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.

New Visualization Maps Out the Concepts of the “Theory of Everything”

“DC891- Black Hole”, Image by Adriana Arias

January 6, 2017: An update on this post appears below.


While I was a student in the fourth grade at Public School 79, my teacher introduced the class to the concept of fractions. She demonstrated this using the classic example of the cutting up a pie into different numbers of slices. She explained to the class about slicing it into halves, thirds, quarters and so on. During this introductory lesson, she kept emphasizing that the sum of all the parts always added up to the whole pie and that they could never be equal to more than or less than the whole.

I thought I could deal with this fractions business back then. As far as I know, it still holds up pretty well today.

On an infinitely grander and brain-bendingly complex scale that is more than just pieces of π, physicists have been working for decades on a Theory of Everything (ToE). The objective is to build a comprehensive framework that fully unites and explains the theoretical foundations of physics across the universe. The greatest minds in this field have approached this ultimate challenge with a variety of highly complex and advanced mathematics, theoretical constructs and proposals. Many individuals and multidisciplinary teams are still at work try to achieve the ToE. If and when anyone of them succeeds formulating and proving it, the result will be the type of breakthrough that will potentially have profound changes on our understanding of our world and the universe we inhabit.

Einstein was one of the early pioneers in this field. He invested a great deal of effort in this challenge but even a Promethean genius such as him never succeeded at it.  His General Theory of Relativity continues to be one of the cornerstones of the ToE endeavor. The entire September 2015 issue of Scientific American is devoted to the 100th anniversary of this monumental accomplishment. I highly recommend reading this issue in its entirety.

I also strongly urge you to check out a remarkable interactive visualization of the component theories and concepts of the ToE that was posted in an August 3, 2015 post on Quantamagazine.org entitled Theories of Everything, Mapped by Natalie Wolchover. The author very concisely explains how the builder of the map, developer Emily Fuhrman, created it in order to teach people about ToE. Furthermore, it shows that there are areas with substantial “disunions, holes and inconsistencies” remaining that comprise the “deep questions that must be answered” in order to achieve the ToE.

The full map is embedded at the top of the article, ready for visitors to click into it and immerse themselves immerse in such topics as, among many others, grand unification, quantum gravity and dark matter.  All along the way, there are numerous linked resources within it available for further extensive explorations. In my humble opinion, Ms. Fuhrman has done a brilliant job of creating this.

Having now spent a bit of time clicking all over this bounty of fascinating information, I was reminded of my favorite line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages that goes “Using ideas as my maps”. (The Byrds also had a hauntingly beautiful Top 40 hit covering this.)

In these 26 prior Subway Fold posts we have examined a wide range of the highly inventive and creative work that can be done with contemporary visualization tools. This ToE map is yet another inspiring example. Even if subjects like space-time and the cosmological constant are not familiar to you, this particularly engaging visualization expertly arranges and explains the basics of these theoretical worlds. It also speaks to the power of effective visualization in capturing the viewer’s imagination about a subject which, if otherwise only left as text, would not succeed in drawing most online viewers in so deeply.


 

January 6, 2017 Update:

Well, it looks like those Grand Unified Fielders have recently suffered another disappointing bump in the road (or perhaps in the universe), as they have been unable to find any genuine proton decay. Although this might sound like something your dentist has repeatedly warned you about, it is rather an anticipated physical phenomenon on the road to the finding the Theory of Everything that has yet to be observed and measured. This put that quest on hold for time being unless and until either it is observed or physicists and theorists can work around its absence. The full details appear in a new article entitled Grand Unification Dream Kept at Bay, by Natalie Wolchover (the same author whose earlier article on this was summarized above), in QuantaMagazine.com, posted on December 15, 2016.