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The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  3,363 ratings  ·  428 reviews
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 fascina ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published October 18th 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published October 5th 2015)
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marianne Eh, it's fine; some minor quirks in the prose annoyed me, and it's a little bit of a patchwork job in terms of constructing a narrative. It's not on…moreEh, it's fine; some minor quirks in the prose annoyed me, and it's a little bit of a patchwork job in terms of constructing a narrative. It's not on par with his New Yorker articles, if you are familiar with those and enjoy them. But all in all it reads well enough if you are somewhat forgiving. And I won't blame you if you aren't.(less)

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3.94  · 
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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 ...more
Scotto Moore
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 expe ...more
Oct 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Greg Schumaker
May 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic! Great to learn about the small world of people who've made all the most annoying songs for the last 20+ years.
Mar 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Oct 28, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
"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
Feb 06, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, music
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 n
May 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 12, 2017 rated it did not like it
Shelves: music, history, nonfiction
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
Matthew Budman
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.), i ...more
May 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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, th ...more
Steve Peifer
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 h ...more
Peter Boyle
Dec 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, music
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. T ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
This book is more about the producers and the artists that make our currently overoptimized, overproduced, and highly efficient songlines and hooks that is today's pop music. It doesn't go too much into the mechanics of making a hit. It just covers the handful of producers who make them and the icons that sing them. I am not a fan of today's music partially because I am old and outside the teens and twenty-somethings musical imprinting window but also because it seems way more formulaic now wher ...more
James Birch
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Not gonna finish it.
Not so interesting afterall.
Not what I expected.
Mar 23, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-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 tha ...more
Feb 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 I
Nov 08, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 sou
Aug 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 14, 2018 rated it it was ok
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 lo
Troy Blackford
Oct 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Unexpectedly fantastic pulling-back of the curtain on the modern music industry, starting with the 're-rise' of pop music in the early nineties and travelling through the current day. We find out that most of the hit pop songs are written by a handful of mostly Scandinavian gentleman, learn about the way musicians are packaged, and how our music consumption habits have changed and the machinations behind all of it. A truly fascinating book, framed in a touchingly personal manner by a gifted writ ...more
Dec 24, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
A pretty fun read about how the modern music business works. I would recommend reading to learn more about Martin's "melody math". I am not surprised Seabrook skipped these details since his focus seems to be more on the people in the business than the process.
Mar 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book about pop music that isn't condescending. Refreshing!
Apr 20, 2017 rated it liked it
My love-hate relationship with pop music is confined to the insides of my car, and even then, it’s only intermittently that I channel-surf my way to the Top 40. Once I’m there, it’s a crap shoot; one minute I’m belting along to a catchy tune I could listen to on repeat, the next I’m angrily switching radio stations again because I’ve recognized the opening notes to a song I loathe and I want to crawl out of my skin so much it hurts. No other music genre causes me these extreme mood swings, and s ...more
Aug 26, 2017 rated it did not like it
Full Disclosure: I did not finish this book. I read only the first 80 pages, and then skimmed the rest. As such, perhaps I shouldn't be reviewing it. Please disregard my opinion on this if you think I didn't give it a fair shot.

This book is Seabrook's description of "the hit factory," his term for the behind-the-scenes group of producers/songwriters responsible for so many of contemporary Top-40 hits (and most of the money that comes from contemporary pop). The approach is journalistic and seems
Olivia Hauser
Jan 11, 2019 rated it did not like it
I love pop music and I'm interested in knowing the stories behind its creation so I read this book extremely fast. That being said, it was an incredible bummer to read such interesting stories from the point of view of someone with zero feminist or social consciousness. How is it possible to write about pop music, which is one of the main factories where social mores are produced without thinking about systemic sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia etc.?? What a waste. He all but says he ...more
Brooks Tate
Jul 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
I recently attended a lecture on the subject of "play" and play's role in childhood development. One requirement for an activity to be play is having "no ulterior motive." Reading John Seabrook's Song Machine was a refreshing read for me. I had no other motive than just to be entertained, and entertained I was cover to cover!

What do Taylor Swift, Backstreet Boys, Rihanna, Ace of Base, Katy Perry and Britney Spears all have in common? A small gaggle of white Swedish men. DJ Denniz PoP began this
Dec 21, 2018 rated it liked it
I thought that the material covered in the book was pretty novel and fascinating. It's a nice holiday read, in the realm of "info-tainment", wherein the author presents a revealing exposé of how mainstream pop music is made, with humour and loose storytelling.

I thought that the author would provide too much backstory while introducing some people in the pop music scene, while skimp on important backstory about certain terms and music jargon he would use, which made the reading experience partly
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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.
“there are only so many times you can listen to the guitar solo in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” without going a little numb yourself,” 1 likes
“The very first hit factory was T.B. Harms, a Tin Pan Alley publishing company overseen by Max Dreyfus. With staff writers like Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers, T.B. Harms was the dominant publisher of popular music in the early twentieth century. Dreyfus called his writers “the boys” and installed pianos for them to compose on around the office on West Twenty-Eighth, the street that gave Tin Pan Alley its name, allegedly for the tinny-sounding pianos passersby heard from the upper-story windows of the row houses. The sheet-music sellers also employed piano players in their street-level stores, who would perform the Top 40 of the 1920s for browsing customers.” 1 likes
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