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.

Does 3D Printing Pose a Challenge to the Patent System?

"Quadrifolium 3D Print", Image by fdecomite

“Quadrifolium 3D Print”, Image by fdecomite

Whenever Captain Picard ordered up some of his favorite brew, “Earl Grey tea, hot”, from the Enterprise’s replicator, it materialized right there within seconds. What seemed like pure science fiction back when Star Trek: The Next Generation was first on the air (1987 – 1994), we know today to be a very real, innovative and thriving technology called 3D printing. So it seems that Jean-Luc literally and figuratively excelled at reading the tea leaves.

These five Subway Fold posts have recently covered just a small sampling of the multitude of applications this technology has found in both the arts and sciences. (See also #3dprinting for the very latest trends and developments.)

Let us then, well, “Engage!” a related legal issue about 3D printing: Does it violate US federal copyright law in certain circumstances? A fascinating analysis of this appeared in an article on posted January 6, 2016 on ScientificAmerican.com entitled How 3-D Printing Threatens Our Patent System by Timothy Holbrook. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own non-3D questions.

Easily Downloadable and Sharable Objects

Today, anyone using a range of relatively inexpensive consumer 3D printers and a Web connection can essentially “download a physical object”. All they need to do is access a computer-aided design (CAD) file online and run it on their computer connected to their 3D printer. The CAD file provides the highly detailed and technical instructions needed for the 3D printer to fabricate the item. As seen in the photo above, this technology has the versatility to produce some very complex and intricate designs, dimensions and textures.

Since the CAD files are digital, just like music and movie files, they can be freely shared online. This makes it likely that just as music and entertainment companies were threatened by file-sharing networks, so too is it possible that 3D printing will result in directly challenging the patent system. However, this current legal framework “is even more ill-equipped” to manage this threat. Consequently, 3D printing technology may well conflict with “a key component of our innovation system”.*

The US federal government (through the US Patent and Trademark office – USPTO), issues patents for inventions they determine are “nontrivial advances in state of the art”. These documents award their holders the exclusive right to commercialize, manufacture, use, sell or import the invention, while preventing other from doing so.

Infringements, Infringers and Economic Values

Nonetheless, if 3D printing enables parties other than the patent holder to “evade the patent”, its value and incentives are diminished. Once someone else employs a 3D printer to produce an object covered by a particular patent, they have infringed on the holder’s legal rights to their invention.

In order for the patent holder to bring a case against a possible infringer, they would need to have knowledge that someone else is actually doing this. Today this would be quite difficult because 3D printers are so readily available to consumers and businesses. Alternatively, the patent laws allow the patent holder to pursue an action against anyone facilitating the means to commit the infringement. This means that manufacturers, vendors and other suppliers of CAD and 3D technologies could be potential defendants.

US copyright laws likewise prohibit the “inducement of infringement”. For example, while Grokster did not actually produce the music on its file-sharing network, it did facilitate the easy exchange of pirated music files. The music industry sued them for this activity and their operations were eventually shut down. (See also this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How Music Got Free” about a recent book covering the history and consequences of music file sharing.)

This approach could also possibly be applied to 3D printing but based instead upon the patent laws. However, a significant impediment of this requires “actual knowledge of the relevant patent”. While nearly everyone knows that music is copyrighted, everyone is not nearly as aware that devices are covered by patents. 3D printers alone are covered by numerous patents that infringers are highly unlikely to know about much less abide. Moreover, how could a potentially aggrieved patent holder know about all of the infringers and infringements, especially since files can be so easily distributed online?

The author of this piece, Timothy Holbrook, a law professor at Emory University School of Law, and Professor Lucas Osborn from Campbell University School of Law, believe that the courts should focus on the CAD files to stem this problem. They frame the issue such that if the infringing object can so easily be produced with 3D printing then “should the CAD files themselves be viewed as digital patent infringement, similar to copyright law?” Furthermore, the CAD files have their own value and, when they are sold and used to 3D print an item, then such seller is benefiting from the “economic value of the invention”. The professors also believe there is no infringement if a party merely possesses a CAD file and is not selling it.

Neither Congress nor the courts have indicated whether and how they might deal with these issues.

My Questions

  • Would blockchain technology’s online ledger system provide patent holders with adequate protection against infringement? Because of the economic value of CAD files, perhaps under such an arrangement could they be written to the blockchain and then have Bitcoin transferred to the patent holder every time the file is downloaded.  (See the August 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry which covered an innovative approach now being explored for copyrights and royalties in the music industry)
  • Would the digital watermarking of CAD files be a sufficient deterrent to protect against file-sharing and potentially infringing 3D printing?
  • What new opportunities might exist for entrepreneurs, developers and consultants to help inventors protect and monitor their patents with regard to 3D printing?
  • Might some inventors be willing to share the CAD files of their inventions on an open source basis online as an alternative that may improve their work while possibly avoiding any costly litigation?

 


These seven Subway Fold posts cover a series of other recent systems, developments and issues in intellectual property.


If this ends up in litigation, the lawyers will add an entirely new meaning to their object-ions.

Book Review of “How Music Got Free”

"CD", Image by Dean Hochman

“CD”, Image by Dean Hochman

It is nearly impossible to compete in a consumer market when a previously lucrative product is suddenly available for free. This phenomenon adds a whole new meaning to the notion of “priced to sell”.

No industry illustrates this tectonic disruption brought about by the Net more than the music business during the last 20 years. While there has been an ocean of ink and a quantum of bits expended telling this story, I have come across none more compelling, thorough and entertaining than How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). This is a great story well told with clarity, precision, style and humor.

While the tales of Napster and the other peer-to-peer sharing networks, the lawsuit by Metallica and other litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop them, and precipitous drop in CD sales since then have all been previously told at length elsewhere, the author takes us down some new and alternative narrative paths. Witt has accomplished this skillfully weaving together the stories of the German engineers who created the MP3 format, a prolific music pirate, and a music industry mogul. The intersection of their activities in the music downloading revolution makes for hours of absorbing and instructive reading.

The book succeeds simultaneously as a business case study and a human interest story. It deftly leverages all three main plot threads in a narrative that heightens the reader’s interest as the events steadily crisscross the real world from rural Kentucky to Germany to New York City, and then likewise online across the web. Any one of these stories would have made for engaging reading on their own. Yet they are carefully fitted together by the author in a manner that relentlessly propels the all of them forward.

He also wisely wastes none of his text on superfluous side trips. Rather, he maintains a consistent focus throughout on how the music biz got turned upside down and inside out by a series of fast-breaking developments it neither fully understood nor had any viable alternatives ready to counter it.

A roster of A-List Hollywood writers and talent agents could not have possibly done better in creating the members of the real life cast. There are many useful lessons to be learned from them about business strategy, marketing, competition, and the strength of the human character in the face of the unprecedented and massive disruption* of what had been such a highly leveraged and lucrative market.

First and foremost among them was Benny “Dell” Glover. The details of his online and offline exploits read as though they were extracted from deep inside the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file. He worked in a rural CD manufacturing plant and that afforded him access to the latest releases by music industry’s top acts. Often a month in advance of their commercial debut, Glover would smuggle them out of the plant, encode them using the MP3 format, and upload them for free distribution online through Napster and a host of other peer-to-peer networks. He was also part of a larger band of well-organized, tech savvy and daring digital music pirates who referred to their collective activities as the “Scene”.  Glover was likely responsible for the largest volume of free music that ever got digitally disbursed.

Second was Karlheinz Brandenburg, the lead engineer and inventor of the MP3 technology. He ran the group that devised MP3 technology without any intent whatsoever of how it eventually ended up being used. It was a technological accomplishment that at first drew little attention in the audio industry. There were other competing compression formats that were gaining more traction in the marketplace. Nonetheless, through perseverance, superior technical skills and a bit of favorable circumstances, MP3 began to find success. This was first in the broadcast marketplace and later on as the tech of choice among the music pirates and their audience. Brandenburg’s transformation over time from a humble audio engineer to an experienced business executive is deftly told and threaded throughout the book.

Third was Doug Morris who, during the events portrayed in the book, was the CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG). While Glover’s and Brandenburg’s parts in this narrative make for some engrossing reading, it is Morris’s meteoric rise and determination in the music industry that pulls the entire story together so very well. Not only does he reach the pinnacle of his field as a top executive in the largest music companies, he does everything in power to try to keep UMG economically competitive while under siege from freely downloadable MP3s recorded by his deep and wide talent bench.

While he did not have a hacker’s understanding of MP3’s technical ministrations, he fully understood, reacted and resisted its profound impacts. His initial line of attack was litigation but this proved to be ineffective and produced much negative publicity. Later he successfully monetized UMG’s vast trove of music video by forming the hosting and syndication service on Vevo. He is the most resourceful and resilient player in this story.

These three protagonists are vividly brought to center stage and fully engaged in Witt’s portrayal of their roles and fates in this Digital Age drama.  Just as the superior acoustics in a musical venue can enhance the performances of musicians and actors,  analogously so too does the author’s reporting and expository skills animate and enliven the entirety of events across his every page of his book. Indeed, “How Music Got Free” completely fulfills its title’s promise and, clearly, hits all the right notes.


At the time of the events portrayed in How Music Got Free, there was widespread fear that it would become increasingly difficult for artists and entertainment companies to ever profit again as they had done in the past. As a timely follow-up exploration and analysis how this never quite came to pass, I very highly recommend reading The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t by Steven Johnson, which was published in the August 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine.  (Johnson’s most recent book as also reviewed in the January 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How We Got to Now”.)


*  The classic text on the causes and effect of market disruptions, disruptors and those left behind, read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry

"Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] - Sahara Tent", Image by The Bull Pen, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] – Sahara Tent”, Image by The Bull Pen

With the advent and then propulsive web-wide spread of MP3 file technology during the last twenty years*,  all of the music industry’s consumers, artists, recording companies, talent agents, business models,  distribution channels and intellectual property rights have been radically transformed. Today, the big money in the industry today is most often made by artists with established names who are able to draw audiences during their tours, sell merchandise, and continue to sell and stream music from their catalogs.

Of course, nowadays every well-known, moderately known and unknown act has an online presence to engage and inform their fan bases through an array of social media platforms and dedicated websites. Still, the music biz today is an even tougher business to earn a dollar than it ever was before. (See also the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.)

In an effort to adapt dramatically new technology to energize, innovate and democratize the music industry, two recent startups, both still in their development stages, are using blockchain technology in previously unseen and imaginative ways. The blockchain is, in its simplest terms, a distributed, decentralized, transparent and encrypted database that acts as an online ledger to record transactions, documents and other information. It is most often used to memorialize transactions involving bitcoin. (See the May 8, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “The Age of Cryptocurrency” concerning a comprehensive new book on this subject.)

These early stage startups were the subject of a truly fascinating article posted on Billboard.com on August 5, 2015 entitled How ‘the Blockchain’ Could Actually Change the Music Industry by Gideon Gottfried. I will summarize, annotate and ask some unencrypted questions of my own.

I.  PeerTracks

The first startup is called PeerTracks. Their plan is to establish a music streaming and retail platform that includes “fan engagement and peer-to-peer talent discovery”, according to its president, Cedric Cobban.  They will use the blockchain for its transactions and paying artists directly for any revenue generated when their music is streamed “on a per-user-share basis”. Their launch is currently planned in about two months.

The core of their approach is to generate marketing revenue through the use of “artist tokens”. This is a system whereby each musical artist can create their own tokens with their name and image, and then set the permanently fixed amount of them to be made available. These tokens are intended to take on the characteristics of a “sub-cryptocurrency” (similar to some of Bitcoin’s characteristics), whereby the value that emerges for them is a direct indicator, based upon supply and demand, of the artist’s appeal. Site users can also speculate on the future value of the music and merchandise of currently unknown musicians.

The artists on PeerTracks will have the capabilities to affect the relative value of their own tokens. They will be enabled to buy back their tokens with any income they generate from “streams, sales, merch, tickets”. They can also permanently eliminate some tokens to decrease their supply and, in turn, increase their value.

Conversely, artists can affect demand by the types of items they offer to their token holders. Among other things, they can offer “discounts, free tickets, giveaways”. By providing incentives for fans to acquire their token, artists can raise the tokens’ relative values. As well, there are potential benefits to advertisers on PeerTracks interested in implementing paid sponsorships for more recognized music acts with product giveaways.

All songs uploaded on the site will be accompanied by a “smart contract“. According to the immediately preceding link to Wikipedia, smart contracts are “computer protocols that facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract, or that obviate the need for a contractual clause”.  The smart contracts on PeerTracks divide up the funds generated accordingly among the parties involved in the song’s composition and performance. This is considered to be an important advance in using the blockchain and, it is hoped by developers currently working on this, will become a platform upon which new business models will emerge.

II.  Ujo

The second startup in this space is called Ujo. Their plan to use the blockchain to improve both the distribution of royalties to artists and music licensing. They intend to accomplish this by establishing a “rights and payment infrastructure”. It will be free to use and open for third parties to create their own apps for new services including, among others, curation, streaming and negotiation.  Similar to PeerTracks, they are working on an alternative means to distributing revenues to “artists and rights holders”. Furthermore, they are trying to build a blockchain-based means to determine ownership of creative works.

The prospective adoption of this by the music industry of this entirely new system is expected to take time because of its tendencies to keep data private as well its outdated and often incompatible systems. Phil Barry, who is involved Ujo along with about 20 other developers, hopes their new system will unify and replace the legacy systems. He believes the platform will provide economic advantages to artists and recording companies receiving their royalties through it. As well, this will provide “new revenue and business models”, new ways for consumers to enjoy music, and simplification to the manner in which “music is managed and licensed”.

When an artist creates a new song in the future, using Ujo it will be permanently stored on the blockchain and assigned a unique ID. If another artists or performers changes anything about the song, their subsequent versions will receive a new ID and be “instantly recognizable”. Any resulting revenue from the song will then be distributed immediately and “proportionately to each rights holder”.

My own questions are as follows:

  • What other marketplaces, technologies and professions would benefit from using comparable types of blockchain adaptations?
  • Could traditional legal documents such as contracts, leases and wills, among many others, be written to the blockchain to make certain that all parties to them met their obligations?
  • Could artists’ tokens likewise be created for actors, writers, painters, graphics artists and other creative types?
  • What would be the results of a book or any other publication being written to the blockchain in terms of royalties, rights, subscriptions and recognition?

March 4. 2016 Update: For a related follow-up on this post please see the new Subway Fold post entitled The Mediachain Project: Developing a Global Creative Rights Database Using Blockchain Technology

June 5, 2017 Update:  An new article posted today, June 5, 2017, on the Harvard Business Review blog entitled Blockchain Could Help Musicians Make Money Again, by Imogen Heap, looks at the potential of blockchain technology from a musician’s point of view. A highly recommended read if you have an opportunity to click through. 


*  For an outstandingly written and highly engaging account of the total transformation of the music industry, I very highly recommend a recently published book entitled How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). I just finished reading this and to say the least, it rocked.