As you can imagine, this is a question that comes up quite regularly in any musician's day-to-day existence… and it's getting harder and harder to answer. The reason, I think, is that we have become so fond of categorisation in music – and, worse still, many of these convenient little compartments are subject to further division into subcategories.
I play what I think is termed as being 'acoustic fingerstyle' guitar. That's what I and various other practitioners call it anyway; trouble is, no one seems to understand what it actually is. I've had some people say to me, 'Oh, you mean country music?' or 'What, like jazz?' and neither is right, as far as I'm concerned.
It's the same in record shops. If you play within the remit of this particular musical niche and are lucky enough to have attracted record company support, you're quite likely to find your CDs stored under 'World', 'New Age' or 'Jazz'. Furthermore, in the digital domains like iTunes, eMusic and their like (where you yourself have little or no control regarding which category your music ends up under) there's no provision for acoustic fingerstyle. My CDs have been placed under 'Relaxation' or 'New Age' or 'Music For Meditation' and, as far as I'm concerned, it's not anything like. Certainly, if I was going shopping for CDs by Michael Hedges or Pierre Bensusan, looking under 'new age' or 'world' wouldn't be my first port of call.
Things used to be a lot more simple. Once, I'm told, your music was either classical, commercial or folk. Take it or leave it. The definitions were easy to understand: classical was anything involving orchestras or ensembles playing Bach, Berlioz or Beethoven, commercial was pop and rock and folk was... well, everything else.
Under this form of categorisation I'm a folk musician in that I don't consider myself a part of music's commercial landscape. Seriously; ask my accountant.
It's easy to think that this is really a trivial problem and unlikely to have too much of an impact on a career; after all, does it really matter where your music is filed in the public consciousness? Well, yes it does. The problem reveals itself when you try to get gigs, for instance.
If you play in a blues or a covers band, it's likely that you'll be able to make a promoter or club/pub owner understand what it is you play much easier than I would. Blues? What? Like Muddy Waters, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton – that kind of thing? Covers band? What? Rock covers? Queen, Bad Company, bit of Supergrass, Elbow thrown in for the students? Deal done. But 'acoustic fingerstyle'? What's that?
You see my problem. I guess it's a matter of time before we acoustic minstrels find a home under one roof or other. It may be that a champion will reveal himself; someone will have a hit with a film theme or something and immediately afterwards everything reboots and we can say, 'You know, like so-and-so...' when asked the inevitable question.
But until then, it's a no man's land of misunderstanding.