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The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

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There’s a reason today’s ubiquitous pop hits are so hard to ignore—they’re designed that way. The Song Machine goes behind the scenes to offer an insider’s look at the global hit factories manufacturing the songs that have everyone hooked. Full of vivid, unexpected characters—alongside industry heavy-hitters like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Max Martin, and Ester Dean—this fascinating journey into the strange world of pop music reveals how a new approach to crafting smash hits is transforming marketing, technology, and even listeners’ brains. You’ll never think about music the same way again.

A Wall Street Journal Best Business Book

368 pages, Paperback

First published October 5, 2015

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About the author

John Seabrook

11 books50 followers
John Seabrook has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1993. The author of several books including Nobrow, he has taught narrative nonfiction writing at Princeton University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 537 reviews
Profile Image for Scotto Moore.
Author 6 books74 followers
February 27, 2016
I'll admit this book goes down smooth, like a pop hit record; I ripped through it in fascination. But we'll see how kind history is to a book that essentially concludes with multiple chapters of Dr. Luke getting the equivalent of a Parade magazine profile, while Kesha is dismissed in one of those chapter titles as a "teenage nightmare." For that matter, once you put the book down on Dr. Luke riding off into the sunset with his next protege, you start to wonder why zero critical attention is expended by the author in wondering why men have such a strangle hold on producer roles in the first place, and what effect that has on the music that reaches radio. In this narrative, Britney Spears is largely portrayed as a nutjob; Katy Perry is a wacko; Rihanna is a "pitchy" vocalist incapable of stringing together a credible album on her own; Kelly Clarkson is a crybaby whose failure writing her own music is obviously because she didn't trust Clive Davis and not at all because Davis was too egotistical to promote Clarkson's music properly after she stood up to him; Ester Dean has to swear "like a man" and wear baggy clothes to literally disguise all evidence that she has sexual appeal in order to be taken seriously as a songwriter in the studio. Meanwhile every single male producer in this book is presented uncritically as a genius, which starts getting as monotonous as listening to the radio. Yeah sure "The Song Machine" is a fascinating look at how pop music is created today, from the perspective of a white male journalist. But this is hardly a definitive or particularly nuanced take on the industry.
Profile Image for Petra X played the long game - and won.
2,383 reviews33.9k followers
November 16, 2018
This was all business. It is generally thought that most hits are a result of the collaboration between a singer, songwriter, the musicians and the production team that puts it all together, That is entirely backward. Most hits are the result of the production team finding a sound with a hook (either popular at that time, or rarely a new one) and then employing lyricists and musicians to fulfill the brief. The singer, the star, who gets the song is the one mostly likely to make it a hit and make the most money for the producers. It can be a bidding war with agents vying to get 'guaranteed' hits for their clients. The stars are important to the finished product, but they are just one element, although it looks like they are the main one from our point of view, a non-industry one.

There are singer-songwriters who have hits. If they can get to the right people, never easy for an unknown in any industry, and they have something unique that will sell, then they are on their way. More often though, first they were the face and voice of the production crew and then began to write their own songs. There are those, geniuses even if they are not seen as such, who are in charge of the entire production, Michael Jackson was one. He's very underestimated, people judge him not on what he achieved professionally and in business, but on whether they like him or his songs or not. He wasn't flaky all the time!

It's not quite as cold and calculating as it sounds (but nearly), many of the producers have a real passion for music, but mostly that's secondary to their passion for getting to the top in the music business. Those at the top have their pick of the star singers and bands, and that keeps them in pole position with the adulation of the industry. Oh and the money of course.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,079 reviews2,607 followers
December 26, 2015
I'm always interested in how stuff works, how things get made, what's behind a business model. The Song Machine hits the sweet spot of explaining how the modern music industry works and also being entertaining.

John Seabrook wrote that he first became interested in contemporary hits when his 10-year-old son started fiddling with the car radio. Flo Rida's "Right Round" was playing.

Was this music? The bass sounded like a recording of a massive undersea earthquake. The speakers produced sounds such as might have been heard on the Island of Dr. Moreau, had he been a DJ rather than a vivisectionist. What strange song machines made these half-brass, half-stringed-sounding noises? ...

The songs in the car weren't soulful ballads played by the singer-songwriter. They were industrial-strength products, made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos, gyms, and the Super Bowl half-time show. The music reminded me a little of the bubblegum pop of my pre-teen years, but it was vodka-flavored and laced with MDMA; it doesn't taste like "Sugar, Sugar." It is teen pop for adults.

Seabrook ends up traveling around the world, including Sweden and South Korea, to investigate the Song Machine, where hits can be manufactured using musical software and samples — no instruments are needed.

This is democratizing, but it also feels a little like cheating. By employing technologically advanced equipment and digital-compression techniques, these hit makers create sounds that are more sonically engaging and powerful than even the most skilled instrumentalists can produce. And it's so easy! You want the string section of Abbey Road on your record — you just punch it up. Whole subcultures of musical professionals — engineers, arrangers, session musicians — are disappearing, unable to compete with the software that automates their work.

Yes, there are "artists" featured in these hit songs, but their vocals are also manipulated extensively.

The voices belong to real human beings, for the most part, although in some cases the vocals are so decked out in electronic finery that it doesn't matter whether a human or a machine made them. On sheer vocal ability, the new artists fall short of the pop divas of the early '90s* — Whitney, Mariah, Celine. And who are these artists? Britney? Kelly? Rihanna? Katy? Kesha? What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition seem to extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth. And who really writes their songs?

[*Note: Adele being a noted exception. I thought it was interesting she wasn't mentioned in this book, probably because she is so exceptional.]

As to who really writes all those hit songs, I'll admit I was surprised by how little the "artists" have to do with it. It turns out there's a handful of producer types who regularly manufacture those songs. Very few artists in the Top 40 (what's also called CHR, for Contemporary Hits Radio) actually write their own material. Here, Taylor Swift is an exception, however, her music also gets the Song Machine treatment.

One of the big takeaways from the book is how rigged the music industry is, and how tough it is for an artist to break through. Seabrook shares stories of producers making fun of artists who want to write their own songs, and then laugh when the original songs don't sell well. There is nothing organic in contemporary radio — it's all been engineered according to "melodic math."

I was so engaged with this subject that I regularly paused my reading to look up the song or artist Seabrook was discussing, and was able to listen to the music with a fresh perspective. For example, I'll never be able to hear Kelly Clarkson's song "Since U Been Gone" again without thinking how much she reportedly protested having it on her record, and acknowledging how impressively it's designed.

I think anyone interested in the music industry will find this book fascinating. There are chapters on the boy-band phenomenon; American Idol; Swedish music producers; Korean Pop; and how the compact disc, Napster and Spotify ended up changing the industry. There are also sections on individual artists, including Katy Perry, Rihanna, Britney Spears, and Kesha. The book is well-written, well-researched, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Greg Schumaker.
Author 3 books7 followers
June 2, 2015
Fantastic! Great to learn about the small world of people who've made all the most annoying songs for the last 20+ years.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,092 followers
November 11, 2022
When I was quite young, somebody gave my brother and me a new toy for Christmas. It was a little plastic speaker, which played 60-second clips from popular songs from tiny memory cards called “HitClips.” Though primitive in retrospect, at the time it seemed like incredible technology—to us kids, at least—and I spent weeks driving my mother crazy by playing and re-playing the one-minute version of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” I had. My brother, meanwhile, had the HitClip of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” and now if I listen to either song it makes me slightly nauseous.

This was, however, probably the most significant intrusion of contemporary pop music into my childhood. My father is a musician and, under his influence, I became a fan of the music of his generation—the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Bob Dylan—and remained mostly ignorant of, and uninterested in, the music of my peers. Indeed, like many teenagers with pretentions to artistic and intellectual superiority, I was quite proud to be disdainfully unaware of what was on the radio. It was therefore quite interesting to retrospectively learn about this music via John Seabrook.

Seabrook examines just the music that I was busy snubbing my nose at: the pop music of the nineties and aughts, such as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Brittney Spears, Rihanna, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry. However, as quickly becomes clear, these artists are not the real focus of the book. Rather, Seabrook wants to examine the far less famous people who actually write and produce the songs that make popstars so famous. Indeed, it is fairly uncommon for a pop star to actually write their own music nowadays, which is why they have to tour and perform so regularly—not owning the royalties, they do not make much money on record sales.

A surprising number of songwriters are Swedish (apparently, the culture or the language fosters melodic gifts), such as Max Martin—a man infinitely less well-known than the singers I listed above, but who has written many of the songs that made them famous. Martin, along with other modern hitmakers such as Dr. Luke and Tricky Stewart, do not write songs the way you might imagine is the “normal” way. Rather than searching for chords and melodies on a guitar or a piano, they focus on making “beats” or backing tracks—usually, using only digital tools, a fact that has put many studio musicians out of business. Then, this track is sent out to “top line” writers, who come up with the melody and perhaps the title; and finally, a lyrics writer finishes up the product.

Working this way, a song can be created relatively quickly. This is key to the modern pop song industry, as it allows producers to search for potential hits via trial and error. The same backing track can be sent out to a dozen or more top line writers, who in turn send back their melodies and ideas for the song. Of these options, the most appealing is chosen, and then worked into a full song. Even at this point, however, it is not unusual for a recorded song to be canned for being deemed insufficient. With so many options to choose from, producers need only to release what they are confident will succeed. And this is not merely a matter of guesswork. According to Seabrook, there are computer programs which analyze songs and rate their likelihood of becoming popular.

Now, being a purist is a good way to make yourself unhappy. And, in any case, “authenticity” in art is difficult to insist on, as it is such a slippery thing to pin down. Even so, I have to say that my sneering teenage self felt amply justified by this book. But before I snub my nose, I must add some caveats.

First, as Seabrook points out, this is hardly the first time in history when songs have been written by professionals for purely commercial ends. From Tin Pan Alley, to the Brill Building songwriters, to Motown and Phil Specter, there have long been professional songwriters creating material for charismatic singers. And hardly anybody thinks it inauthentic, for example, when a trained soprano sings an aria written by a professional composer (and many opera composers were quite shamelessly commercial, recycling old material and working with tight deadlines). At the very worst, this production model puts pop singers on the same level as movie stars, who are admired and praised just for knowing how to recite their lines. If anything is new about the modern “song machine,” then, it is just that the producers nowadays have more advanced tools than their predecessors.

All of this being granted, I must admit that parts of the book turned my stomach. This was especially true of the chapter on K-pop, which describes how potential stars are trained to sing and dance from a young age, and whose lives—from their schedules, to their diet, or even the boundaries of their love life—are carefully managed. The section on the dispute between Kesha and Dr. Luke—which included allegations of abuse and rape—was just as upsetting, epitomizing the exploitative extremes of the business. Indeed, as another reviewer has pointed out, there is a striking gender imbalance in the industry, with the overwhelming majority of producers and songwriters being men. And, of course, even if it is not exactly new, it is never pretty to see the inner workings of industrialized pop culture. It is like a visit to a hot dog factory.

Seabrook, for his part, seems to have come to like contemporary pop music more as a result of his delve into this world. Well, to each their own I suppose. He has written an informative and entertaining book on a subject that most people are familiar with, but which relatively few understand, and so has earned the right to listen to as much NSYNC as his stomach can handle.
Profile Image for Paul.
197 reviews168 followers
February 1, 2016
"Bring the hooks in, where the bass at?"

This book opens with an Iggy Azalea lyric. I'm not sure if this fact ultimately means anything for the quality of the product as a whole, but I feel that it's worth pointing out. And after finishing The Song Machine, it seems as good an indication as any of the reading experience.

Let me attempt to explain that.

Like an Iggy Azalea track (you might recognize the above quote from "Fancy"), John Seabrook's novel is flashy and easy to slip into, but begins to show its flaws once the initial allure of something new inevitably starts to fade. After a brief opening chapter that discusses how the hooks of pop songs work and why they are so important to contemporary artists, Seabrook devotes his remaining sections to alternating between biographies of those producers who created the modern music scene (Denniz PoP, Max Martin, Dr. Luke) and historical lessons on how our current model of Spotify and Top 40 hits came to be. There's a mix of everything here, really: a recollection of American pop's Swedish roots, the rise of artists like Britney and Rihanna, a behind-the-scenes peek at the titular "hit factory" approach to writing number ones, a comparison of Western music with K-pop, a recounting of the impact of Napster on the industry, and more. The author likes to jump around, but each chapter is more or less tied together by the larger segments that they're divided into. You sometimes wish that Seabrook would remain more consistent when he hits upon a particularly interesting concept and promptly moves on a few pages later, but that's the nature of his study: to give us a glimpse at all of music's many weird and wild parts rather than an in-depth lesson on just one of them.

So, if nothing else, The Song Machine is entertaining. If you're like me (in that you tend to read up on musical theory and the creative/technical processes behind albums for no other reason than that you can), it's all fascinating, and perhaps a bit sad. The title's word choice isn't done for the sake of exhaggeration or an easy metaphor: what gets put on the radio is indeed the result of a formulaic (and at times purely mathematical) system that has been refined over the years to maximize profitable returns, not reward "creativity" or "originality" (whatever those terms may mean).

Still, as Seabrook notes, the results are catchy. The human brain knows what it likes in the sounds we give it, and the executives and producers of our culture know how to provide them.

As a result, The Song Machine's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, I think: it does not judge. And while this is refreshing in some aspects, it also feels like a wasted opportunity (not to mention grossly hypocritical approach) in others.

On the one hand, it lets a book written by a middle-aged author do what not even YouTube comments cannot: avoid pretentious arguments over taste. Musical elitism (or any kind of "holier-than-thou" attitude towards cultural preferences) is one of my pet peeves, because I cannot see the reason or fairness in putting down people for listening to what makes them happy. And, let's be honest, much of it is grounded in systematic inequalities: sexism, ageism, classism, racism. Younger generations are forever being mocked because they happen to like something that their parents did not grow up with, and something as simple as your favorite artist can and will be used as amunition to "prove" why "kids these days are so ungrateful/lazy/disrespectful."

Listen, does it really matter if your friend or family member prefers Justin Bieber to the Beatles? Are you somehow more cultured, more respectable as a consumer and human being in general because you "don't listen to modern music"? No, it doesn't. And no, you aren't. It drives me batty that just about every video with a song from the 80s or earlier will be brimming with smug remarks about how "this is real music." Older listeners are constantly reminding us of how much "better" their bands and albums were/are, while also convincing their children that they've won some imaginary contest if they can proudly distance themselves from their peers and claim that they only listen to Led Zeppelin and Queen. Never mind the fact that, say, the Beatles were similarly dismissed as a frivolous boy band due to their large female fanbase during their active years.

But that's how it goes, isn't it? What's new is derided because it appeals to the youth (especially if the crowds consists largely of young women) before being appropriated retroactively as "classic" once older men finally get around to admitting that they like it.

Seabrook averts this by initially admitting that, no, he didn't like the music that his son listens to at first, using Flo Rida's "Right Round" as an example. Yet over time, he came to appreciate artists like Taylor Swift and the other frequenters of the Billboard Top 100. They aren't, he realized, necessarily inferior to the stars of his childhood. They're simply different, and Seabrook is willing to admit to the cyclical, hypocritical nature of nostalgia and how it impacts our likes and interests. As a result, most of his exploration of "the machine" is free of the dismissive, haughty attitude that you would expect from having someone who used to own records talk about songwriting that mostly relies upon teams of hired creators and a Macbook Pro.

On the other hand, however, the book's stab at impartiality can create an unsettling sense of disinterest or apathy when it comes to addressing the less savory elements of such a romanticized business. Take a look at these passages regarding Britney Spears, for instance:

"In his notes [Steve] Lunt wrote, 'She says she can dance and she really wants to be able to entertain.' Lunt also noted that Britney told him the only thing she was afraid of was 'failing, and having to go back to Louisiana and face all the people.'"

"'But with Britney, Max [Martin] said, 'She's fifteen years old; I can make the record I really want to make, and use her qualities appropriately, without her telling me what to do.'"

This sort of casual admittance that, yes, a young girl was seen as a tool through which grown men could make money in the way that they saw fit -- even better that she's so naive and trusting! -- is incredibly disturbing. And while a neutral stance may be necessary to discussing nonfiction in a manner that won't be subject to criticism or accusations of misinformation via bias, it's frustrating that Seabrook is willing to add "flavor" in his remarks regarding some things (see below), but not to those touching upon important social issues such as this.

This insensibility appears a few other times throughout the book, most notably during the portions discussing K-pop (in the way that labels' near total control over their stars' lives onstage and off is portrayed almost as a "quirk" of Eastern culture) and Dr. Luke (in that Kesha's ongoing crisis over the future of her music career and her statements regarding Luke's behavior come across as a mere footnote in the otherwise "riveting life" of the producer). And while it's good to also learn about Ester Dean's views of sexism within the songwriting industry and the complete lack of women producers, it isn't enough to correct this imbalance between claiming journalistic impartiality and implying personal advocacy. "...Brown, handsome as sin in a black leather jacket and tie, beamed up at the beautiful face he was about to beat to a pulp," says Seabrook so casually while discussing Rihanna's rise to fame, before immediately going into a discussion on what made her abuser so talented. Sure, it's "justified" as being a buildup to the following segment about the singer's change of image with her subsequent Rated R album, but Brown's actions aren't contextualized in any further way -- only his victim's are.

Here's why these moments are especially troubling: because while Seabrook will play at being nonpartisan in passages such as those above, he isn't consistent about it. He cherry-picks which topics to interject his own attempts at narrative interpretation. So he will not say anything in censure of Chris Brown, but will conclude the description of a singer's being beaten with this pointless, rude attempt at storytelling drama:

"In the end, fame couldn't save little Robyn from the horror of her parents' marriage, as she had dreamed it might."

Seriously? You choose now to wax poetic? It gets better when he talks about Katy Perry's strictly Christian upbringing and her first aspirations of fame:

"Part of the problem was her breats. As a girl, she had prayed for big ones, and when He generously bestowed on her a splendid pair, she had briefly considered breast reduction. But eventually she decided to display them proudly onstage (after all, they were His), in tight tops that probably caused some single guys in the audience to regret their promise rings."

"Again, one imagines, [Perry] prayed. Heavenly Father, please don't make me go back to Santa Barbara. Make me a star. And again, it seemed as if He had her back."

So he's willing to say this kind of thing when talking about a woman's breasts, but not when he's examining rape charges or sexist double standards in a hugely relevant cultural system? Not when he summarizes Britney's breakdown in a offhanded manner that isn't worth any further examination? "She was monumentally innocent, and when that innocence was taken, she broke," is all we get by way of introduction, followed by a "greatest hits" recounting of her eratic behavior and a conclusion that consists of a single sentence about her being committed to a psychiatric ward? And then you can't be bothered to mention her comeback and current condition anywhere else in the book?

Throw in a bit of self-promotion (Seabrook actually advertises one of his own books as further reading material on a subject that he simplifies as "complicated" here) and a tendency to use AAVE outside of direct quotes despite being white (another Azalea parallel, apparently), and you ultimately have an author who distracts enough from the subject matter to be an issue.

(And how do you devote an entire book to pop music with only a handful of brief mentions of Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift? In some ways, the work is already dated, able to mention fairly recent developments such as the departure of Jessica Jung from girl group Girls' Generation but behind on the fact that Psy's popularity in the United States has already all but vanished after "Gangnam Style," which makes for an odd reading experience. How does one devote more attention to the singer of a novelty single than the women who have, for better or worse, collectively defined American pop for the last several years? Seabrook's choice of subject matter so far as singers is concerned is eclectic but not comprehensive, to say the least.)

"What can I say? Ordinary domestic life needs its bliss points, those moments of transcendence throughout the day -- that just-behind-the-eyelids sense of quivering possibility that at any moment the supermarket aisle might explode into candy-colored light. The hooks promise that pleasure. But the ecstasy is fleeting, and like snack food it leaves you feeling unsatisfied, always craving just a little more."

So I finish The Song Machine in a position that is more or less similar to the one I took regarding music at the start: like whatever artists and songs you like without shame or a need to justify them, stop making jokes about Britney Spears (who I haven't listened to much, but will defend with my dying breath), and appreciate the sounds at your fingertips. The soundtrack of our lives is omnipresent enough to go without a second thought most of the time, but that doesn't mean it should. There's a lot to discover within it.

I just wish this particular attempt at providing such an appreciation could have been a tad less irritating while doing so.
116 reviews39 followers
March 18, 2018
The book traced the history of today’s pop music back to Stockholm in the early 1990s. It explained how the track-and-hook pop production model has since come to replace the traditional melody-and-lyrics one. It described the impact on the music industry from several disruptions, consolidations of radio station ownership in the U.S, Napster, iTunes, and Spotify. It told the stories of The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry, exemplified how stardom was being cultivated. And the masterminds behind all this phenomenon: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Denniz Pop--have you even heard of them?

As a die-heart music fan, my attitude toward today’s bubblegum sounding Top 40 hits is apathetic tolerance at best. Amazing that they’ve managed to sell millions of copies of songs with one-note verses backed by “sick beats:. But I have to admit Taylor Swift’s Shake it off once shined beautifully on my workout playlist.

And yet the book is a good case study on how a form of creative art being commercialized and monetized. And how “vocal personalities” have supplanted musical talents to become the object of celebrity worshiping.

A super informative read.
Profile Image for Jay French.
2,032 reviews74 followers
November 3, 2015
I have always wondered what goes into making a pop song, having read about songwriters from the 50s and 60s Brill Building and wondered whether that kind of story had changed. You know – a team of two, one sitting at the piano and one writing lyrics put together a song and go sell it to popular singers. And given society’s focus on pop singer-songwriters as do-it-all artists (which is an American thing, it turns out), I wondered if the corporate way of making songs had had an impact in how these songwriters worked. After reading this book, I see things have changed quite a bit. There are still singer songwriters, but when it comes to most pop hits it really takes a village, including teams of expert consultants called in to nuance a beat, pick the best syllables from multiple takes, and build a song like you build a house. And if it doesn’t work, throw it out and start again. “The Song Machine” covers dozens of stories of these songwriting experts, as well as the corporations and labels that employ them and the singers who belt out these often anthemic pop songs we hear so much on the radio.

And along the way, we hear of many Scandinavian song creators toiling to generate the defining (and the background) music of our lives. Seabrook makes an interesting case on why Scandinavians are so involved in pop music – it’s one of those “you won’t believe this but…” types of books. I enjoyed it. (And if you don't like modern pop music, you can blame Abba, at least a little bit.) I also enjoyed the “dirt” on some of the singers I am familiar with (I’ve always gotten the impression that song-smart Taylor Swift churned out her personal anti-ex-boyfriend songs all by herself, but it appears that is not quite the case with her pop songs!) This is mostly a series of stories on the people involved in song writing over the last five years. I found Seabrook employing an apt way to tell his stories that I picked up on because I listened to this on audio. If you listened to the old Casey Kasem “American Top 40” radio show back a few decades, you might remember how he would mix in stories where you didn’t know who he was talking about until he named the surprising person at the end of the story, an example of which might be: “And that man, the man that held the door open for that girl on crutches was none other than…. Barry Manilow, and here’s Barry’s current song on the countdown…..”. Seabrook pulls the same kind of thing quite a few times within this book, and the narrator seems to have Kasem’s timing down on these reveals, too. I had to smile each time.
Profile Image for Josh.
384 reviews17 followers
February 18, 2016
Most of the reviews for this book start with the reviewer mentioning their love for pop music (AKA Top 40, CHR, et al). I'll start by making it clear I can't stand it. But Kristen has been raving about this book and its interesting dissection of the process behind modern pop. She is also an advocate for not letting your perceptions get in the way of what you like musically. Authenticity doesn’t matter and is a pretty vague concept anyway. So I went in with an open mind.

Still hate it.

But that's not to say the book isn't, in fact, an interesting dissection of the process. The record industry is unabashedly an industry, with metaphorical hit factories that produce hits like brick-and-mortar tire factories produce tires. Just like mechanical and chemical engineers have learned to produce optimal tires, sound engineers have learned to produce optimal song hooks. It's amazing how little involvement the performers even have in the process sometimes. Their job is to look good and be good performers, in that order. Producers are the real creative driving force. They create the prototype backbeats and musical phrases. Then they work with "topliners"--studio vocalists who improvise lyrics and vocal melodies to fit. The teams crank out this proto-song product like a vast river of hooky musical slurry. Snippets that don't grab everyone quickly get thrown out. The rare survivors get more development (involving a small army of other writers and producers), and maybe eventually mature into a song. Then Katy Perry or whoever drops by to perform the thing, which doesn't really matter anyway because they are likely going to autotune the hell out of everything. In the public eye the producer will probably get some recognition, and everyone else gets some credit in the liner notes. But mostly people are buying the Katy Perry Brand and making everyone involved a fresh load of money. It has been fantastically successful. The song machine knows what most consumers want in their music and it creates that product. (It doesn't matter that I don't like this incarnation of it. I'm not the target demographic and it's simple numbers: they have more.)

The book also serves as a biography of a few key people responsible for crafting many well-known songs. Along the way it manages to weave in the evolution of the pop music industry from its album sales-driven peak through the Napster, iTunes, and Spotify eras. Though as a story, the book's main flaw is that it's not especially objective about its subject. I’m not alone in my dislike of the product, a lot of the “masterpieces” discussed in the book have very mixed reviews, but you won’t read about them here. Seabrook likes CHR and heaps praise on it, and seems to expect that anyone would like it if they are subjected to the scientifically-proven three listens required to get these tunes lodged into a human brain. Yet I found most of the tracks he fawns over indistinguishable from each other or much of their kin. To me it all sounds like strings of commercial jingles pasted together until a track is above three--but never more than four--minutes long. The producers and record companies are frequently in litigation for the exact problem of their songs sounding just like other songs. The lawsuits are regularly dismissed--just because they are similar doesn’t mean they are legally similar, as is noted in each case--but it's strange for the author to be similarly dismissive. Not that the hit factories are giving back any money or the fans care about any of this, but it’s part of the story.
Profile Image for Joe.
88 reviews10 followers
May 11, 2015
From Ace of Base through Backstreet Boys to Rihanna and Katy Perry, THE SONG MACHINE chronicles the story of how a bunch of Swedish DJs and musicians conquered the American and world charts for 20 years. It's an utterly compelling and fascinating read that opens the door and shines a spotlight upon how hits are written and the anonymous people who write them.
Profile Image for Alex.
620 reviews15 followers
March 13, 2017
Buckle up, children. This is going to be long and scathing.

Let me say first and foremost that while I love pretty much all different sorts of music, I live for good pop music in a different way. There's something exhilarating about the build-up to a good chorus, in hearing all the different melodic elements come together until you are taken over by some weird spirit to belt out a "WHOA-OH-WHOA-OH" along with the singer. I don't care if it's horrifically overproduced (well, I can care, under the right circumstances; if the production takes you out of the melodic moment, then I find that to be jarring). I don't care if it's nonsense, like "I keep on hoping we'll eat cake by the ocean." What a great line. It's so silly that you can't help but sing along. So as a pop music fan (and one who's always been sort of acutely aware that I've been buying into the Hitmakers), I was so eager to read this book. It's ended up being one of the more disappointing books I've read on the subject, maybe ever.

To his credit, Seabrook does take you inside the hit factory in terms of introducing the songwriters themselves. I got to know people like Max Martin, Ester Dean, and Stargate better than I previously had. Unfortunately, the portraits themselves felt a little fluffy--good for a shorter medium (such as magazine articles--a point I'll get to shortly) but not so great for a lengthier book. I could keep them all apart, because I've always looked up who wrote the songs and already had a faint idea as to their different styles, but if you're a novice to the pop charts they may all very well blend together, just like 2016's top 100. (Last year was a terrible year for pop, but that's another story.)

It wasn't enough to save the book, though; not by any stretch. Part of the problem was the actual organization of the book, which is structured in the kitchiest manner: like a pop song. The essays in each section felt loosely related, but never whole. I realized once I finished the book that Seabrook writes for The New Yorker, which suddenly explained his writing style to me--many of these pieces had previously been essays for TNY, and he'd... probably revised them minimally for the book. The problem is, I had trouble finding the through line for most sections. The organization of the essays themselves were horrendous. The chapter for "...Baby One More Time" only mentions the actual song during the last two paragraphs or so, and then actually continues the conversation in the immediate next chapter--which was supposed to be about the bloody Backstreet Boys. Likewise, the K-pop chapter was titled "Gee" for the Girls' Generation hit of the same name. Instead of getting anything about the song itself, it's only mentioned in passing when GG performs it at a K-pop concert in Anaheim.

My last point brings up another qualm I had with the book. This might be more of a personal issue with the book, but I desperately longed for musical analysis of the songs. Yes, all this stuff was written in the hit factory: why does it work? Is it due to particular chord progressions, melodic structuring, the lyrics, what? I understand that Seabrook doesn't have a music theory background; in some ways, though, I'm not sure that was even needed. Two paragraphs on "...Baby One More Time" and then a passing mention of the iconic music video (where the director said "I can't believe I'm taking orders from a teenager") was in no way an actual in-depth discussion of the song itself. I feel like if you're going to write about pop music in this manner, it's not enough to say "and then Max Martin helped write '...Baby One More Time' and the rest is history". We all know the song--you can probably hear the opening da-na-na of the piano, assertive and hooky, in your head as I write this--but that's not enough. I wanted so much more about the songs themselves, rather than solely focusing on the hitmakers, as both go hand-in-hand.

Perhaps Seabrook didn't do so because, to be frank, he's not great about writing about music. There were a few songs he described where for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the hell the song was supposed to sound like--specifically "Rude Boy" by Rihanna, which I'd never actually heard prior to reading this book. I had to look it up and, even then, I still couldn't figure out on earth what he was trying to describe. Much of the time he was better at describing particular production hallmarks--stuttering drumsets, etc.--but, again, if you have no context for a remark like that, it becomes exceptionally difficult to imagine. Writing about music is an inherently difficult practice--there are certain things that a note or a particular musical phrase can hit for you that ten thousand words won't describe. But! There are better ways to do it. (Perhaps I'm being too hard on Seabrook, but then again, I've had my own practice on the subject, and I would like to think I can do a better job.)

Finally, Seabrook didn't really seem to have a full grasp or understanding of the subject(s) he covered. For one, his portrayals of the popstars themselves seemed vapid and tabloid-informed; he didn't really seem to get why Britney Spears had her breakdown in 2007, even though she later came out and said it was because she was sick of media coverage and people acting like they owned her. He seemed overly dismissive of Kesha's claims against Dr. Luke (indeed, the chapter on Kesha was actually a nightmare to read, not just because I love Kesha but because it seemed to be a very one-sided, Dr. Luke-sympathetic portrait). He kept imagining Katy Perry's prayers to God for career guidance. It was all very odd and none too palatable, to be honest. Seabrook also didn't seem to understand the full weight of the subject overall enough to make some broader comments. This is a book, largely, about men who write music (only two female songwriters, Ester Dean and Bonnie McKee, are covered) largely for female popstars. (Yeah, the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC had their own chapters, but the rest of the pop idols covered tended to be women.) There's definitely a comment to be made there, but Seabrook didn't seem to pick up on it at all. I know that this is something I'm more attuned to than others, and indeed there were a couple times when Seabrook seemed self-aware (commenting on the number of female songwriters/producers in the industry), but ignoring something as blatant as that felt weird.

I have a laundry-list of other complaints about the book, from the casual reference to Jill Sobule as gay (she's bisexual--seriously, she's said that multiple times, it's on Wikipedia, and a reference like that indicates to me as a reader that minimal cursory research was done on Seabrook's part) to ignoring the ascendency of perhaps the most manufactured of all acts in the 2010s, One Direction (a passing mention is not enough! How the hell can you write this book while failing to mention a boyband that was literally put together by producers on live television?) to the weird half-chapter on Ne-Yo working with Stargate that's never really returned to, but I'll try to stop myself here. The bottom line is that while I truly wanted to love this book (and I did learn some things from it), it just wasn't what I was looking for.

If you want to find out more about Max Martin, Lou Pearlman, or Denniz PoP, this book is a good starting place. But for the pop aficionado who's looking for a more detailed analysis into how and why pop music works (rather than a historical overview of "and then this happened and this song was written"), you'd be better off reading something else. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up writing the book about pop music I wish to see in the world in order to remedy all these complaints. Then you all can write me scathing reviews about how I've done it incorrectly.
Profile Image for Matthew Budman.
Author 3 books51 followers
August 1, 2015
Some New Yorker authors -- Kolbert, Orlean, Gladwell, et al -- are able to incorporate their individual feature articles into a larger narrative so seamlessly that you forget you actually read some of this material before. But The Song Machine never quite gels -- some of the sections are fascinating if a little depressing (pop songs have become pure product, literally meaningless, assembled on a computer), but with extended sections focusing on a few figures (Kelly Clarkson, Max Martin, etc.), it doesn't hold together as the sweeping survey that Seabrook intends. Still, if you missed the original magazine articles, which are terrific, the book is absolutely worth skimming and pausing anywhere that catches your eye.
Profile Image for Meg.
127 reviews
May 29, 2015
Who knew... This book is all about SWEDEN. This guy, Max Martin, in Sweden has written more current hit songs than just about anyone… it's crazy. Remember the "don't touch that dial!" feel in the songs of the 70's and 80's? Those songs were known to have a magical note, a hook, somewhere in the first 30 seconds of the song. That note that kept you from moving on through the static until you got to the next station over. Today's songs are different. Today, the songs we hear in the supermarket, the songs that soccer moms drive home to, -all of these songs- have a hook every 7 seconds and are designed with a "bliss point" or "money note". AND no longer is it James Taylor writing his song, guitar in hand, in some back room. These are the stories of the stars, the hits, and the teams -yes, TEAMS- of writers. An addict-ably readable book. Fair warning: When you read this book, you will get its songs stuck in your heads for days.
Profile Image for Paige.
75 reviews3 followers
May 1, 2021
I picked this up bc Charli XCX was reading it lol, but I would LOVE to know what she thought of it, because I made it 15 pages and the simultaneous weird resentment the author has for female artists and uncritical reverence for exclusively male producers was already so strong I had to drop it. Also I am very tired of men unironically talking about how only Nirvana is Real Music!!

I skimmed the chapter on Dr Luke to see if I was being too harsh and the way it drops in Kesha’s abuse and then immediately goes back to talking about his career is fucking gross. Bye!!!!!!
Profile Image for Kat ❅.
830 reviews69 followers
January 4, 2021
Four stars is probably a bit too high but I do feel like I learned a lot from this book. I'm not a big music person, in that I don't really listen to a ton of music. But what I do listen to is mostly pop and I do have somewhat of an interest in how stuff like film scoring works. This book was an interesting look at that industry.

I thought there were good parts and bad parts to this book. I don't want to just repeat but other reviewers have said but there are gender (and age) imbalances in this industry that Seabrook never really dives into. Sometimes, I didn't have as much of a problem with it. I think that style is really just a holdover from his New Yorker stuff. This sort of presentation journalism is very common in their long-form stories. All sides are laid out and interviewed and quoted from and the reader is left to decide what they think about the story. So rather than describing a scene where there is sexism and then having the narrator point it out, the sexism is described and then the reader has to notice it or not. Your mileage may very on how well you think this works. I thought it failed a little in the Kesha and Dr. Luke but worked fine in other places. I guess what I'm saying is that not diving deeper into the sexism in this industry seemed to me to be less about Seabrook's ignorance and more of a journalistic style choice.

There isn't always clear through-line for all these parts. There are kind of two things going on with this book: an examination of Swedish hit creators and their ilk and the rise of streaming services and the fall of album sales. Obviously, there is some overlap there but I felt like all the stuff about Spotify could have been cut. I thought the K-pop chapter was interesting because I know nothing about that and I don't listen to it but it was not connected to anything else. I think there would maybe be more to write about K-pop now considering that there has been an emerging western market but within this book the chapter is mostly useless. I think I liked the beginning of this book the most where there is an examination of the start of boy bands like the Backstreet Boys. After then first section, it did fall off a bit.

I would recommend this book for people interested in pop. It's not perfect but it's interesting and it does give you a glimpse at what the process of creating a hit can look like. There's no music theory in here, no real examination of the songs and why they work musically but it is an interesting look at the people responsible for those hits.
Profile Image for Steve Peifer.
424 reviews17 followers
November 15, 2015
So if you were going to write a history of US presidents who were African American and didn't include President Obama, it would be sort of suspect? To ignore the 800 pound gorilla named Taylor Swift is to kind of miss the point. Instead we get LOTS of Kelly Clarkson, and he dredges up the Clive Davis battles to no purpose except to prove they are both jerks. An occasional cute line doesn't compensate for all the filler to try to unsuccessfully hide a lack of access to people who might actually have a story to tell.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
474 reviews574 followers
April 17, 2017
At the time, I don't think any of us knew how much of a game-changer All That She Wants was. Sure this catchy single from Ace of Base was a smash hit across Europe in 1993, but it also ushered in a new era of Swedish pop music production that lasts to this very day. I remember being entranced by the song as a whippersnapper - it was the whistling synths, unusually phrased lyrics and something *different* about the chorus (which I now know is in a minor key) that marked it out as a bit special. The Hit Factory explains that the latter two features in particular are hallmarks of Scandi songwriters.

If you find this kind of pop music nerdery as intriguing as I do, then you're going to love this book. It traces the influence of Swedish hitmakers from the 90s wizardry of Denniz Pop to the current lineup of megastar producers like Max Martin (who has penned number ones for Britney, Katy Perry & Taylor Swift among many others) and Dr Luke (a designer of bangers for Kesha, Kelly Clarkson and Miley Cyrus). It also provides valuable insight into how bright-eyed starlets like Rihanna and the Backstreet Boys were moulded into the world famous chart-toppers they are today.

In truth, it's a little depressing to find out how mechanical the songwriting process is. Producers select a pre-recorded backing track from their repertoire and work all day to arrange synths and other instruments over this beat. Then an in-demand "top-liner" like Ester Dean or Ne-Yo comes in to sing the all-important hooks - this is often gibberish, words are there only to serve the melody. The engineers will play around with studio tools like Autotune to see if they can turn their creation into a "smash". If not, it is discarded and they move on to a new project the following day. All very efficient, but I was a bit disappointed to discover how empty and disposable this method of songcraft turns out to be.

John Seabrook is a writer for the New Yorker and draws on a treasure trove of interviews with the major players to create a fascinating pop music opus. I would have loved to hear more from the enigmatic Max Martin but understand that he prefers to shy away from the media spotlight. But this is a captivating read for anyone with an interest in the music business and the science of creating chart smashes.
Profile Image for Allison.
Author 11 books1,670 followers
March 11, 2016
4.5 stars.
This is a very inside-baseball peek into the current world of pop hit-making, which is exactly what I anticipated and was looking for. The book came across my radar because of the Dr. Luke/Kesha scandal, and while it does chronicle Dr. Luke's rise, it also gets into the nitty-gritty of how someone like Dr. Luke becomes a superstar in the industry, tracing all the way back to Ace of Base/Swedish hit-makers to Lou Pearlman and the Backstreet Boys and continuing on through the American Idol years and to the rise of Spotify. Seabrook does his research well and writes in a compelling, conversational way that turns even some of the more seemingly mundane subjects into pretty interesting chapters. I definitely learned a lot, and as someone who occasionally wonders if she shouldn't have gone into the music business in a different life, the book made me feel relieved that I hadn't!
The only reason this wasn't a full 5-star rating for me were the chapters on K-Pop, which I truly have no interest in (though Seabrook did make the chapter interesting) and the focus on Katy Perry, which again, no interest. I totally understand why he chose her as the example of the Hit Factory, but I'm just not a fan, so I found this a little less engaging than I may have otherwise. That said, this is a really excellent peek behind the curtain into the current state of pop music. I'd love it if Seabrook took a crack at more music industry books; I'd read them all.
Profile Image for James Birch.
Author 2 books29 followers
April 23, 2018
I don't know a lot about making music, so when a friend told me this book was free on Kindle I figured, what the heck. I'm glad I picked it up. I don't listen to contemporary music so I learned a good deal of how the music industry has changed and how the hit factories are made. If you're really into music or want to better understand the industry, then I'd recommend picking this up.
Profile Image for Olena Severin.
53 reviews5 followers
June 7, 2020
Класна книжка, яка змусить ще більше полюбити рок-музику. Бо вона про поп-сцену, її технічність і ляльководство. Поп-зірки від Бекстріт Бойз до Кеті Пері постають лише податливою глиною в руках прошарених продюсерів. Хоча це їхня точка зору) Загалом все одно відчувається, що талановиті дівчата й хлопці на поп-сцені - і те, що вони співають - це виключно продукт, щось механічне і продумане, з малееесеньким відсотком особистості. І тому успішні ідоли завжди були на протилежній шальці терезів від Nirvana чи Емінема. І тому зливались за кілька років і хоч були мегавідомими, ніколи не ставали game changers.
Окремо цікаво було дізнатись про історію American Idol, кей-попу і Spotify. І передивитись кліпи ранніх нульових. Книжка в цілому класна й пізнавальна, але десь на розділі про Ріанну вже стало нуднувато й одноманітно. Тому 4 зірки.
Profile Image for Mike.
59 reviews34 followers
May 24, 2021
Middle aged men orchestrating pop megahits for the masses. Or, rather, for teenagers.

Pop music manufactured by greedy, shallow manipulators of sound and the young "artists" they rely on.

They're consumed with return on equity numbers, rather than creating anything meaningful. They don't care about "art" - it's the numbers that keep them working.

Artist development? Long gone. How did we get left with shallow, greedy investors deciding music gets released and promoted? How do we quantify the impact of the hit machine and the damage that's been done? How many songs and careers has the hit machine chewed up and spit out?
Profile Image for C.
697 reviews
November 9, 2015
I LOVE pop music, so I was the perfect audience for this book. I wish it were a little more academic - as it is, it is a little disjointed topically, and a little gossipy, but that all also made it really fun to read. I also appreciate that the author included a chapter on k-pop.

I learned why "I Want It That Way" (one of the greatest pop songs ever) has such weird and nonsensical lyrics -- because the crazy Swedes who wrote all pop music at that time (and most of it now) cared more about the sounds and feelings of words than their actual American meanings, which also explains the lyric "hit me baby one more time." (I also learned that the bigwigs worried about the DV-ness of that lyric, which is why the song is entitled "... Baby One More Time"!)

Besides the reading of this book itself being fun, it also led to a midnight dance party to Ace of Base and Rihanna in the bathroom of our hotel room in Palm Springs.
Profile Image for Mandy.
337 reviews29 followers
August 29, 2016
Surprisingly fascinating reporting on the mega songwriters and producers shaping the pop scene. It starts a little slowly but becomes a page-turner to follow the machinations of artists, business, taste, and the Swedes manipulating it all.

Pro-tip: Seabrook has made Spotify lists of the songs he mentions throughout, which should enrich the experience even more to figure out the stylistic differences between Stargate and Dr. Luke.
Profile Image for Dariia Puhach.
67 reviews10 followers
June 7, 2019
(Не минуло й року!)
1. Сібрук, уже відомий мені — і ще певному колу читачів у наших широтах — як журналіст, який глибоко, з розумінням процесів і тенденцій пише про культуру — написав книжку про те, як функціонує сучасна індустрія поп-музики. «Машини пісень» — продюсери / контори, які писали пісні для низки виконавців із надією зробити хіт — існували й раніше, але Сібрук зосереджується на сучасній школі. Він вдало поєднує історію кількох композиторсько-продюсерського об'єднань із акцентом на шведському — останнє наразі пише 25% усіх хітів, — із міркуваннями про те, яка бізнес-модель сучасних зірок.
2. Сучасні поп-зірки заробляють мало на продажах альбомів (від часу інтернету й торентів). Цю проблему спочатку намагався вирішити iTunes, де можна було купувати альбоми по синглах, але безуспішно; згодом з'явилися стрімінгові сервіси на кшталт Spotify, але більшість прибутку від стрімінгу отримує лейбл, а не артист і навіть не автор пісні. Відповідно, зірки отримують гроші за виступи, записуючи вокал інколи прям на гастролях, коли ж пісні пише не один продюсер, а ціла команда, де одна людина вигадує акорди/біт, інша — текст, ще інша — мелодію. Цю модель, яку Сібрук називає «трек-і-хук», автор протиставляє старій моделі «текст плюс мелодія» — коли писали спочатку текст, а потім уже його накладали на мелодію.
3. Сібрук пише книжку про продюсерів — історії зірок, як-от Брітні Спірс чи Кеті Перрі, є ілюстраці��ми, як кристалізувався підхід певного продюсера (Мартіна Сандберґа чи ж Доктора Люка) до створення музики. Кожна глава — це оповідь про такого продюсера чи ж іншого сірого кардинала у світі хітів, де він/вона виходить під світло прожекторів там, де зазвичай ховається за ширмою студії.
4. Ще сподобалася структура книжки. З одного боку, те, як вона композиційно зроблена, не є новим, але приємно читати книжку, де продуманий і зміст, і поділ на розділи на кшталт «Хук. Точка блаженства», «Припев. Денежная нота», а ще обрамлюється вона історією, як Сібрук, мовляв, зацікався сучасною поп-музикою, бо її слухав його син, а в кінці син (мабуть, подорослішав) нарешті цікавиться і музикою батька — The Smiths і Pink Floyd.
5. Раніше мене дивувало, що поп-артист/ка не завжди (точніше — майже ніколи) пише сам/а свої пісні. Поставало запитання: як аналізувати поп-музику як художнє висловлювання, якщо не зрозуміло, хто висловлюється — артист/ка чи її продюсер/ка? Звісно, що книжка Сібрука не дає відповіді на це запитання (та і не ставить його), але завдяки широкому висвітленню, як загалом працює індустрія, знімається принаймні моє постійне подивування. Те, що умовна Ріанна чи Тейлор Свіфт — це такий же продукт спільної роботи великої команди, як і серіал на телебаченні, стає звичним і приймається. А музику, мабуть, можна аналізувати в контексті тенденцій: чому пісня I Kissed a Girl (яка є гетеросексуальною звабою, а не квіруванням бодай чогось) обурила громадськість, які звуки й ритми були популярні в 1990-х, а які — в середині 2000-х, і так далі.
Profile Image for Eren Buğlalılar.
338 reviews113 followers
October 18, 2017
Son 30 yılın endüstriyel müziğinin bir tarihi. Daha çok ABD merkezli. "Hit" parçaların kimler tarafından nasıl üretildiğini ve pazarlandığını, sanatçı hikayeleriyle birlikte sunuyor. On yıllardır insanların diline dolanan parçaların yalnızca birkaç kişi tarafından yazıldığını öğrenmek ilginç oldu.

Tekelleşme her yerde. Müzik piyasasını da yutmuş. Şöyle diyor kitap:

2008 yılında, raflarda bulunan 13 milyon şarkıdan 52 bini, müzik endüstrisinin gelirinin yüzde 80'ini oluşturdu. On milyon şarkının tek bir kopyası bile satılmadı. Bugün (2016) müzik endüstrisinin yarattığı kârın %77'si sanatçıların en tepedeki %1'lik kesiminin elinde birikiyor.

Spotify ve Apple Music gibi şirketler, büyük plak şirketleriyle öyle anlaşmalar imzalıyorlar ki, siz zamanınızın çoğunu bağımsız sanatçıları dinleyerek geçirseniz bile, Spotify'a verdiğiniz paranın %90'ınını en tepedeki mega-starlar topluyor. Geçmişte ABD'de her biri farklı bir müzik zevkine sahip yüzlerce radyo istasyonu varken, 2000'lerden sonra bunların %70'ten fazlası iki büyük şirketin elinde toplanmış. Artık hepsinin büyük müzik şirketleriyle birlikte oluşturdukları standart bir şarkı listesi var ve bizim kulağımıza zorla sokuyorlar.

Bu gelişme karşısında bağımsız sanatçının pek az şansı var. Dijitalleşen "paket müzik", stüdyo sanatçılarına ve bunların müziğe katabileceği nüanslara, kişiliğe pek ihtiyaç duymuyor. Cubase, Logic, Reason gibi yazılımlar aracılığıyla daha önceden kaydedilmiş "sample"lara dayanarak, gitara, piyanoya ya da bateriye dokunmadan bir şarkı üretmek mümkün hale geldi.

Kitap işin ekonomik boyutunun yanında, endüstriyel müziğin başka yönlerini de anlatıyor. Bir şarkıyı daha sevilebilir kılan nedir? Başlangıçta beğenmediğimiz şarkıları, daha sonra dinledikçe neden sevmeye başlarız? Besteciler zaman zaman düzenledikleri "şarkı kampları"nda nasıl hit şarkı seri üretimi yapıyorlar?

İlgi çekici, iyi yazılmış bir kitap. İncelemeyi, Amerikalı bir prodüktörün şu alıntısıyla bitireyim:

Müzik endüstrisi, hırsızların ve pezevenklerin elini kolunu sallayarak dolaştığı ve iyi insanların köpekler gibi öldüğü zalim ve sığ bir para çukuru, uzun plastik bir koridordur.
Profile Image for Sarah.
122 reviews29 followers
February 14, 2018
A book about what goes into making pop music. There’s a basic history overviewing how pop music has developed, and chapters on specific artists. Pop artists are often portrayed as timid, nervous teenagers who were chosen for their looks, singing ability and also docility, since producers want someone reliable who isn’t going to try to interfere with their song-writing process.

The chapter on Dr Luke was unreadable to me, the author of this book heaps on praise for music producers but seems to look down on artists themselves. Every (male) producer is portrayed as a creative genius, with little criticism. The artists are either obedient vessels for the songs, or deluded stars thinking they possess enough talent to write their own music. Kesha’s chapter is titled “Teenage Nightmare”, Katy Perry is portrayed as a religious nut, Britney is first an “unimaginative” and compliant teen then “crazy”, and Kelly Clarkson gets this narrative:

Apparently Kelly Clarkson hated the production process of “Since U Been Gone”, particularly being asked to sing certain syllables over and over (a lot of pop music has vocals which have been stitched together from many takes to get every syllable a specific way), she then said she didn’t want to release the song. She was pressured into it, and it became a huge hit. For her second album, Clarkson wanted to have creative control over the record, co-write it and make it a personal album. The record label told her there wasn’t a single hit on the album “My December”, that it wasn’t Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, it “wasn’t poetry”, it was just pop music without a hit. The album was a failure. Eventually, Clarkson "obediently accepted the help of the pros”, agreed to work with the same producers and give them back creative control, creating another hit song.

Little is mentioned about Kelly Clarkson’s perspective on the album, in the chapter’s portrayal of her she seems bratty and arrogant. But even looking at the wikipedia page for the album it states that she knew that the album might not have the same commercial success as her previous one: "I've sold more than 15 million records worldwide, and still nobody listens to what I have to say. I couldn't give a crap about being a star. I've always just wanted to sing and write." !

“Davis offered Clarkson $10 million to remove five songs from the album in favor of five more radio friendly songs of Davis' choosing”
Kelly Clarkson said this “I am a good singer, so I can't possibly be a good writer. Women can't possibly be good at two things. I haven't lost my temper about it. It only drives me more. If your thing is to bring me down, cool. I'll just work harder.”

The parts about Katy Perry were close to perverted fan fiction. Katy Perry is imagined as praying for success, praying for large breasts as a teen and then wearing low-cut clothing because “He” gave them to her. Yikes.

The K-Pop chapters were embarrassing to read, sometimes the language he uses is based on racial stereotypes. (“Jacobson also had to put together an album that highlighted the Girls’ Korean-ness—the distinctive sweetness and purity that sets them apart from other pop acts”)

This book is more about music producers and top liners than how music is produced. There’s little information on how producers actually make songs, which I found disappointing.

Some information I found interesting:
The change in the songwriting process. Instead of writing lyrics and a melody first, the process that is now in trend is called “track-and-hook” - producers create a bass and instrumental track, and “top liners” create the melody and lyrics to go with it. Producers get money for their time in the studio, but “top liners” only get money if their song is made. Producers send out their track to many top liners to increase the chance of making a hit, and to get a bigger selection to choose from.

“In theory, the producer and the topliner split the publishing proceeds from a song 50-50. But the producers are usually paid for their time in the studio, regardless of whether it results in any hits, whereas the topliner only gets paid if the song is recorded and put on sale, which very likely it would not be. Leading producers can also negotiate percentage points of the record sales; topliners almost never get points.”

There’s this one section that mentions the gender disparity in production, but other than this it’s never delved into:
“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.”

Top liners often want to be artists themselves. They can sing, they can write, but the music industry stops them. “Powerful interests are invested in keeping the topliners where they are—in the studio rather than onstage.” They want to choose who the hit songs go to, so they can maximise the chance of a song’s success. Producers don’t want a hit song being “wasted” on the writer of the song.

“Why waste a hit on an unknown artist like Dean, even if she did write it—who cares? Especially when you could give it to Rihanna. What does Eriksen think of Dean’s prospects as an artist? “A lot of writers want to be artists,” he replies cautiously. “Most of them can sing, and a lot of them can sing really well. But to be an artist, that’s another story. To be able to perform, to be the person everyone looks at when you walk into the room, with all the publicity and touring, and then to be able to get that sound on the record—that’s not easy. You can be a great singer, but when you hear the record it’s missing something.” What is that something? Eriksen thinks for a while. “It’s a fat sound,” he says, “and there’s a sparkle around the edges of the words.”"
(what the hell does that even mean?)

A couple of interesting facts:
“Of the 13 million songs available for purchase in 2008, 52,000 made up 80 percent of the industry’s revenue. Ten million of those tracks failed to sell a single copy. Today, 77 percent of the profits in the music business are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists.”

“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.”
Profile Image for William.
207 reviews9 followers
August 28, 2020
Listen to my interview with the author here: https://www.convoexnihilo.com/episode...

With "The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory" Seabrook became the Upton Sinclair of the pop music industry. He showed us how the sausage is made and gave us a tour of the filthy factories where the animals scream like pigs until they bleed insipid pop songs. Unlike the slaughterhouses of "The Jungle" this was more like seeing how Skittles are made. Say what you want about the tainted meat flowing out of Chicago in the early 20th century, it put nutrients in the bellies of many an American. The stakes are a bit lower in this book, and so the revelations make the reader nauseous for different reasons.

I like Skittles. I know that they are made in a factory and not in a Swiss confectioner's shoppe somewhere at the base of the Alps where an old man in a white smock lovingly paints the "s" on to every rainbow colored piece of sugar. I assumed my pop music was made in a factory too. It's okay. I'm not mad. I don't eat Skittles every day and I certainly don't derive most of my calories from them, conversely I do not get most of my brain nourishment from pop music either. But what of those who do? I suspect this Seabrook fellow is a lot like me. He has found some balance in his diet and is probably a bit afraid to sound too preachy to those whom they love and are on the verge of contracting diabetes on account of all the crap they consume.

The book at times repeats itself like a pop song. The verse: A girl or boy grew up in a broken home but had ambition and stars in their eyes. The hook: And then they met a Swede. The chorus: They sang it up, toured it up and lived it up. The denouement: The Swedes got old, some died and then some new Swedes had to be found. Maybe I am oversimplifying but that's pretty much the story.

It's not groundbreaking journalism. It's not going to inspire the U.S. government to create an agency to research the effects of so much ear sugar on the human brain, it's not likely to break up the monopolies of the telecom companies who keep these "artists" stocked with plenty of Scandinavian music wizards who make them famous. No, it won't change much but I'm still glad that it was written. It's proof of what we all instinctively knew, that what we love to listen to is not necessarily made with love but with versificators.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,101 reviews
March 24, 2017
The music industry is a strange beast. Not only is it fickle and flighty, but it has changed dramatically from even twenty years ago. Gone are the A&R men finding that individual with the perfect voice that they can sign and promote with the hope of getting the hits. Now we have a machine that can almost produce hits to order, almost being the key word… There are producers out there who have the ability to write songs that have what they describe as ‘hooks’, those little parts of a track that are so catchy, so addictive, that they stick in your head. These men, and it still is almost exclusively men, are still rare, but that ability to turn a song from one that would have only sold thousands to one that sells millions makes them worth a fortune.

Earworm: a catchy song or tune that runs continually through someone's mind.

Seabrook has written an interesting book, smearing away some of the gloss and glamour from the music industry, to reveal details of its inner workings. He describes just how these talented individuals pull together a song, finding those hook’s that make people want to listen more and the bridge moment when they divert from the original melody and rhythm and slot something else in. I have known that they manufactured music in the same way that they create groups, for ages, but I didn’t realise quite how strong the Swedish influence was in the global music industry. There were some interesting chapters on how Napster wreaked havoc with the business model of the music industry, how streaming has changed how they operate, how they use topliners and that the only way that a star can now make any money is to be continually touring because of the grip that the music industry has on them. It was an interesting book overall on a global industry that has as many secrets as glitterballs.
February 18, 2017
Какое-то время тому назад русские переводы Сибрука мы были вынуждены читать с изрядным опозданием. Сейчас вот перевели дово��ьно свежий обзор, составленный на основе интервью, часть из которых он брал сам. Самих интервью внутри нет - в довольно живой манере повествуется о тех временах, когда альбомы могли включать в себя десяток хитов, когда само понятие альбома было основополагающим, о тех с виду скучных людях, стараниями которых мы узнавали, что хиты - это хиты. О поиске талантов, студийной работе, о том, как иногда работа над всемирным хитом занимает меньше 20 минут и о том, как ищут таланты - всё здесь. Эта книга частично вдохновила меня на рассказы о музыке, кстати. По силе повествования и мощи фактов (даты, имена, факты) я бы её поставил на одну полку с "Рэп-атакой" Дэвида Тупа. Рекомендую.
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