Wall Street Journal Review

Now that’s a review!

Rihanna’s Svengali’s

Christopher Carroll

Early in “The Song Machine,” his fascinating account of the inner workings of the pop music business, John Seabrook recalls mornings spent driving his young son to school. Each day his son would listen to contemporary hits radio (CHR)—what used to be called Top 40. Raised on rock, Mr. Seabrook found new pop strange and unpalatable, not “soulful ballads played by the singer-songwriter” but “industrial-strength products” best heard in “malls, stadiums, airports, casinos.” And yet he found that he was more and more drawn in. When his son made a passing comment that four hits sung by four very different pop stars had all been made by the same producer, Mr. Seabrook was shocked. He realized how little he knew about the people behind the hits on CHR—“the Spielbergs and Lucases of our national headphones”—and resolved “to find out more about who created these strange new songs, how they were made, and why they sounded the way they did.”

Adapted from pieces in the New Yorker, “The Song Machine” is lively, entertaining and often insightful, of interest both to pop mavens and to those who couldn’t imagine caring about the latest hits. Mr. Seabrook focuses on a cross section of important figures in the pop world—stars, producers, singers, songwriters, record and tech executives, and one delightfully wheedling, unctuous manager—and the ways in which they attempt to turn a profit in a business in which world-wide revenues have declined from a peak of $27 billion in 1999 to $15 billion in 2014.

In spite of the considerable changes that have taken place in the past 15-odd years—the rise of file-sharing software, iTunes and streaming services like Spotify—the pop music industry today makes money in much the same way as in the 1950s. It relies on hits—more so, in fact, than ever before. Roughly 90% of the industry’s revenue, Mr. Seabrook writes, comes from 10% of the songs, and a handful of A-list artists generate most of this. But almost none of these artists write their own songs. That job falls to the hitmakers, a group of producers and songwriters who, over the past 20 years, have gradually refined most of the guesswork out of hit-making.



By John Seabrook
(Norton, 338 pages, $26.95)

Their approach to songwriting, far from the solitary composer laboring at a piano, is more akin to a workshop. It most often involves what Mr. Seabrook calls the track-and-hook method. First a producer, often working with a number of other producers and engineers, creates the track—made up of the beats, the rhythmic underpinnings of any pop song, consisting almost entirely of synthesized and sampled audio. Producers write a number of tracks in a day and send them in MP3 form to the topliners. These are the Cyranos of the music industry, vocalists who supply the song’s melodies, which consist mainly of short, catchy, repetitive “hooks.” It is not uncommon for producers to send the same track to multiple topliners, picking and choosing elements from the different submissions.

The meaning of the lyrics that topliners come up with is generally a secondary concern. One of the best parts of Mr. Seabrook’s book describes the elite topliner Ester Dean listening to a track prepared by the Norwegian producing duo Stargate and then improvising a vocal line in response. Taking the form at first of only inchoate sounds, then snatches of words (drawn from a list she keeps on her BlackBerry), the lines she created, Mr. Seabrook writes, were “more like vocalized beats than like lyrics, and they didn’t communicate meaning so much as feeling and attitude.” Once the lyrics have coalesced and a good take has been recorded, the producers set about reordering the audio into a more traditional song structure.


Only after all of this does a song find its way to an artist, who rerecords it, adding his or her personal touch. Some artists are more involved in the process than others, but even those who make almost no rewrites to a song still get a songwriting credit and thus a share of the publishing royalties (“change a word, get a third,” the saying goes). In the hands of the right producer and topliner, this method is as close to a guaranteed hit as one can get, but it tends to yield a sameness of sound.

As Mr. Seabrook observes, most pop artists today are less artists than vocal personalities. The real money to be made is in live shows, and hits are desirable not just because they generate revenue from album or single sales, but because they fill stadiums. Many artists are so busy touring that they have time to record new tracks only while en route from one show to another. (Rihanna, for instance, has recorded hits on her tour bus.) “You can have two or three hot singles on an album, or no singles,” says Tor Hermansen, one of the two producers who make up Stargate, “and that’s the difference between selling five million copies worldwide and launching an eighty-date sold-out world tour, and selling two hundred thousand copies and having no tour. That’s, like, a twenty-million-dollar difference.”

Mr. Seabrook writes that Mr. Hermansen compares his songs to “new flavors awaiting the right soft-drink or potato-chip maker to come along and incorporate them into a product.” It’s an apt description, certainly, but it’s also hard to know what to make of a composer who would enthusiastically liken his music to a bag of Ruffles. As an overview of the pop music world and the people who make it function, Mr. Seabrook’s book, though at times diffuse, is an unquestionable success. Readers, moreover, will be hard-pressed not to admire the skill involved in creating songs so “painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition.”

But while Mr. Seabrook evokes the beguiling nature of the music, the way in which it leaves listeners craving more, it is unclear whether he thinks that the songwriting method he has so wonderfully documented can create only disposable, confectionary commodities, or if it’s perhaps capable of something more.

Mr. Carroll is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.


You, know, the guy Taylor Swift wrote  her song “Mean” about, after he wrote that she couldn’t sing. “Someday I’ll be / Livin’ in a big ol’ cit-ee”… Wait, I AM living in a big old city…

“The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory”: http://amzn.to/1JiBWv8

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

You will find the content of this book so offensive you will stop blaming Spotify for the death of music.

Not that it’s that good.

John Seabrook is a writer for the “New Yorker.” He specializes in covering what those in the industry already know. Which is the problem with this tome. If you work in the hit industry, you won’t learn a thing. If you’ve been paying attention to music for the past fifteen years except for the hits, you’ll keep nodding your head saying “I know that.” But the truth is we live in a bifurcated land where those playing by the old rules lose and those playing by the new take all the marbles. And the old people and those following in their footsteps don’t like it.

All the money’s in pop music. In a world of chaos, where there are more tracks than anybody can know, never mind listen to, we gravitate to that which has been anointed. Oh, not you, never you, you know better, you know what’s good, who has talent… My inbox is filled with the self-satisfied self-congratulating. As if anybody cared what they had to say. The old bands have been touring so long there’s no need to see them, they haven’t had a hit in decades and even the nostalgia is wearing thin. Yes, classic rockers and those who followed them set the world on fire, but as they say…what have you done for me lately?

Not much.

Everybody lionizes the Beatles, with their melodic tunes you could sing along to.

And then there are the classic rockers, from Hendrix to Clapton to Zeppelin with a dose of west coast thrown in for good measure. They were virtuosos testing limits who took us on adventures, they set our minds free, we stayed up all night listening to their albums, we went to the show to get closer, and we haven’t had that spirit here since 1999. Sure, songs might rule in country, where they play guitars, never underestimate the audience for that music, even as you pooh-pooh it, but in pop…

Gargantuan stars were built by MTV. But the whole world was watching and by time the door closed on the boy bands, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, sales were dropping, money was missing and everybody with a computer was making music.

And out of this came…

Max Martin and Dr. Luke. The producer was king. Songs written by committee have ruled. And John Seabrook does an excellent job of telling you how these records are made, and you’ll be horrified.

Despite all the money in Rihanna and Katy Perry, no one’s bothered to explain the nougat at the center of their candy-coated productions. We’re inundated with info on their success, who they’re dating, how much money they’re making, but what’s at the core…nada.

Until now.

The book starts off with the story of Max Martin. Which begins with his mentor Denniz PoP. I wish Seabrook went deeper, talked about Karl Martin Sandberg’s, i.e. Max Martin’s, music school roots, how he became so proficient in music. But we do learn the story of Ace of Base. But from there we jump to the story of Lou Pearlman and his charges and too much of this is repeats. Those paying attention know all of it. There are a few details, but also a few mistakes… Like ‘N Sync recorded for Areola? A boob of a label? No, that’s “Ariola.” And it’s Andy Schuon, not Schoun. And most people won’t care, but those who do have a hard time taking a book seriously when there are such basic mistakes. Has anybody ever heard of Google? Or has proofreading gone out the window?

But then Max Martin gets cold, and the story truly begins. He hooks up with Dr. Luke, an arrogant prick who knows how the world works. Max asks if he can rent Luke’s studio…Luke says you can work FREE! Being talented is at most fifty percent of success, knowing how to navigate people…it’s the other fifty.

And they concoct “Since U Been Gone.”

But then comes a detour into Clive Davis, who is lionized, as if only Clive knows a hit. You know all this too.

But then comes the story of Rihanna.

And the creation of the track and hook formula.

No, they don’t write the songs the way they used to. Some make the beats and others create the topline and Seabrook does a great job of delineating how this works. If only he threw out the retread info, he’s so busy writing a survey of the past couple of decades that the good info is nearly drowned out. And the section on K-Pop is nearly superfluous. But when it comes to creating “Umbrella”…

They don’t sit in studios with guitars and pianos, writing melodies and lyrics together. At best, they do that in Nashville. Rather producers come up with beats and then they have their favorite topliners create melodies and hooks on top. And if there aren’t enough hooks in the track, they start all over. They’re in the business of hit singles, not album dreck. And they know one hook is not enough, that you’ve got to grab the public instantly and continue to thrill them.

And this formula is working.

I’m not judging it, just telling you how it is.

Could change… But this is how our biggest star, Taylor Swift, creates her music. She’s tied up with Max Martin. And so is this summer’s phenom the Weeknd. And Miley Cyrus’s hits were written by the usual suspects. And there are more players than Max and Luke, but they’re all similar, they’re men behind the curtain who create the formula, no different from junk food, that’s right, Frito-Lay adds unnatural flavorings to keep you addicted, and so do these producers.

So what we’ve got is a generation gap so wide that the boomers and even the Gen-X’ers can’t see across it. They keep clamoring for a return to what once was the same way Justin Timberlake begged for music videos to return to MTV. Music videos are now an on demand item on YouTube, and if melody and albums and all the rest of what once was comes back it will be different, and certainly made by a younger generation free from the past that understands today’s world.

This is where we are. The youngsters drive music consumption. The reason those making oldster music can’t make money on Spotify is because their audience doesn’t have time to listen. But the youngsters…they’ve got music on all the time. But we keep crapping on their music. The truth is, they’ve tuned us out. And they’re not looking for what we once had. To them, music is purely sauce, constant background noise or dance fodder…it ain’t gonna change the world, that’s for tech.

Who are Benny Blanco and Ester Dean? Are you familiar with the canon of Tricky Stewart? Believe me, he’s much more important culturally and financially than Keith Richards, whose album is sinking like a stone, despite all the fawning press. How about Stargate?  And Sturken and Rogers? All the people truly driving popular culture are in this book. That’s why you should read it. And that’s why you’re gonna hate it. This is music? This is what we’ve come to?


People want to make money. These producers have gone where the money is. The labels are following them. Songs are written in camps. And we’re so far from the garden Joni Mitchell is incapable of writing a song about it.

We’ve got all this info on legal, Don Passman writes an excellent book. People know how not to get ripped-off. But they don’t know how to succeed, because they don’t know how the game is played. Because those involved are too busy making money to slow down and tell a press that doesn’t care.

Credit Seabrook for caring. He was curious as to the genesis of his son’s musical favorites.

I just wish he’d gone deeper.

Read this. It’s not out for a couple of weeks. But make a note, pre-order it. And at times your eyes will be rolling in the back of your head as what you already know is repeated simplistically. But then comes the meat…

As for those profiled in the book…they’re too busy trying to make hits to worry about inaccurate portrayals. Because the truth is songwriting and producing are evanescent careers. As my famous friend says – put Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon in a room for a month and tell them if they write a hit we’ll have world peace…and they won’t be able to do it. You lose the pulse, your instincts are untrustworthy, you just don’t want it bad enough.

But these cats do.

And Max Martin has a career longer than the legends.

Which is why you must pay attention. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” may be pablum, but it’s better than any rock ballad since. And “Since U Been Gone” is probably the best rock record of this century. And you may not know the rest of the hits in this book, but what the men don’t know, the little girls understand.

Shelf Talker Review

Better than a poke in the eye…

Review: The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook (W.W. Norton, $26.95 hardcover, 9780393241921, October 5, 2015)

New Yorker writer John Seabrook (Flash of Genius) provides an eminently readable and important inside look at how the pop music industry developed strategies to manufacture no-fail hit songs.

Seabrook’s in-depth interviews with an army of songwriters, producers, performers and others make for series of profiles that document a revolution in the music business. He chronicles everything from the emergence of new business models to the deliberate interjection of hooks meant to re-engage listeners every seven seconds, the average amount of time people listen to a song before they change the station. Including optimal chord progressions and the most effective camera angles for videos, these strategies exploit the brain’s reflexive attraction to repetition, rhythm and melody. Hit factories now create formula-driven, synthetic tracks with near-universal appeal, producing songs that combine beat-driven dance music with the pop that people enjoy on the radio.

Seabrook travels to Stockholm, where Swedish DJ, producer and songwriter Denniz Pop and Cheiron Studios helped the city become an engine of pop music. In South Africa, Clive Calder, through his Jive label, was the first to successfully exploit the power of producers and publishing rights, rather than focusing on performers and record sales, to become the wealthiest individual in the history of the music industry up to that point. Korea’s K-pop, with one of the most elaborate hit- and teen idol-making factories in the world, has eliminated the distinction between “manufactured” music, created under the direction of producers in labs, using computer-generated instrumentals for a celebrity performer, and “real” music created by the singer-songwriter. Profiles of superstars like Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry detail their collaborations with producers who leave no detail to chance. And Seabrook’s anecdotes of the music shared with (and often rejected by) his children add a wonderful personal counterpoint to the behind-the-scenes narrative.

The Song Machine is a superbly written, textured account of a creative industry still in flux, one where an artist’s creative vision is no match for a deadly effective business machine. As streaming replaces CD sales and contemporary hits replace album-oriented music, and 1% of artists now generate 80% of the industry’s profit, the role of the singer and writer has radically changed. They have become “vocal personalities” whose “insights into the human condition seem to extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth.” Seabrook acknowledges the addictive appeal of such music while remaining troubled by the cost: music that can be performed by anyone is inherently soulless, even if it can foster brief moments of connection between a father and a son when they are both captured by a song’s seductive hooks. —Jeanette Zwart, freelance writer and reviewer

Shelf Talker: The Song Machine is a superb, thoroughly researched and entertaining account of the music industry’s transformation into a hit factory.

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