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.

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.