Tag: Music

John Seabrook and the Modern Song Machine

Ever noticed a certain “sameness” to the pop songs you hear nowadays? A similarity in their structure, feel, and the voices you hear on the tunes? You’re correctly clued in.

Mostly gone are the days of Elton John and Bernie Taupin sitting down at a piano to work out a “Bennie and the Jets” — crafting the chord progression, the melody, the rhythm, the arrangement, and finally, the lyrics.

The pop music running the airwaves today, those songs you seem to know but aren’t quite sure how you know them, are created in an interesting and deliberate way. Depending on your stance, the result is either horrifying or fascinating.

The method is called track-and-hook songwriting, and employs an entire industry of sub-specialists whose job is to put together pieces of a Frankenstein beast that ends up as a monster hit. Like many other industries, songwriting has been changed immensely by the Internet: With attention spans shorter than ever and avenues for music consumption unlimited and mostly free, hits are more important than ever, not less.


This interesting result wasn’t well predicted. Chris Anderson, of The Long Tail fame, predicted that the Internet would lead to less hit-domination and more exploration of individual passions, writing in 2005: “If the twentieth century entertainment industry was about hits, the twenty-first will be about niches…This is not a fantasy. It is the emerging state of music today.”

He was wrong, though, as John Seabrook writes in his marvelous book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory:

Nine years after The Long Tail, the hits are bigger than ever. Of the 13 million songs available for purchase in 2008, 52,000 made up 80% of the industry’s revenue. Ten million of those tracks failed to sell a single copy. Today, 77 percent of the profits in the music business are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists. Even Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google and an early supporter of long-tail theory, changed his mind. “Although the tail is very interesting, and we enable it, the vast majority of the new revenue remains in the head,” he said in a 2008 interview with McKinsey, the management consulting firm. “In fact, it’s probable that the Internet will lead to larger blockbusters, more concentration of brands.”

In order to fulfill the demands of a hit-driven business, threatened and changed by the democratization of music consumption, the business has evolved to create hits the way McDonald’s creates hamburgers: on an assembly line.

Pon de Replay

Pop stars don’t generally write any of the music they become famous for. They are faces, personalities, and voices, though with the advent of digital music-making and the ability to digitally auto-correct vocal performances, the latter is increasingly unimportant.

The whole thing starts by crafting the track, which is done by the producer and the topliner. John Seabrook lays it out in his book:

By the mid-2000s, the track-and-hook approach to songwriting–in which a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook-writer/topliner, who writes the melodies–had become the standard method by which popular songs are written. The method was invented by reggae producers in Jamaica, who made one “riddim” (rhythm) track and invited ten or more aspiring singers to record a song over it. From Jamaica the technique spread to New York and was employed in early hip-hop. The Swedes at Cheiron industrialized it. [Ed: Songs like “I Saw a Sign” from the early ’90s.] Today, track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song.

Why do it this way, instead of the old way where one or two people wrote a song and the singer put personal lyrics on top of it? Seabrook thinks it’s because parts of the songwriting process have become extremely specialized, a sort of natural selection process has occurred where songs must be engineered for maximum addictiveness to survive. As they figure out a successful formula, it’s applied over and over to create more hits:

As a working method, track-and-hook tends to make songs sound the same. Dance music producers have always borrowed liberally from others’ grooves. There’s no reason not to: beats and chord progressions can’t be protected under existing copyright laws, which recognize only melody and lyrics. As dance beats have become the backing tracks to a growing number of pop songs, similar-sound records have proliferated. The melodies themselves are supposed to be unique, but because of the way producers work with multiple topliners, tracks and melodies tend to blur together.

In 2009 for example, both Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson had hits from tracks written by the superproducer Ryan Tedder. One was Beyonce’s “Halo,” which peaked at number five in May, and the other was Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which got as high as number thirteen in August. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyonce shared a credit with Evan Bogart. When Clarkson heard “Halo,” she thought it sounded too much like “Already Gone,” and feared the public would think she had copied Beyonce’s song…But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; both songs were hits.

The songs are engineered precisely to hook the listener as soon as possible and then re-expose them to a hook over and over. Attention spans are too short to allow “dead space” in a song:

In a track-and-hook song, the hook comes as soon as possible. Then the song “vamps”–progresses in three-or-four chord patterns with little or no variation. Because it is repetitive, the vamp requires more hooks: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and outro hooks. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown explains. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.” The reason, he went on, is that people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.

Once there is a hooky, chorusy, bubbly tune to draw the listener in and keep them there, the singing comes in next. In today’s pop world, vocal quality no longer carries the importance it once did, nor does writing meaningful lyrical content. The lyrics must have a meter that fits the rhythm of the song, and the vocal itself will be heavily processed and engineered by the time the song hits the airwaves. Dozens of takes will be digitally cut-and-pasted together to create the final song. This process explains why glossy pop seems to carry a similar sound and feel even if the songs are recorded by artists with totally different singing voices.

As an example, Seabrook describes songwriter Ester Dean laying down a vocal track for a potential hit:

Dean was dimly visible through the soundproofed glass window, bathed in greenish light. She took out her phone, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she copied from magazines and television programs: “life in the fast line,” “crying shame,” “high and mighty,” “mirrors don’t lie,” “don’t let them see you cry.” Some phrases are categorized under headings like “Sex and the City,” “Interjections,” and “British Slang.”


Grabbing random words out of her phone also seems to set Dean’s melodic gift free; a well-turned phrase would restrain it. There was no verse or chorus in the singing, just different melodic and rhythmic parts. Her voice as we heard it in the control room had been Auto-Tuned, so that Dean could focus on making her vocal as expressive as possible and not worry about hitting all the notes.


“See, I just go in there and scream and they fix it…” she tells me, emerging from the booth, looking elated, almost glowing. She touches the back of her arm, feeling that million dollar chill.

Moneyball-style, the engineering of musical addictiveness takes an old pop-music concept — giving listeners heavy exposure to a song so it becomes familiar — and uses that to predict which songs will be hits:

The main difficulty Zapoleon had to overcome in creating Hit Predictor [Ed: a music testing service], he says, was that people don’t know if they like a song unless they’ve already heard it. “There’s an old adage that you can only do research on people who are already familiar with the song,” he says. Zapoleon refers to this as the “rule of three” –you have to hear a song three times before you know if you like it or not.


Zapoleon’s solution was to replicate the rule of three in a two-minute remix of the song. “We take the thirty-second meat of the song,” he explains, “which is generally the chorus but sometime it’s not. And then comes a one-minute version that has the hook in it. And then we come back again to the thirty-second hook, what I call ‘the filet mignon.'” Zapoleon’s online respondents hear the essence of the song three times, all in the course of two minutes.

In the course of a few minutes, these music-testing services can predict how likely a song is to become a hit; computer algorithms can use that data to analyze whole albums of tracks mathematically to see whether their particular combination of hooks and beats can become popular with the right marketing “push.”

A desirable track, built piece by piece inside the Machine, will be fought over by a score of pop-music icons, with a single song having the ability to launch, build, or repair multi-million dollar careers. And so the Song Machine cranks on.

Still Interested? Read the whole book for the story of modern pop.

TED Bookstore 2013

If you missed out on attending the famous TED conference this year — you’re not alone. But now you can queue up some of the books that were available at the TED Bookstore for your spring reading pile. The bookstore was curated this year by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings).

I haven’t been able to find a full list of all the books available. Yet, here are 10 of Maria’s favourites from this years TED Bookstore along with the text that appears on the bookstore cards introducing the book to TED attendees.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail

A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (♥), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Tiny Beautiful Things

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Big Questions From Little People

The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Internal Time

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Where the Heart Beats

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

The Where, the Why, and the How

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Henri’s Walk to Paris

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris, one of 2012′s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

A Technique for Producing Ideas

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

(h/t to Maria)