Inside The Song Machine: How Today’s Hits Are Manufactured

Inside The Song Machine: How Today’s Hits Are Manufactured

Who are the hit makers? They are enormously influential culture shapers — the Spielbergs and Lucases of our national headphones — and yet they are mostly anonymous.

Directors of films are public figures, but the people behind pop songs remain in the shadows, taking aliases, by necessity if not by choice, in order to preserve the illusion that the singer is the author of the song. I knew much more about the Brill Building writers of the early ’60s than about the people behind current contemporary hit radio hits.

They all have aliases — disco names. One of the most successful is called Dr. Luke. He and his frequent songwriting partner, a Swede called Max Martin (also an alias), have had more than thirty Top 10 hits between them since 2004, and Max Martin’s own streak goes back a decade before that; more recently, he’s become Taylor Swift’s magic man.

In both volume of hits and longevity, Max Martin eclipses all previous hit makers, including the Beatles, Phil Spector, and Michael Jackson.

You’d think that in an age when anyone with basic computer skills can make a song on a laptop — no musical training or instrumental mastery is required — the charts would be flooded with newbie hit makers. The barriers to entry are low. And yet it turns out that the same handful of top writers and producers are behind hit after hit — a mysterious priesthood of musical mages.

They combine the talents of storied arrangers like Quincy Jones and George Martin, with the tune-making abilities of writer-producers like Holland — Dozier — Holland, Motown’s secret weapon. On the pop side, there’s Ryan Tedder, Jeff Bhasker, and Benny Blanco; on the urban side Pharrell Williams, Dr. Dre, and Timbaland. Bridging both genres are the über hit makers like Stargate, Ester Dean, Dr. Luke, and Max Martin.

The more I heard the songs, the more I liked them. How could that be? If you dislike a song the first time, surely you should loathe it the tenth. But apparently that’s not how it works. Familiarity with the song increases one’s emotional investment in it, even if you don’t like it.

This happens gradually, in stages. The initially annoying bits

If I said I want your body now

Would you hold it against me

become the very parts you look forward to most in the song. You quote lines like “No lead in our zeppelin!” as if they are hoary oaths. In the car, I steel myself against hearing the same song yet again, but once it starts, I feel oddly elated. Melody and rhythm are deliciously entwined; in Brill Building songs, melody and rhythm sleep on opposite sides of the bed. The beats produce delightful vibrations in the sternum. And the hooks deliver the aural equivalent of what the snack-food industry calls the “bliss point” — when the rhythm, sound, melody, and harmony converge to create a single ecstatic moment, one felt more in the body than the head.

At the PS 234 graduation the following summer, there was a DJ in the schoolyard who played Kesha, Pink, Rihanna — the whole posse of post-aught pop stars. And because I knew the music, I had a great time dancing. I outdid myself twirling around to Chris Brown’s “Forever” with one of the younger mums, while the Boy looked on, mortified.

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-coloured 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.

Clive Davis has a way of pronouncing the word “hits.” If the word occurs in the course of conversation, as it always does, the record man will huff it out, like a lion.

“I’m talking about HITS!” he barks in his curious Brooklyn-by-way-of-Bond-Street accent. It’s 2014, and Davis, who is the chief creative officer of Sony Music, has been talking about hits for fifty years, ever since he started at CBS Records as a music attorney in the mid-’60s. For a record man like Davis, hits are the whole ball game. A pop star is nothing without a hit, and a pop career depends on a “continuity of hits,” a favourite Davis phrase.

Of course, there have been swings in popular taste over Davis’s career. The pure pop center he aims for has periodically been purged by new, edgier styles, which, in turn, eventually become absorbed into the mainstream too, usually on a ten-year cycle. Teen tastes, which pop music has historically served, are the most fickle of all. But through all the cyclical changes, there have always been hits. Hits are the strait gate through which all the money, fame, and buzz passes on its way to heaven. Ninety per cent of the revenues in the record business come from ten per cent of the songs.

A recorded song has two principal sets of rights — the publishing and the master recording. The publishing covers the copyright of the composition, and the master is the sound-recording copyright. The master is the real estate; the publishing is the mineral rights under the land, and the air rights. In addition there are mechanical royalties, which are based on sales, and performance royalties, for when a song is played or performed in public, including on the radio.

There are also synchronisation rights, for use of a song in a commercial, ball game, TV show, or movie. In some countries (though not in the United States), there are neighbouring rights, which are granted to non-authors who are closely connected to the song, such as the performers. The system is ridiculously complicated, as it’s supposed to be. It takes a music attorney like Davis to understand all the complexities in royalties payments. Labels have lots of them.

A smash hit not only makes the songwriters a bundle on radio spins, it also moves the album, which generally benefits the label, and sells tickets to the world tour, which is how the artists make most of their money. A historic smash can be worth hundreds of millions for the rights holders over the term of its copyright, which, depending on when the song was composed, is the life of its composers plus fifty or sixty years. “Stairway to Heaven” alone was said to have earned its rights holders more than half a billion dollars by 2008.

With so much dough potentially at stake, it is no surprise the hits are the source of hard dealings and dark deeds. In the old days, artists were induced to give away the publishing rights of their hits, which ended up being worth more than the records. Today, a top artist can insist on a full share of the publishing even though they had nothing to do with writing the song. (“Change a word, get a third,” the writers call this practice.)

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs,” Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, and that’s how the hits have always been accounted for. (Thompson added, “There’s also a negative side.”)

Does it make sense, this all-or-nothing way of doing business, in which one song becomes all the rage and ten equally worthy songs are ignored, for reasons that no one entirely understands? As Clive Davis’s former boss, the chairman of the Bertelsmann Music Group, Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, stated back in 2003, “We need reliable calculations of returns that are not based solely on hits because the way people get music doesn’t go with hits anymore. We have to get rid of the lottery mentality.”

When Jason Flom, a top record man then at Atlantic Records, heard Schmidt-Holtz’s remarks, he looked stunned. “That ain’t gonna happen,” he told me at the time. “If anything, hits are more important than ever, because stars can emerge practically overnight on a global scale. The day we stop seeing hits is the day people stop buying records.”

That day has arrived. The selling of records, which sustained the business for more than half a century, and made fortunes for a few record men, is coming to an end. David Geffen sold his label (Geffen) to MCA for more than $US550 million in 1990, and Richard Branson sold Virgin to EMI for $US960 million in 1992. And in 2001 Clive Calder’s BMG-Zomba deal earned him $US2.7 billion — placing the capstone on humankind’s ability to make money from hits.

But ever since Napster set music free in 1998, the customer has been able to get any hit he wants without paying for it. This presents a problem, if you’re Clive Davis or Jason Flom, because making hits, as we will see, can be very expensive. “What would happen if shoppers had the option to get groceries or furniture for free?” Flom asks. “Those businesses would have to adapt rapidly, just as we’ve had to do.”

Even on the legal streaming services, such as Spotify, music consumption is “frictionless” — a favourite word of techies. It means — well, not “free” exactly, but at least unburdened by the inconvenience of purchasing a product. You’ve gone from a world of scarcity to one of abundance. Nothing is for sale, because everything is available. For both the pirates and the paying subscribers, buying records is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. And yet the hits go on and on.

In The Long Tail, the 2005 techno-utopian argument for the coming triumph of niches in popular culture, author Chris Anderson posits that hits are a scarcity-based phenomenon. Record stores have limited shelf space, he explains, and records that move 10,000 units are more profitable to stock than records that move 10. But on the Internet, shelf space is infinite, and therefore record companies don’t need to focus so much of their business on making hits. They can make money from the long tail of the artistic middle class — artists with small but loyal followings who will never be heard on CHR. Collectively these fans comprise what Anderson calls an “unseen majority,” a “market that rivals the hits.”

“If the twentieth-century entertainment industry was about hits, the twenty-first will be equally about niches,” Anderson declares early in the book. Using data from Rhapsody, an early streaming music subscription service, Anderson foresees the coming age of the “micro-hit.” He writes, “This is not a fantasy. It is the emerging state of music today.” Among other things, this means that the cool indie music that thinking people like Anderson and his friends like will finally have a fighting chance against “manufactured” boy bands that appeal to the teen masses.

A long-tail record economy threatens the very vocation of the record man. Why bother to take on the risk of making hits, and endure the far more numerous failures, when the labels can make as much money licensing their back catalogue of hits, which are already paid for, so that the money goes straight to the company’s bottom line? The record label of the future will be like a 1-800 number, Flom says sarcastically. “Dial one for pop, dial two for the blues.”

But that’s not what happened. Not even close. Nine years after The Long Tail, the hits are bigger than ever. Of the 13 million songs available for purchase in 2008, 52,000 made up 80 per cent of the industry’s revenue. Ten million of those tracks failed to sell a single copy. Today, 77 per cent of the profits in the music business are accumulated by 1 per cent of the artists.

Even Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google and an early supporter of long-tail theory, changed his mind. “Although the tail is very interesting, and we enable it, the vast majority of the revenue remains in the head,” he said in a 2008 interview with McKinsey, the management consulting firm. “In fact, it’s probable that the Internet will lead to larger blockbusters, more concentration of brands.”

In her 2014 book Blockbusters, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse showed how mega hits have become more important across the whole entertainment industry. “Smart executives bet heavily on a few likely winners. That’s where the big payoffs come from,” she writes.

The long tail is a lovely concept — more prosperity for a larger number of artists — and it makes sense in the tech world, where it is an article of faith that the fundamental logic of networks will foster a meritocracy. But the music business doesn’t work logically, and merit doesn’t always matter. Power, fear, and greed are the laws of the land.

How did the hits survive such severely disruptive forces as free music and infinite shelf space? There are many different reasons, some of which are discussed at length in the following pages. Specialised teams of songwriter-producers employ a method of composition I call track-and-hook to make songs that are almost irresistible. Record labels have figured out how to orchestrate demand for top artists like Katy Perry and Rihanna, relying on their close alliance and long history with commercial radio. And the public, given the ability to call up any song they choose, still wants to listen to what everyone else is playing.

It’s telling that so many recent hits have been written by a Swede, Max Martin, and his Swedish-trained collaborators. The distinction between R&B and pop, which in the United States has as much to do with race as with music, is less pronounced in Sweden, a more racially homogenous country. Beginning with the Backstreet Boys and extending through major hits for Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Kesha, and Taylor Swift, Max Martin and his fellow Swedish writers and producers have created a genre-bursting hybrid: pop music with a rhythmic R&B feel.

Their foreign-ness to English and American music allows them to inhabit, and in certain ways co-opt, different genres — R&B, rock, hip-hop — and convert them to mainstream pop using working methods developed in Stockholm in the ’90s at a place called Cheiron Studios, where the song machine begins.

Excerpted from John Seabrook’s new book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, available on Amazon.

Image: AP