The Song Machine


by John Seabrook
ISBN: 1591847389
Finished 2/7/16
Amazon page for details and reviews


Seabrook takes us inside the hit factory, illustrating how mainstream music has come to be controlled by a few privileged Swedes. Today’s pop music is highly optimized, with lots of repetition and a “hook” every few seconds. But it wasn’t always that way. We trace modern music’s roots in disco and Motown, and how it evolved from a basement in Gothenburg to American Idol, K-pop, and Spotify. Along the way, we meet a number of colorful producers who scout ambitious teens and mold them into musical superstars.

While it’s easy to criticize today’s music for its overly-simple lyrics and rhythm, The Song Machine provides a fascinating, and sometimes horrifying, look into the minds of Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Lou Pearlman, and Lee Soo-man. Although none of these are household names, the hit makers’ products are ubiquitous and their fortunes large. Whether this book inspires appreciation or reinforces contempt for these figures is up to the reader.


Contemporary Hits Radio (CHR) songs not based on social realism

Hit makers collaborate for the same top few artists

Two templates: Europop and R&B based

All sounds can be made with software and samples

Artists are more vocal personalities than singers

What do the artists stand for as human beings?

Illusion that artists are the creative forces behind the hits

Dr. Luke and Max Martin

Despite low barriers to entry and democratization, the same few individuals are creating most of the hits

Familiarity with a song increases one’s emotional investment, even if he or she doesn’t like it

Pop star is nothing without hits, and a career depends on a continuity of hits

90% of record business revenues from 10% of songs

2 principle sets of rights for a recorded song;
Publishing- composition copyright
Master Recording – sound recording copyright

Also mechanical and performance royalties and synchronization rights. Neighboring rights in some countries

Label benefits from album sales, artists benefit from tours

Selling of records coming to an end

Businesses have had to adapt because of downloads and streaming services

Long tail theory: Micro hits rival top hits on the net – indie listeners rival majority hit listeners in number. This is wrong, mega hits more important

77% of profits accumulated by 1% of artists

Difference between pop and R&B not as stark in less-diverse Sweden. New musical style is often a mashup of these

Cheiro Studios – founded in 1992 in Stockholm by Denniz PoP and Tom Talomaa
– Started with remixes, then started to create own songs

When they were popular, CDs cost more than vinyl despite being cheaper to make. Were extremely popular were record buyers

Denniz PoP was never musically trained. But he produced music electronically solely on computers

Before Kraftwerk, electronic musicians were mostly German visual artists

Kraftwerk’s Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express made them the first major electronic musicians. They inspired many but then transitioned to pop, resulting in criticism

But Giorgio Moroder brought electronic pop into the mainstream

Roland TR-808, then MIDI, then software like Logic

Producers could do away with musicians completely and fully make music inside the box

Ace of Base from Gothenburg. Formed in the basement of a car repair shop

Electronic music had to sound good on car stereos. Shipped tapes to California. Also played on Denniz PoP’s Nissan Micra.

ABBA was a major influence for the new producers. They showed that teen pop could talk about adult subjects

Great pop song should be interesting – certain people will hate it and others will love it – but it can’t ever be boring

The disco era showed lyrics didn’t need to mean much
– Too many lyrics could kill dancing
– Instead used mostly to complement the beat

Orlando, FL: Lou Pearlman built boy band Backstreet Boys from many auditions

R&B harmony groups grew out of 40s black street corner quartets
– evolved into doo-wop, then Motown
– then pop

Clive Calder: single richest man the music industry has ever produced
– South African born
– Clive Calder Productions modeled on Motown

Barry Gordy (founder of Motown label) modeled Motown after the Ford assembly line

Backstreet Boys caught on in Europe, Canada, and Asia before gaining popularity in the US
– Helped launch K-pop in Asia

US Telecommunications act: a single entity could own more stations. Clear Channel and Infinity major two broadcasters
– Radio programming was no longer a regional art. National playlists for all stations within a given format

Some formats saw an increase in diversity: urban, country, alternative. But CHR became much less diverse

Pop was more fit to radio than rock. Rock was too album-oriented

Rock split into classic, new wave, and modern
Pop split into adult contemporary, easy listening, and oldies

Top 40 was no longer America’s format in the 80s

Top 40 reborn as CHR from Z100 station in NYC. Inspired by British offshore pirate radio

Grunge scared people away from Z100

Spice Girls were British female counterpart to Backstreet Boys. Hanson was another boy band – “MMMBop”.

Clive Calder brought Backstreet Boys to US
– First US hit “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”

NSYNC appeared, threatening to take Backstreet Boys’ market – But was also created by Pearlman

Britney Spears to complement both boy bands
– Was part of Mickey Mouse Club with Justin Timberlake
– Not the best voice or complexion, and two producers passed. But Clive Calder thought they could make an American diva
– Dancing was her passion, also edgy style

Britney was introduced to American public with performances in malls

New kids on the block were never MTV’s thing, but this was changing

Britney’s “…Baby One More Time” was instant hit, 500k copies on first day. Made #1
– 30 million copies worldwide, eclipsing album The Sign by Ace of Base

Backstreet Boys’ album Millennium in 1999. Never reached number 1, but major smash

Cheiron Studios was approaching the standard set by Motown in terms of number of hits, but not number of new artists

Around this time, the Backstreet Boys discovered Pearlman had also created NSYNC. Perelman was paying back his debts from other failed businesses and not paying them much

Backstreet Boys sued Pearlman, broke out of the contract

NSYNC suspected the same, broke the contract

Pearlman never paid back his investors, but kept trying to get more bands going

He eventually fled the country, charged with defrauding over $300 million. Brought back, pleaded guilty, prison

CD sales were at a peak in 2000-2001

Napster was getting popular, some in the industry suspected it might have been good time to sell their labels. Clive Calder sold out to BMG

Psychological issues ensued for Britney and Nick Carter (Backstreet Boys)

Free music was beginning to hurt the industry

Napster had 60 million users. Labels should have teamed up with the service, but sued instead. Now industry has a whack a mole problem

5 music groups controlled 70% of the market

A whole generation – college kids – embraced Napster. Including the creator of Spotify who was 15 years old at the time

The music industry always sued new tech. Player pianos and radio were sued at first because of copyright infringement

Napster was mostly down by mid 2001, but users migrated to Kazaa, then to other similar P2P services

Cheiron Studios closed in late 2000

Some got out of the industry, some reformed. Everyone struggled to find a new sound

Britney started producing with urban producer Timbaland

American Idol
– Sim Cowell was prolific record producer, starting with Teletubbies and Power Rangers soundtracks
– First show: Pop Idol in the UK
– Fox bought the concept for the US, debut in 2002. Only major change was the name.
– Served as self promotion opportunity
– Deal: Arista Records to make an album with the winner
– There were so few top artists at the time, and the producers needed some new people
– Cowell was harsh and the show was mostly about humiliating the talentless in front of national audiences

Kelly Clarkson went for an AI audition
– saw all the others coming out and crying. But not her

“The moment” – place in a song that sparks emotion every time

MP3 was the next format after the CD, record business realized by 2002

Licensing exclusivity crippled services that were set up (Musicmatch etc.), but Steve Jobs’ iTunes solution was the key. – Opened April 2003
– Profits for the industry were lower, especially because most purchases were singles
– Big money was in iPods. 200 million by end of 2008

Kelly Clarkson’s first album sold well for 2003.
– Clive Davis wanted a big hit for the 2nd, but she wanted to write it herself.
– Didn’t want middle aged men writing the songs

She wanted the 2 potential hits off the album, weren’t her style. But Davis insisted she keep “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes” on it. Those ended up being the biggest singles

HitPredictor – testing to determine if song is a hit
– Takes the 30 second “meat” of the song and plays it 3x in 2 mins
– Voting to determine if hit
– Clear Channel bought it and many used it in early 2000s

Hit Song Science: Analyzed underlying patterns of a song to predict which songs conform to the mathematical patterns of past hits

Clarkson took full control of song selection for the 3rd album
– Davis only heard one minor hit. Asked her to reconsider
– She went with the original, only sold 1.1 million, 90% decrease over Breakaway
– Brought hit makers back for subsequent albums

American Idol would also produce Clay Aiken, Daughtry, Carrie Underwood

But AI has not produced any other hits. Same for spinoffs The Voice, The X Factor, America’s Got Talent

Teens stamp the hit makers with an expiration date. Even Cheiron couldn’t avoid it

What if factory-made products were perceived to be authentic? – K-pop

Long before K-pop, Korean musicians were masters at combining western influences and traditional music

Stars in Korea would be made, not born. Needed complete control over the artists
– “Cultural technology” by S.M. Entertainment, founded by Lee Soo-man

H.O.T. – High five of Teenagers. Boy band
S.E.S. – girl group

Part of “the wave” of media change in Asia

S.M. Entertainment created a manual for presentation on different parts of Asia

Both H.O.T. and S.E.S. disbanded in early 2000s, but follow-up acts were more popular. BoA, Super Junior, Boys’ Generation

EXO-K and EXO-M, Korean and Mandarin versions of the same band

In Korea, a sex tape or marijuana can ruin an artist’s career

K-pop artists excel less in musical ability, more in looking good. Women have plastic surgery to look like them

PSY – “Gangnam Style”. First YouTube video to hit 1 billion views

Lee has been sued over “slave contracts”
– Even governed relationships and eating schedules

Rihanna had such a presence and voice the producers brought her on even when they weren’t taking any more artists
– Father was drug addict, violent home life
– No musical training
– Her desire to escape was something fans could relate to
– “Pon de Replay” first major hit

Def Jam Recordings brought hip hop into the mainstream
– Started by Rick Rubin
– Eventually run by Jay Z

Jay Z was the preeminent rapper of his generation
– Retired from singing career after 2003’s Black Album
– Focused on producing

Def Jam offered Rihanna a contract on the spot
– “Pon de Replay” came out in 2005

Rihanna would emerge as the consummate singles artist, perfect for iTunes

– A hit is just a hit. A smash hit is a lifechanger
– Song was meant for Britney
– Spears struggled with drugs and psychological disorders, gave song to Rihanna instead
– Released to 140 CHR stations in 2007. Many put it on rotation the first day

Big radio is responsible for releasing hits, but labels still control the show. Both have been in mutually beneficial relationships for 80+ years

“Umbrella” topped the charts for 7 weeks

Track and hook songwriting is the primary method for pop and R&B. More conducive to factory-style production.
– Production comes first

Melody and lyrics songwriting style is still common in country

Almost all track and hook producers are men, but most top liners (vocal tune and lyrics writers) are female

Norwegian producers Stargate. Got Ne-Yo his hit ” So Sick”, went to #1 in 2006.
– Collaborated with Rihanna
– Came up with Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable”

Chris Brown could sing, dance, and write
– “Run It” was #1 hit in 2005
– “Kiss Kiss”
– “Forever” was actually a Wrigley’s bubblegum jingle at first

Brown’s father was abusive. Chris punched Rihanna driving home from an event. Turned himself in for assault charges.

Writer Camp. Topliners and writers spend a few hours each writing together, then switch up. About 60 songs a week

Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” – Stargate + Ester Dean. Similar technique used in “Only Girl (In The World)”

“Rude Boy” made Ester Dean one of the most sought after topliners in the business
– Nicki Manaj “Super Bass”
– But never became a star on her own

Dr Luke built literal music factory in LA
– Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream”

Dr. Luke under pressure for producing similar sounds to other music, but none of the suits followed through

Katy Perry (Katheryn Hudson) grew up with a very religious family, started singing Christian music.
– Transitioned to secular music
– Worked with Def Jam but they dropped her
– Then worked with Dr. Luke and Max Martin – “I Kissed a Girl”

Bonnie McKee – started with collaborations
– Ended up writing for Perry with Max Martin
– “American Girl” would not make her a star

It was all about the right artist with the right song at the right time

McKee and Martin wrote “Wrecking Ball” for Miley

Dr. Luke to create Ke$ha, their teenage nightmare
– Persuaded her to drop out of High School
– Collaboration on “Right Round” by Flo Rida
– “TiK ToK” was her first solo #1

Dr Luke sued by Ke$ha, including alleged rape. He filed a countersuit, claiming false accusations

Daniel Ek – Spotify founder. Very restrained personality
– Doesn’t sell music, sells access to it
– User population tends to lie outside mainstream
– Launched in 2008
– Was formerly uTorrent CEO, at that time enemy of labels
– 2014: available in 58 countries
– 50 million users
– The playlist is the album of the streaming generation
– Music is tailored to your mood, location, etc.
– Fast streaming solution and P2P network

Once Ek became rich, he realized he was depressed with all the money

It took majors a long time to get on board with the Spotify free tier. But with the major shift to mobile, which required payment for Spotify, labels were willing to buy in

Spotify has criticism that it doesn’t value artists enough
– But by encouraging listening, it can increase the overall size of the pie

Maybe Spotify itself will get obliterated, but nobody knows at this point. Ek is not concerned that someone can build a better product

At the end of the day, the human brain controls the music industry (we listen to what we like). Not the industry players.

Swedes supplied 1/4 of Billboard Hot 100 in 2014, and are a major driving force in K-pop