From one musical vogue to another over the years, the notion of pop songs as industrial product has persisted, sometimes taken up by the music makers themselves as a source of pride. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records in Detroit, the then-booming home of the auto industry in its postwar V-8 heyday, had put in time on the assembly line at a Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and he modeled his whole vertically integrated musical operation on what he learned at the factory. As he recalled in his memoir, To Be Loved, “At the plant, cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line—brand-spanking-new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records.”
Today, the pop music that’s most popular is produced and distributed by methods that, in many ways, appear to be more regimented and mechanized than the means by which any music had been made in the past. Producers generate instrumental tracks by sample-mining and synthesis, using software and keyboard plug-ins; teams of “topliners” add melodic hooks and lyric ideas onto the tracks; and the results are cut and pasted, Auto-Tuned and processed, then digitally tested with software that compares the sonic patterns of a new song with those of past hits. The world of this music is both familiar and unique, connected in elemental ways to the first popular music produced in America and, at the same time, utterly inconceivable in any era before the digital age.
[However,] a more accurate and illuminating way to understand today’s pop might be to think of it as post-industrial, a phenomenon not of the machine era but of the information age. Music is made today by mining the vast digital repository of recordings of the past, or by emulating or referencing them through synthesis, and then manipulating them and mashing them up—with the human fallibility and genius that have always laced popular music and probably always will. Indeed, it is accessing and processing—the methods that digitalization facilitates—rather than gearing and stamping for uniformity and mass production that distinguish 21st-century pop. Like machine-age plants everywhere, the song factories have closed, and the work of the day is being done electronically.
John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory is certainly inspiring some interesting think pieces on pop music. I’m also starting to suspect that one of my most mentioned labels – Factory Records – was probably the least suitable imprint to hold that name. Motown (based on Gordy’s quote above), Tin Pan Alley, or today’s assembly line song laboratories could have really run with the moniker.