Book Review of “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory”

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

It is my completely unscientific theory that the music which often matters most to people is the music they listened to when they were young. From Stravinsky to Springsteen to Taylor Swift, the tunes of your youth will likely stay with you for life. These recordings will always get your attention whenever you hear them and perpetually occupy a special place in your heart from their opening bars to their final fades.

Is there really anyone of any age having any music preference who doesn’t get the chills or at very least tap a toe every time they hear the majesty of the Rite of Spring, the propulsive launch of Born to Run, or the megawatt energy of Shake It Off?

Today’s Music Biz and How It Got That Way

The music, artists, producers and companies who are the subjects in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), by John Seabrook, are not those that I happened to grow up with. Nonetheless, for interested readers who either did or did not come of age at some point during the past two decades, this highly engaging account of the extraordinary changes throughout the music industry will provide readers with a compelling narrative, cultural history, and business case study. This book further excels as an insightful guide through the music industry’s production processes of writing, recording, marketing, distributing and performing today’s chart-topping tunes.

Like a well-arranged progression of chords, each successive chapter skillfully takes you deeper into the operations of the leaders and innovators of the music industry. It is not so much about the music celebrities’ personal lives as it is about the trajectories of their careers, particularly importance of steadily creating viable hits. Moreover, it carefully examines how smash recordings are well-crafted by everyone involved in their creation to make certain they succeed with global music audiences.

Seabrook illuminates exactly how many of today’s hits, as well as misses, have enough deliberate calculation in the assembly of their beats, lyrics and evocative musical “hooks” to send a rocket to, well, Nep-tune and back. His exposition of the evolution of the “hit factory” takes place beginning early Euro-Pop then on to the Backstreet Boys (and their competitors), and next to the emergence of today’s worldwide stars. He devotes quite a bit of his reporting to how this is done for today’s A-listers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Kesha by a small and closely knit group of writers and producers. How and why the leading creatives achieved their prominence in today’s music scene is also finely threaded throughout the book.

Going to a Global Go-Go

As colorfully detailed, the US is often the center of the music industry, with many of its leading participants gravitating towards New York and Los Angeles. There are other key international personalities from Europe and Asia. Sweden in particular had first given a start several of the most influential producers with long histories of innovation in Europe. Later on, they brought their work to the US and achieved even greater commercial success.

Another tectonic disruption, online file-sharing, is explained but not pursued in great depth. Rather, and rightfully so, the author chose to examine how purchasing and downloaded MP3s is now giving way to rising volumes of streaming. He reports on the webwide phenomenon of Spotify’s business model, including its disparate economic impacts upon consumers and musicians. (These seven Subway Fold posts also cover a range of developments involving Spotify.)

Clearly and by definition, factories are places where products are fabricated and shipped.  Their operations must be periodically modernized in order to remain competitive. So too, it has become imperative for today’s music industry to adapt or face decline. The Hit Factory takes readers deep and wide into this unique and worldwide production system where hits by many of the mega-stars’ hits are indeed manufactured. Seabrook’s expert prose conveys the incredible effort, business sense and precision this enterprise requires.

Two Part Harmony

If you have the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend reading both The Song Factory and How Music Got Free (previously reviewed in this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post), together for a comprehensive understanding of how the multi-billion dollar music industry had fallen and then reinvented itself to rise again. Each book individually, and even more so together, deftly captures this unique world’s intersections of art, science and commerce.

For yet another engrossing historical perspective on the state of the music business set a few decades earlier during the 70’s and 80’s rock era, I further suggest reading a highly entertaining account entitled Hit Men (Crown, 1990), by Frederick Dannen.

Finally, all of the foregoing aside for a moment, have things really changed that much in the pursuit of musical success? Once you have finished The Hit Factory, I urge you to also listen to The Byrds’ 2-minute classic hit single So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N Roll Star and then to reconsider your answer. This song’s sentiment rings as true today as it did way back then.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Prints Charming: A New App Combines Music With 3D Printing

"Totem", Image by Brooke Novak

“Totem”, Image by Brooke Novak

What does a song actually look like in 3D? Everyone knows that music has always been evocative of all kinds of people, memories, emotions and sensations. In a Subway Fold post back on November 30, 2014, we first looked at Music Visualizations and Visualizations About Music. But can a representation of a tune now be taken further and transformed into a tangible object?

Yes, and it looks pretty darn cool. A fascinating article was posted on Wired.com on July 15, 2015, entitled What Songs Look Like as 3-D Printed Sculptures by Liz Stinson, about a new Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for the NYC startup called Reify working on this. I will sum up, annotate and try to sculpt a few questions of my own.

Reify’s technology uses sound waves in conjunction with 3D printing¹ to shape a physical “totem” or object of it. (The Wired article and the Reify website contain pictures of samples.) Then an augmented reality² app in a mobile device will provide an on-screen visual experience accompanying the song when the camera is pointed towards it. This page on their website contains a video of a demo of their system.

The firm is led by Allison Wood and Kei Gowda. Ms. Wood founded it in order to study “digital synesthesia”. (Synthesia is a rare condition where people can use multiple senses in unusual combinations to, for example, “hear” colors, and was previously covered in the Subway Fold post about music visualization linked to above.) She began to explore how to “translate music’s ephemeral nature” into a genuine object and came up with the concept of using a totem.

Designing each totem is an individualized process. It starts with analyzing a song’s “structure, rhythm, amplitude, and more” by playing it through the Echo Nest API.³ In turn, the results generated correspond to measurements including “height, weight and mass”. The tempo and genre of a song also have a direct influence on the shaping of the totem. As well, the musical artists themselves have significant input into the final form.

The mobile app comes into play when it is used to “read” the totem and interpret its form “like a stylus on a record player or a laser on a CD”. The result is, while the music playing, the augmented reality component of the app captures and then generates an animated visualization incorporating the totem on-screen.  The process is vividly shown in the demo video linked above.

Reify’s work can also be likened to a form of information design in the form of data visualization4. According to Ms. Wood, the process involves “translating data from one form into another”.

My questions are as follows:

  • Is Reify working with, or considering working with, Microsoft on its pending HoloLens augmented reality system and/or companies such as Oculus, Samsung and Google on their virtual reality platforms as covered in the posts linked to in Footnote 2 below?
  • How might Reify’s system be integrated into the marketing strategies of musicians? For example, perhaps printing up a number of totems for a band and then distributing them at concerts.
  • Would long-established musicians and performers possibly use Reify to create totems of some their classics? For instance, what might a totem and augmented reality visualization for Springsteen’s anthem, Born to Run, look like?

1.  See these two Subway Fold posts mentioning 3D printing.

2.  See these eight Subway Fold posts covering some of the latest developments in virtual and augmented reality.

3API’s in a medical and scientific context were covered in a July 2, 2015 Subway Fold Post entitled The Need for Specialized Application Programming Interfaces for Human Genomics R&D Initiatives.

4.  This topic is covered extensively in dozens of Subway Fold posts in the Big Data and Analytics and Visualization categories.