noise through user-friendly channels (playlists like Discover Weekly, Release Radar, Fresh Finds, Rap Caviar, etc.) that ultimately influence our future tastes.

As McDonald wrote back in 2013:

The resulting systemʼs crucial, pragmatic quality is that it is dynamic and
self-regulating on an ongoing basis. Bands appear in or disappear from
genres automatically, as they come into and out of prominence or relevance.
Rankings can change as often as daily.

In other words, genres according to Spotify are not fixed marketing ploys, but rather constantly shifting configurations that everyday users can explore and, by design, even shape themselves.

More importantly, micro-genres can have significant economic implications for the music industry. During our panel at Hacking Arts, McDonald revealed that Spotify users who listen mostly to mainstream genres and artists account for much fewer streams than those with more obscure, sophisticated tastes. Back in 2014, music-industry analyst Mark Mulligan wrote about how these micro-genre-friendly listeners are also the music industry’s most important customers: even if they don’t cash in on mainstream hype, they are “the ones that go to most gigs, that buy most merchandise, that spend most on music and are the most likely to be subscription customers.”

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world doesn’t know about the vast majority of these new genres, unless they slip into marketing emails the way Escape Room did into mine. There’s enormous potential in micro-genre data to create tools not just for listener engagement, but also for wider cultural development and understanding. Stumbling upon Escape Room taught me so much more about my own music tastes, about the meaning of genre and about the role of streaming services in modern culture than I would have ever expected—and I hope other avid Spotify fans around the world will share similar experiences in the future.

If you had a similarly unexpected or bizarre genre as one of your top five this year, please reply below. Let’s exchange weirdness!

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about how Spotify’s Year in Music is creating a new “streaming monoculture.” While the standalone Year in Music website doesn’t exist this year, I think my thesis still holds.

You can follow my other writings + thoughts about music, tech and the arts on Forbes, on Twitter and on my newsletter.

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