The Song Machine by John Seabrook

The Song Machine

The Song Machine : Inside The Hit Factory
I love music, especially from the 1965-1995 era; mostly Rock but also R&B and Pop. So what happened to Popular music in the last 20+ years. This book explains it all.. the artists, software, promoters, producers, and Sweden.

Seabrook introduces us to Deniz Pop’s key role in the Swedish pop machine. How Cheiron studios were behind many contemporary pop hits. How beats and hooks have come to dominate what we know as music. (I have a minor issue with Seabrook as he doesn’t spend adequate time defining these important musical terms.)

There was a lot of money to be made in music. Although record sales have collapsed there are ancillary sales and an explosion of alternative revenue streams. To access these streams those in the music business have to be pretty cynical and they are. The singers, the labels, the producers are not trying to make good music. They are trying to make “Hits”. It all comes across as temporarily and mercenary.

In the 2000s, it’s the producers who make it all happen: Dennis POP, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, etc. Seabrook introduces us to these producers: the music, the writers, and artist they use to assemble Hit songs. The book is part history lesson, part cultural study, and part how-to manual. The producer usually the beat makers take most of the profit from writing the song, but then hire “topliners”, who write melody, hook writers, bridge writers, and lyricists. If you’re use to reading liner notes and seeing one name listed as songwriter, welcome to the world of songwriting by committee. It’s no longer unusual to have half a dozen songwriters all toiling on dozens of songs, where only one will get recorded. These teams churn out hundreds of songs, just waiting for one to generate a Hit. [See excerpts before for more details.]

Seabook introduces us to the Artists who sing these Hits. Where they come from and what role they have in recording these songs. Singers like: Kelly Clarkston, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Rhianna are profiled. As are boy bands, girls bands, and music trends like K-Pop.
I enjoyed the book immensely, and learned a lot about the modern music industry. It explains why our current popular music is often catchy, but not very satisfying. I rarely catch myself think, “I’d like to hear that again.”

362 pages

Amazon Book Preview of “The Song Machine

Excerpts from the book

By the mid–2000s the track-and-hook approach to songwriting in which a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies-had become the standard method by which popular songs are written. The method was invented by reggae producers in Jamaica, who made one “riddim” (rhythm) track and invited ten or more aspiring singers to record a song over it. From, Jamaica the technique spread to New York and was employed in early hip-hop. The Swedes at Cheiron industrialized it. Today, track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song. It has largely replaced the melody-and-lyrics approach to songwriting that was the working method in the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley eras, wherein one writer sits at the piano, trying chords and singing possible melodies, while the other sketches the story and the rhymes. In country music, the melody-and-lyrics method is still the standard method of writing songs. (Nashville is in some respects the Brill Building’s spiritual home.) But in mainstream pop and R&B songwriting, track-and-hook has taken over, for several reasons.

For one thing, track-and-hook is more conducive to factory-style song production. Producers can create batches of tracks all at one time, and then e-mail the MP3s around to different topliners. It is common practice for a producer to send the same track to multiple topliners in extreme cases, as many as fifty-and choose the best melody from among the submissions. Track-and-hook also allows for specialization, which makes songwriting more of an assembly-line process. Different parts of the song can be farmed out to different specialists-verse writers, hook smiths, bridge makers, lyricists-which is another precedent established by Cheiron. It’s more like writing a TV show than writing a song. A single melody is often the work of multiple writers, who add on bits as the song develops.

It is also worth noting who isn’t in the room when track-and-hook songs are made. Large-bellied men with their beer cans perched precariously on the lip of music stands-session musicians, to paint them in stereotype-are nowhere to be seen. Where are they? The two or three at the very top of their game might be working somewhere, but most of them are unemployed, trying to make ends meet by giving guitar lessons. They have been superannuated by the song machines that do their work more cheaply and efficiently than they can, and don’t require beer.

In the melody-and-lyrics approach to songwriting, a song generally begins with a melody, or with lyrics, and a rough sketch of the song is worked out by the composers before the production is done. In track-and-hook, the production comes first, and then melody and words are added. Often producers are not looking for a single melody to carry the song, but rather just enough melody to flesh out the production. That’s why producers generally speak of a song’s “melodies” rather than its melody.

As a working method, track-and-hook tends to make songs sound the same. Dance music producers have always borrowed liberally from others’ grooves. There’s no reason not to: beats and chord progressions can’t be protected under the existing copyright laws, which recognize only the melody and lyrics. As dance beats have become the backing tracks to a growing number of pop songs, similar-sounding records have proliferated. The melodies themselves are still supposed to be unique, but because of the way the way producers work with multiple topliners, tracks and melodies tend to blur together.

In 2009, for example, both Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson had hits from tracks written by the super-producer Ryan Tedder. One was Beyonce’s “Halo,” which peaked at number five in May, and the other was Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which got as high as number thirteen in August. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyonce shared a credit with Evan Bogart. When Clarkson heard “Halo,” she thought it sounded too much like “Already Gone,” and feared the public would think she had copied Beyonce’s song. (Tedder later said that Clarkson’s allegations were “hurtful and absurd.”) But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; both songs were hits.

In a track-and-hook song, the hook comes as soon as possible. Then the song “vamps’–progresses in three-or four-chord patterns with little or no variation. Because it is repetitive, the vamp requires more hooks: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and outro hooks. ”It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,“ Jay Brown explains. ”You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.“ The reason, he went on, is that ”people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”

Hook writing tends to encourage a “first thought, best thought” approach to songwriting. Inspiration, not perspiration, is the order of the day. Since producers generally have a batch of tracks already prepared, like doughnuts ready for the honey glaze, topliners needn’t labor over anyone track for long. If inspiration doesn’t strike quickly, move on to the next track and begin anew. It might require twenty tracks to yield one recordable song, but that is an acceptable percentage for most songwriting teams. Whether or not this method makes for better songs, it certainly yields more of them, and allows the creators to enjoy a (possibly illusory) sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

The track-and-hook method makes the producer the undisputed king of the song-making process. As the producer Timbaland put it in Billboard in 2004, “My producing style is this, ‘I am the music.’” The topliner works for the producer, in the sense that the producer books and pays for the studio-generally out of up-front money that labels pay him-and he runs the session, often charging a daily rate. The producer almost always gets a big piece of the publishing, which was not the case in the old days. A lot of pioneering hip-hop producers were ripped off because they didn’t understand the value of the publishing, and sold the rights cheap. Modern producers are wise to that scam. That’s why hip-hop hits often have half a dozen or more songwriters and producers listed as authors.

In the hip-hop world, the producers are as celebrated as the artists. Dr. Dre is bigger than any of his rappers. At Aftermath Records, Dre’s hip-hop hit factory in L.A., dozens of young beat makers and topliners put in long hours. The Canadian rapper Drake worked there for a while, before he was famous. “It was some of the most strenuous militant shit I’ve ever done,” he says. “But no usable songs came out of it. When I think of how he worked us, it’s no wonder he didn’t get anything out of it. It was just writers in a room churning out product all day long.”

Producers are known for their signature sounds. Timbaland (Timothy Mosley) has his funky Eastern strings; Dr. Dre his wheedling Parliament-Funkadelic-inspired gangsta beat. For Cheiron, it was the wet kick drum/dry snare combo. Those sounds are their brands, and they tell music fans who’s in charge of the record. But eventually every producer’s sound gets dated. A producer is vulnerable to changing fashions in pop music in a way the topliners are not. A great melody is timeless.

Timbaland was hot in the first half of the 2000s. He produced the first three Missy Elliott albums, as well as several tracks on Rihanna’s breakthrough album, Good Girl Gone Bad. Jay-Z regularly shouted him out in his raps. But Timbaland was virtually absent from the radio by 2010. His sound abruptly got stale. The Neptunes, the producing and songwriting duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, were also much in demand early in the 2000s and largely out of favor by the end of the decade, though Pharrell would be back in a big way.

The track-and-hook producers are almost always men (less than 5 percent of music producers and engineers are women, according to most estimates, and no woman has ever won a Grammy for Producer of the Year). The topliners are often women (because their clients are likely to be women too), but male artists like Ne-Yo also topline for other artists. Most topliners want to be artists themselves, performing their own song. But they are in the same predicament as Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. They have the music in them, but they lack the star quality necessary to put the songs across and make them hits. Very occasionally a male topliner does cross over and become a star-Pharrell Williams would do it, and Ne-Yo had managed it to a certain extent-and those rare instances give every other topliner hope. But for most, it is false hope. (Women almost never cross over-Skylar Grey is a rare exception but hardly a major star-although the topliner Kara DioGuardi did manage to achieve fame as an American Idol judge.)

Most important, the producers and labels that hire topliners aren’t inclined to unplug them from the assembly line of song creation and help them become stars. That would mean denying already established artists the benefit of potential hits. Powerful interests are invested in keeping the topliners where they are-in the studio rather than onstage.
page 200–204

(Ester) Dean was dimly visible through the sound proofed glass window, bathed in greenish light. She took out her phone, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she copies from magazines and television programs.
Page 218

Apparently, I never really had a chance. According to a 2011 research project based on a fMRI study of people listening to music, familiarity with a song reflexively causes emotional engagement; it doesn’t matter what you think of the song. In “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters,” lead author Carlos Silva Pereira and his collaborators write that familiarity is a “crucial factor” in how emotionally engaged listeners are with a song.

But why does hearing a song over and over again make us like it? In her 2014 book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Elizabeth Margulis, who is the director of the Music-Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, explores this topic. She explains, “When we know what’s coming next in a tune, we lean forward when listening, imagining the next bit before it actually comes. This kind of listening ahead builds a sense of participation with the music.” The songs in heavy rotation are “executing our volition after the fact.” The imagined participation encouraged by familiar music, she adds, is experienced by many people as highly pleasurable, since it mimics a kind of social communion.

That’s a sobering thought. If Margulis is right, 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.
page 303–304

Swedish hitmakers, once a crazy dream of Denniz PoP’s, supplied one quarter of all the hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014. The Swedes have become a driving force in K-pop as well. Swedes turn out to be just as good at working within Asian musical genres.
page 305

The eye at the center of this expanding ring of influence is Max Martin. The Swedish master, and the school of collaborators he has gathered around him at MXM, his publishing and production company in Los Angeles, are more a part of our every day listening experience than ever. In 2012, when I began writing the book, Martin had already gone on not one but two spectacular hit-making runs, the first from Ace of Base through the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync to Britney Spears, and the second from Kelly Clarkson through Pink to Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, the album he executive-produced with Dr. Luke, which produced a whopping five number ones. Even then he had already surpassed most of the greatest songwriters in history, in output (he now has at least sixty-five top ten hits, of which twenty-two are number ones) and longevity (eighteen years between number ones; most Top 40 hitmakers get only six years at most).
I didn’t expect Martin to become any more successful than he already was in 2012. But as I was working on the book, Martin and his new writing partner, the former death metal drummer Shellback, were embarking on a third run of hits-the ongoing hot streak of smashes with Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and the Weeknd.
page 309–310

“I sort of wish you hadn’t told me this stuff,” he said, when we talked after the book came out. “It’s kind of disillusioning.”
page 318


About craigmaas

I do a little web design work and support a couple web sites and blogs. My primary focus is lighting and energy consulting where I use a number of computer tools to help my customer find ways of saving money and improving their work environment. See my web site for more information:
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