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.

Musical “Omnivores” Proliferate as Tastes in Tunes are Becoming More Diversified

"2015 CMU Music Marathon- Webster Hall", Image by Feast of Music

“2015 CMU Music Marathon- Webster Hall”, Image by Feast of Music

Back when such things actually existed in the analog world, I worked in a large music store in the middle of Times Square in New York. There was an unofficial policy there that the music played throughout each day in the store was to always be a wide mix of musical genres and sub-genres, often including some very exotic sounds.

Having grown up with my radio perpetually tuned to what was then WNEW-FM 102.7,¹ all I ever knew about was rock and roll. However, because I had daily exposure in this music store to all of these other types of music such as jazz, classical, folk and international, it opened up a whole new world for me. To this day, I remain very grateful for this experience because it greatly expanded my appreciation and enjoyment of the endless diversity and talent of music, musicians and songwriters.

The other great thing about the store was that many of the people on the sales staff were, in their own way, experts in many different genres. Some of them were also aspiring musicians². Not only were they there to help sell music, but they readily provided deep and wide perspectives and histories about artists, performances and recordings. Regular customers shopped there principally because of this (way-before-the-web) access to this trove of knowledge.

This enduring memory for me is why a fascinating post on Phys.org on September 15, 2015, entitled The Rise of the Musical Omnivore (no author is credited), immediately captured my attention. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and an-note-ate it, and pose some of my own, well, key questions.

New Study Re-examines Musical Preferences

Tastes in music have always been perceived as related to the listener’s societal “class”. However, recent research findings indicated that the “upper” classes are adding those types of music often associated with the “middle” and “lower” classes (although these terms are not specifically defined in the article). As well, “musical taste can become more independent” of class through “an intensive engagement with music”. (A Subway Fold post on August 11, 2015 entitled Rock It Science: New Study Equates Musical Tastes to Personality Traits, looked at this from another perspective.)

These findings and much more were published by a team of academic staff members from the Max Plank Institute (MPI) for Empirical Aesthetics and the University of Vienna online in Frontiers in Psychology  on August 20, 2015 in an article entitled Exploring the Musical Taste of Expert Listeners: Musicology Students Reveal Tendency Toward Omnivorous Taste. The authors are Paul Elvers, Diana Omigie, Wolfgang Fuhrmann and Timo Fischinger. I also recommend reading this full report.

These new types of more receptive listeners are termed ominvores whose musical preferences include a mix of styles, despite their original inclinations towards classical and jazz. This phenomenon is now being seen more commonly in music students, whereas previously it was limited to listeners in “higher social classes”. Among such students, half are them are such omnivores. A quarter of them will also listen to different genres “depending on their mood and the occasion”.

The researchers’ study focused upon the preferences of “expert listeners” such as music students as well as “average listeners”. The focus on the former group was to determine whether their “musical training and knowledge” led them to develop different tastes than those in the populations without this education. The study’s sample included 1,000 students from Germany and Austria who were either majoring or minoring (no pun intended), in music. They were queried on how frequently they listed to any musical genres including “rock, pop and classical music to punk, heavy metal, emo/screamo³, gospel, reggae and world music”.

Results and Analysis

Among the study’s findings were that:

  • Rock listeners listen to their music more often but rarely hear other genres.
  • Conventional listeners of classical, house and pop listeners listen to their music “moderately often”.
  • Engaged listeners listen “substantially more frequently” than the other two groups and, while most often listening to classical and jazz, are also more likely to regularly include folk and rock. Thus, this group is more likely to include the omnivores and exhibit a “generally higher intensity of music listening”.

According to Paul Elvers from the Max Plank Institute and one of the co-authors of the study, they critical issue here is how these groups are distributed within the musical expert and control groups.  His team found that:

  • 50% of music students were engaged listeners.
  • 36% of music students were conventional listeners
  • 13% of music students were rock listeners
  • 25% of the control group were engaged listeners
  • 50% of the control group were conventional listeners
  • 25% of the control group were rock listeners4

Mr. Elvers further believes that the findings about music students not showing a preference for classical is due to a change in their contemporary education where pop and rock have entered their curriculum at Humboldt University of Berlin. This is where most of the study’s participants originated.

Additional findings concluded:

  • Rock music listeners “form their own cluster”, while classic listeners showed the most receptiveness to other genres and thus the omnivores were more among them.
  • There was no meaningful correlation between “social origin and musical taste”.
  • Instead of “social origins”, knowledge of, and education in, music was much more determinative of the survey’s subjects’ receptiveness to “a broad musical repertoire”.

According to Melanie Wald-Furhmann, the Director of the Music Department at MPI for Empirical Aesthetics, because the students who were surveyed for the study are young, this may indicate a trend.  She further believes that this potential movement away from the connection between social identification and musical preferences could turn out to be an interesting development.

The researchers were aware of their study’s limits regarding the age and education levels of their sample students as not being representative of the entire population. They have begun a follow-up survey to “gain broader and more detailed findings”.

My Questions

  • Are the findings just as applicable to listeners in other countries, or are there differences from nation to nation and perhaps among geographic areas within each nation?
  • Are the definitions and recordings of what constitutes rock, jazz, folk, metal, classical and other genres also universal across nations and cultures, or do they varying at different locations around the world? If so, would further studies need to be taken to fully map out and understand these differences?
  • Has the universal availability of nearly all the world’s music throughout all sorts of online distribution channels also become a variable to be considered for further studies like this one?
  • How are the results of this study helpful to the marketers, media planners and executives of music companies and artists’ talent managers?
  • How might educators at the university level and earlier make use of this study in planning their curricula?

 


1.  For an excellent history of this once influential and popular station and rock radio during its heyday, I highly recommend a book entitled FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer (2002). The author was a DJ on WNEW-FM during most of the station’s existence. For many years since then he has been a sports radio talk show host on WFAN in New York.

2.  One of my co-workers there once went for an audition when some group called Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was looking for a new drummer. He did not get the gig. I wonder what ever happened to that Springsteen guy.

3.  This also perfectly described the collective response in New York on Wednesday night, October 22, 2015, when our  beloved New York Mets won the National League pennant. On to the World Series! GO METS!!!

4I suggest that everyone in all of these groups put aside their differences and watch the absolutely hilarious School of Rock starring Jack Black.