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The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
by John Seabrook
Chris Anderson's The Long Tail predicted that the Internet would make so many songs available that people would split into a wide range of tastes, and there would be no more big hits. But this hasn't happened. Of 13 million songs available on iTunes, 50,000 accounted for 80% of sales. Ten million tracks didn't sell a single copy. 1% of the artists bring in 80% of the revenue.
Denniz PoP organized songwriting in the same way as TV studios organized script writing for TV shows -teams of writers each writing bits of songs. A chorus, a hook, a bridge, a melody could be swapped around and tried in different combinations.
True hit factories are rare, and they don't last very long, for several reasons. Competitors copy the successful sounds, and listeners tastes change - they want novelty. And, what happens is that the artists start out as hired hands, but their ego develops with success and they start to demand creative input, often with disastrous results.
The very first hit factory was a Tin Pan Alley publisher TB Harms, who had song writers like George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. (They didn't make records, which were rare - they published sheet music).
The first record hit factory was known as the Brill Building, although it was a series of buildings on Broadway with multiple song writing teams such as Goffin and King. When Elvis wanted to record 'Hound Dog' they were dismayed - they thought they were writing for cool black folks, not white hillbillies - but they changed their minds when the royalty checks started to roll in.
"Da doo ron ron" was originally a place-holder until the writers came up with real lyrics.
Def Leppard's Phil Collen explained why the band went off the boil: "Everyone else started being better at being Def Leppard than us."
Teen pop acts don't last, because teens grow up fast, don't want to identify with 'childish' things, and then the next lot of teens define themselves against their predecessor's enthusiasms. Plus the young stars grow up, and almost inevitably fall victim to all the usual pressures of celebrity.
The 1923 novelty hit "Yes We have No Bananas" has become, oddly enough, one of the best remembered songs of the decade.
The record companies put Napster to sleep with lawsuits, but just became a game of Whac-A-Mole as KaZaA, Grokster and Limewire sprang up to fill the gap.
American Idol a big surprise for Americans - the record companies, the audiences, but especially the contestants. Ostensibly about finding talent, it turned out to be about humiliating the talentless in front of national audience. Few Americans had seen Pop Idol, the British show on which it was based, so they unaware of the Mr nasty persona Simon Cowell had cultivated, and were taken aback when the judgement started and the Kraken emerged from his cave.
Steve Jobs persuaded all the record companies to sell their music through iTunes. But instead of the $10 to $12 profit they used to get from a CD they were now getting 67 cents from a digital single. By shifting the unit of sale from an album to a single, Apple disemboweled the labels' profit margins. Their revenue dropped 12% in the 2000-2002 (Napster) era, but dropped 40% 2002-2010 (The Apple era).
The big money was in the iPods, which the music helped to sell. By the end of 2008, Apple had sold 200 million iPods at $399 each, and of course the record industry didn't get a cent of that. And, while the iTunes store gave people the option of paying for music, pirated mp3s worked just as well.
Top artists have to tour almost all the time, recording new albums in mobile studios, working with demo tracks and vocal trace patterns provided by the writers.
It is 1992 and the Swedish record producer Denniz PoP has a cassette tape stuck in the dashboard of his Nissan Micra, a rough demo he doesn't like by an unknown group called Ace of Base. Unable to play anything else, he ends up listening to it every day on his way to the studio and, after a fortnight, suddenly hears its potential. He summons the group, produces a rearranged version, and All That She Wants is a worldwide hit.
This sets in motion an extraordinary success story that becomes the backbone of this book. In 1993, PoP recruits Max Martin, a fellow Swedish musician, and the pair of them go on to write and produce for Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Britney Spears, Martin later weaving the same magic for Pink, Katy Perry, Rihanna and Taylor Swift and racking up a volume of sales that eclipses even the Beatles and Michael Jackson.
As this fascinating chronicle by the New Yorker writer John Seabrook reveals, the crack hit-factory squads behind today's huge singles approach their work like 'a vivisectionist on The Island of Dr Moreau', stitching together a song’s body parts with surgical precision and leaving as little to chance as humanly possible. They call their work 'melodic math', and amass 'writer camps' to forge the thunderous algorithms that might land them a money-maker. The now conventional 'track-and-hook' method uses one team to write chord sequences and up to 50 different 'topliners' to suggest a possible melody, the eventual vocals often being “comped together” by using the best syllables from multiple takes. All this is in vigorous pursuit of 'bliss points' (a term appropriately borrowed from the snack-food industry), those magical times when the rhythm, sound, melody and harmony converge to create a single ecstatic moment that leaves the listener craving that little bit more.
The appeal of this superb book extends way beyond a curiosity about the machinations of the music business. Its colourful tales illustrate every point. On one side you have the technicians synthesising hits in winking digital laboratories (mostly tall ectomorphs 'with the sallow skin of the studio rat'), on the other the frail but fiercely ambitious singers who front these projects and have to cope with a wide variety of repercussions.
Careers rise and fall in seconds and that mostly depends on what the writer/producer teams have to offer: Baby One More Time, the song inexplicably turned down by the faltering American girl group TLC, launched Spears who, in turn, failed to notice that Umbrella might later reboot her wobbling status and thus kick-started the Rihanna story.
Yet for all the painstaking craft involved, the author uncovers research that insists that the crucial factor in our emotional engagement with music is familiarity; in other words, if you were repeatedly to hear a song you didn't like (as with PoP in his Nissan Micra), that proximity would eventually breed affection.
'It's a sobering thought,' Seabrook admits. If correct, 'it means that the real controller of the song machine isn't the labels, nor is it radio stations or the hit makers. At the end of the day, the true puppet master is the human brain.'
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EVERY musical genre has its canon: Bach and Mozart for classical, Armstrong and Parker for jazz, Dylan and the Beatles for rock, Biggie and Tupac for hip-hop. Only pop music - the bubble gum or teenybopper tunes played on nightclub dance floors and Top 40 radio - lacks similar critical analysis and acclaim. True, Michael Jackson has been given his due. But it took an early death for the public to value his contributions fully. And no one would mention today's manufactured stars, such as Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, in the same breath as the King of Pop.
John Seabrook takes another tack. 'The Song Machine', a history of the past 20 years of pop music, takes for granted two assumptions, both convincingly demonstrated via a highly engaging narrative. The most basic is that modern 'earworm' pop is a high art form, as worthy of appreciation as any other: he calls Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone' "magnificent, for example, and the 'hooks' (catchy, repeated snippets of melody) in Rihanna's 'Umbrella' are wonderful and lovely. The second is that the public unfairly dismisses such masterpieces, because its expectations of the creative process were set during the rock 'n' roll era, when singer-songwriters were the norm. In fact, the 1960s and 1970s were a historical aberration, and what may seem like a soulless new wave of industrial music production is a return to the 'hit factories' of years gone by.
During the first half of the 20th century, many of the biggest names in popular music were not performers but songwriters, based on the stretch of West 28th Street in New York known as Tin Pan Alley. Whether solo composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin or inseparable duos like George and Ira Gershwin or Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, these hitmakers remain far better known than the singers who performed their work. Much of early rock, including many Elvis Presley classics, was written by teams in or around the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. And even after folk rockers and the Beatles established a precedent that performers should write their own material, Motown maintained a musical assembly line that would have made Henry Ford proud.
The protagonists of 'The Song Machine' are not headliners like Taylor Swift, but rather the men (they are indeed mostly men) behind the music. Mr Seabrook sees their ascent as the product of broader social trends. One thread that runs consistently through his tale is technological disruption. The advent of computerised music software in the 1970s made virtuosic instrument-playing or singing redundant: producers could obtain any sound they wanted synthetically, and string together vocals by using the best individual syllables from a large number of takes ('comping') and running them through a pitch corrector. Subsequently, the advent of internet downloading shifted the primary unit of musical consumption from the album to the single. That sharply increased demand for melodic hooks, to lock listeners in within the seven seconds before they are likely to turn the radio dial.
These inventions shifted the balance of power from performers to production teams. Today, the process starts with producers laying out beats and chords. They then recruit 'topliners', who are often women, to try out melodies and vocal snippets and see what sticks. Lyrics are an afterthought. The finished product is shopped around to star singers, who do their best to 'preserve the illusion' of authorship. "I get this feeling of a big painter's studio in Italy back in the 1400s," one Swedish artist says in the book. "One assistant does the hands, another does the feet...and then Michelangelo walks in and says, 'That's really great, just turn it slightly...Next!" The book is full of cautionary tales of singers whose careers went off the rails when they rebelled against their labels and demanded creative control.
The second engine of change in 'The Song Machine' is cultural globalisation. The Cole Porters of today hail primarily from Scandinavia: Max Martin, a Swedish uber-producer, has written more chart-topping hits than the Beatles. Mr Seabrook thinks it is no accident that American listeners have become hooked on tunes from abroad. Although white artists borrowed from African-American blues in the early days of rock, by the 1990s black music had moved on to spoken, beat-focused hip-hop, while white bands like Nirvana screeched with dissonant grunge rock.
By contrast, Sweden, the country that produced ABBA, never lost its appetite for soaring melodies. Its government offered free music education. Moreover, its artists were not constrained by racial boundaries in American music, and could produce "a genre-bursting hybrid: pop [white] music with a rhythmic R&B [black] feel". And because English was not their first language, they were free to 'treat English very respectless', as Ulf Ekberg of Ace of Base, a band, says, 'and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody'.
Mr Seabrook clearly enjoys writing about pop music. He walks readers through the hits measure by measure. Britney Spears's single '...Baby One More Time', he writes, "is a song about obsession, and it takes all of two seconds to hook you...first with the swung triplet ‘Da Nah Nah’ and then with that alluring growl-purr...Then the funky Cheiron backbeat kicks in, with drums that sound like percussion grenades." He paints vivid pictures of his protagonists; Ms Spears was 'scared' the first time she saw Mr Martin's "lank hair, a fleshy grizzled face...and the sallow skin of a studio rat". And he brings little-known stories to life, from the con man who developed the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and is now in prison for fraud, to a singer who delivers a laugh-out-loud funny, profane tirade against Ms Perry for ripping off her song title 'I Kissed A Girl'.
'The Song Machine' will not lead anyone to confuse Mr Martin and his partner, Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney—even Mr Seabrook makes clear that his first love remains classic rock. But getting clubgoers out of their seats and drivers bopping in their cars is its own rare kind of genius.
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