The Song Machine

The Song Machine

Inside the Hit Factory

Book - 2015
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Over the last two decades a new type of hit song has emerged, one that is almost inescapably catchy. Pop songs have always had a "hook," but today's songs bristle with them: a hook every seven seconds is the rule. Painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain's delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, these songs are highly processed products. Like snack-food engineers, modern songwriters have discovered the musical "bliss point." And just like junk food, the bliss point leaves you wanting more.In The Song Machine, longtime New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook tells the story of the massive cultural upheaval that produced these new, super-strength hits. Seabrook takes us into a strange and surprising world, full of unexpected and vivid characters, as he traces the growth of this new approach to hit-making from its obscure origins in early 1990s Sweden to its dominance of today's Billboard charts.Journeying from New York to Los Angeles, Stockholm to Korea, Seabrook visits specialized teams composing songs in digital labs with new "track-and-hook" techniques. The stories of artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Rihanna, as well as expert songsmiths like Max Martin, Stargate, Ester Dean, and Dr. Luke, The Song Machine shows what life is like in an industry that has been catastrophically disrupted--spurring innovation, competition, intense greed, and seductive new products.Going beyond music to discuss money, business, marketing, and technology, The Song Machine explores what the new hits may be doing to our brains and listening habits, especially as services like Spotify and Apple Music use streaming data to gather music into new genres invented by algorithms based on listener behavior.Fascinating, revelatory, and original, The Song Machine will change the way you listen to music.
Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2015]
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780393241921
Characteristics: x, 338 pages ; 25 cm
Call Number: 781.640905 SEA


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Feb 27, 2016

In the last couple of years, for reasons I'm still not entirely sure of, I have been enjoying pop music more and more. This book was a decently interesting exploration of how many recent hit songs are created, something I'd never fully understood. The "artists" who the general public most closely associate with the songs usually have little to do with the composition or production (although their performances and personalities can still be a big part of the song's success). Hitmakers covered that I'd heard of include Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Stargate. The writing is straightforward and serviceable, nothing mindblowing, but overall it was quite interesting for music nerds interested in the process or the industry.

The Song Machine is a survey and explanation of the changes in popular music over the past 20 years. Although these changes have been driven by technology, through the increased use of computer software in creating songs and the new forms of music sales and distribution through the internet, author John Seabrook also gives due attention to the creators, artists and audiences of contemporary popular music.

The most striking insight I obtained from this book is how much pop music has become IKEA. A whole corps of Swedish songwriters and producers lie behind much of today's sound. These songwriters and producers have, through experience and research, developed an effective assembly line that produces sleek and seductive pop confections that can be, as the author notes of himself, hard to resist. In one telling passage, Seabrook notes how the emphasis on music and the arts in the Swedish public school system prepared Max Martin, born Martin Karl Sandberg and the author of 21 number 1 singles (as of this writing) since 1999, for his amazing success. One senses that America needs to likewise invest in arts education to achieve parity with Sweden's pop music success.

While the meticulously assembled audio design of these song can sometimes be overwhelming, performing artists (lead vocalist / vocalists) are still need to be imprinted upon the final product. Seabrook's book presents a parade of popular music celebrity, European and American, who are ubiquitous on the airwaves and in the tabloids (mostly online these days). He also tracks the exploitation of these young stars and describes how their creative wishes are cut short by producers who better understand how to exploit their talents and personalities for profit.

There are chapters on the origins of the Swedish sound and approach to hit-making, the boy (and girl) band phenomenon, the compositional process of the contemporary hit, music streaming through Spotify, and on K-pop. K-pop is an even purer distillation of this singer and song manufacturing process. For cultural and economic reasons, Korean pop producers have a tighter control over their performing talent who must practice for many years to reach the top and who must accept rigid restrictions on how they conduct their personal lives.

At the outset of his investigation, Seabrook had a low opinion of this assembly line pop. He came, however, to have a respect and appreciation for the extreme attention to detail and craftsmanship of all involved in the enterprise. He also places today's music in the context of prior systems of manufacturing popular songs like Tin Pan Alley, The Brill Building, and Motown. It is easy to argue that the new hit producing infrastructure has outdone its predecessors -- at least in terms of impact in the musical marketplace. This is, nevertheless, music designed to manipulate the listener and it's hard not to feel manipulated by these carefully designed sonic products. But one hopes that there can also be a similar renaissance of hand-crafted sounds in the pop music world.

Nov 13, 2015

Maybe I'm not the audience for this book. I like music, but usually avoid top 40 and, as the subtitle indicates, this is very much about hit songs, not necessarily good songs. Yet I heard about it from a review in "The Atlantic" and author John Seabrook is a staff writer at "The New Yorker." Seabrook looks at how hit songs are manufactured (yes, that's a deliberate word choice), from the songwriting to the music to the singer to the all important hook. This is less about singers and musicians and more about the producers and songwriters who have the magic touch to create hit after hit. While it has moments of interest, what's missing is any kind of critical voice suggesting that maybe this approach, while creating a successful product, does not create enduring music. I know Seabrook, as a journalist, is presenting rather than interpreting the material, but you have to question his use of phrases like "Pop music changed forever" or "She (Kelly Clarkson) killed them all." There's little offered in the way of a dissenting voice and instead you get a lot of Swedes (seriously) and Dr. Luke, who has recently been in the news for feuding with his protege Kesha. Perhaps unintentionally, Seabrook shows not just how hits are made, but the artistic bankruptcy of singles-driven, producer-based, computer-created music.


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