The Elaborate Charade to Obfuscate Who Writes Pop Music
This fascinating article from The Atlantic reads like an episode of Black Mirror:
Impressionable young fans would do well to avoid John Seabrook’s (new book) The Song Machine, an immersive, reflective, and utterly satisfying examination of the business of popular music. It is a business as old as Stephen Foster, but never before has it been run so efficiently or dominated by so few. We have come to expect this type of consolidation from our banking, oil-and-gas, and health-care industries. But the same practices they rely on—ruthless digitization, outsourcing, focus-group brand testing, brute-force marketing—have been applied with tremendous success in pop, creating such profitable multinationals as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift.
The music has evolved in step with these changes. A short-attention-span culture demands short-attention-span songs. The writers of Tin Pan Alley and Motown had to write only one killer hook to get a hit. Now you need a new high every seven seconds—the average length of time a listener will give a radio station before changing the channel.
Orlando’s Lou Pearlman apparently has a lot more to answer for than the criminal schemes he’s presently serving time for.
Side story: in the mid-’90s I once wandered into a downtown Orlando pizza place to grab a quick slice and noticed Pearlman at a table with a large pie in the middle, and four teenage boys sitting across looking wide-eyed and attentive. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall.
Update: Vox interviews John Seabrook about his book and the ‘mega-producer’ phenomenon:
When you’re talking about the Swedes, and to a certain extent the Norwegians, there you’re dealing with a different set of cultural influences. There’s this whole concept, from a novel in the 1930s, called Jantelagen, the laws of Scandinavian restraint. The idea is that individual success is to be frowned upon in Scandinavian culture, and it’s really about the group and not the individual. That particular set of influences was very instrumental in shaping Denniz Pop and his group of disciples, of whom [leading mega-producer] Max Martin was obviously the most successful. It’s a major force in Max Martin’s career.
What’s the difference between the Beatles and Max Martin, really? You could say the Beatles’ songs are maybe a little bit better, but that’s a very subjective judgment. The real difference is that the Beatles perform their own songs and that’s why the Beatles are universally recognized as geniuses, whereas Martin never performs his own songs, and that’s why outside the music industry, nobody knows who Max Martin is. It’s a hard thing for most Americans to wrap their minds around, but if you look at it in a Swedish context, it makes a little more sense.
They don’t sit in studios with guitars and pianos, writing melodies and lyrics together. At best, they do that in Nashville. Rather producers come up with beats and then they have their favorite topliners create melodies and hooks on top. And if there aren’t enough hooks in the track, they start all over. They’re in the business of hit singles, not album dreck. And they know one hook is not enough, that you’ve got to grab the public instantly and continue to thrill them.
And this formula is working.
I’m not judging it, just telling you how it is.
All the people truly driving popular culture are in this book. That’s why you should read it. And that’s why you’re gonna hate it.