Inside the Hit Factory
By John Seabrook
338 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.
(Note: This was originally supposed to be published in MEIEA’s 2016 Journal but due to an administrative error, was left out.)
How is a hit song written today? How did pop music go from John Lennon and Paul McCartney writing “I Wanna Be Your Man” in the corner of a room to a team of topliners (today’s melody makers), producers, and their protégés housed in a studio with a computer? How did radio enable today’s pop to ignore the songwriting tactics of the past while embracing those songs at the same time? These questions are answered thoroughly in John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory. Seabrook, a writer for The New Yorker who is in his late-50s, takes a neutral approach to 21st century pop music; in fact, the book begins with his growing fascination with the genre. Driving his son to school and letting the Boy (Seabrook doesn’t reveal the real names of his children, choosing to call them by their chromosomal organization) play DJ with the car radio, Seabrook hears “Right Round” by Flo Rida. This event launches Seabrook into a comparison of past songwriting techniques, from the Brill Building era to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to the Beatles to today.
According to the author, hits of 2016 don’t need musicians. “CHR hit makers can make all the sounds they need with musical software and samples – no instruments required.” (pg. 6) In fact, Seabrook and the producers argue that engineering and computer software make music more “sonically engaging and powerful than even the most skilled instrumentalists can produce.” (pg. 6)
Is this a problem? Popular songs are popular mainly because of radio. A song is played in its format over and over to please listeners, the lifeblood of terrestrial radio. Seabrook recounts how a radio programmer named Guy Zapoleon in the 1990s theorized a Rule of Three. In short, this rule meant songs needed to get to their hooks quickly. The sooner a listener heard the chorus, the better the chance of a song becoming a hit.
Music entrepreneur Mike McCready trademarked a term called Hit Song Science. McCready’s idea was to analyze new songs and compare their patterns, both acoustical and mathematical, to past hits. This why we sometimes hear snippets of old songs, either on purpose via samples or indirectly via a portion of a melody line, in today’s hits,
Compare the previously mentioned “Right Round” to its musical parent, “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record),” written and produced in 1985 for pop group Dead Or Alive by the trio of Stock Aitken Waterman, themselves the creators of their own song machine for about six years in the mid-1980s with “more than 100 UK Top 40 hits.” (pg73)
Or, more recently, compare Katy Perry’s 2013 hit “Roar” to “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. The songs were released four months apart (“Brave” came out first) and share a similar introduction played by eighth notes on a piano in the key of B flat at the same tempo.
Seabrook writes of a study that claimed listeners of a song became more engaged if there was some familiarity with it. Another study referred to explains that, with hit songs, listeners can claim a certain prescience to what comes next within the song, creating stronger engagement. The author states, therefore, that today’s song machine hits can’t be totally attributed to computers or record labels or radio stations. “At the end of the day,” he asserts, “the true puppet master is the human brain.” (pg 304)
This theme continues late in the book when Seabrook analyzes streaming services and, specifically, Spotify’s ability to tailor its playlists according to user behavior. The behavior, read as data, includes everything from what songs a user has played in the past to what songs that user has played in reaction to his or her Facebook data. “You just broke up with your boyfriend, you’re in a bad mood, and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River,’ from the Better Off Without You playlist, starts. Are you playing the music, or is the music playing you?” (pg. 289)
Whether we pick hit songs involuntarily because of our lifestyles and brains or not, song machine star writer/producers like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, both profiled at length in the book, have faced numerous lawsuits for copyright infringement due to song likenesses. “A lot of things are similar,” Dr. Luke told Seabrook. “But you don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing. ‘Almost’ doesn’t count. Close but no cigar.” (pg. 248)
The “close but no cigar” syndrome follows writers and producers throughout, possibly because of the construction methods of songwriting that are so well documented by Seabrook. Topliners, studio demo singers who help with the composition of a song by freestyling melodies over a producer’s pre-conceived beats, aid in what is called the track-and-hook method of production. “By the mid-2000s the track-and-hook approach to songwriting – in which a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies – had become the standard method by which popular songs are written.” (pg. 200)
Track-and-hook utilizes the concept of melodic rhythm, described to Seabrook by producer Dr. Luke. “Ok, say you have a verse, and it’s done in eighth notes, and everything is starting on the one, Right? Ok then when you go to the pre-chorus you probably don’t want to start on the one, and you don’t want to do eighth notes. So you come in on the two, or on the upbeats, or go to long notes, so it stays fresh.” (pg 273-274)
These methods, according to Seabrook, make producers the “undisputed” kings of contemporary hit songs. (pg. 202)
The producers utilize protégés, or apprentices, to perform some of the dirty work, such as vocal comping, which is the comparing of various takes of a vocal track “syllable-by-syllable,” and stitching them together “into the best possible vocal.” (pg. 267) These protégés ultimately become producers themselves, a desirable goal because, as successful producer Timbaland says, “I am the music.” (pg. 202)
Topliners like Esther Dean, however, want to become artists on their own. Since their job is to sing and come up with the hooks of a song, many topliners feel they should ultimately graduate to becoming an artist, much like protégés become producers. However, it doesn’t always work out for the Esther Deans of the pop world.
In an interview with SiriusXM’s Steve Leeds at William Paterson University in support of the book, Seabrook discussed the barriers topliners hit. “As you get success as a topliner, particularly when you’re writing songs for Rihanna, and the people around you managing Rihanna are managing you, they do indulge your fantasies about being an artist. But ultimately if you become an artist, then you’re going to keep your songs for yourself. And they want your songs for Rihanna because… she’s Rihanna.” (https://soundcloud.com/musicbiz-101-more/the-john-seabrook-interview-your-music-biz-101-more-podcast) Therefore, the managers of the machine are more interested in topliners writing hits for established moneymakers, like Rihanna, than for their own fledgling careers.
If topliners want to become artists and protégés want to become producers, what do the producers strive for? For Dr. Luke, it was to become a “record mogul – a master of the universe.” (pg. 268) He was part of the way there, with his own label, “Kemosabe Records, backed by Sony to the tune of some $60 million.” (pg. 236) In addition, Dr. Luke owned his own publishing company, Prescription Songs. The question posed by Seabrook that needed to be answered by Dr. Luke was this: “Could Dr. Luke continue to do what he does best as a writer-producer, which is to create a hit song for the artist, while also running the label the artist is signed to? A label chief has to at least pretend that the artist has creative input into the music. Pretending wasn’t one of Dr. Luke’s strengths.” (pg. 236) From here, Seabrook describes in detail a legal case between Dr. Luke and Kemosabe’s biggest artist, Kesha, that included issues with creative control (if the brain is our musical puppet master, is Dr. Luke Kesha’s?), rape, and the inclusion of Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, a songwriter of her own merit. The case has continued throughout 2016.
Seabrook also covers the rise of pop in the 1990s, including a revealing jailhouse interview with Lou Pearlman, former manager of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNCH. American Idol’s influence is detailed through the rise and fall and rise again of Kelly Clarkson, who tried to break away from the machine, only to be pulled back in by legendary mogul Clive Davis.
Near the conclusion of The Song Machine, Seabrook describes a telling example of what may happen to the future of pop. Recall that the book began with his son playing DJ on the car stereo, exposing the author to musical hooks he compares to “snack food.” (pg. 11) By the end, the Boy is older. He has moved on from pop and moved into the past, buying AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and the Clash’s London Calling from iTunes. The Boy even finishes a line the author quotes from the Smiths’ song “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” proving, quite possibly, that the puppet master may be the music after all.
“I Wanna Be Your Man” citation: https://www.beatlesbible.com/songs/i-wanna-be-your-man/
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Professor David Philp is Assistant Professor Music Management & Popular Music Studies at William Paterson University. He is the co-host of the only FREE advice college radio-based music & entertainment industry talk show in America, Music Biz 101 & More, which airs live most Wednesday nights and is available as a podcast HERE every night (days too). Reach him at PhilpD@wpunj.edu or find him on LinkedIn HERE.