Inside the Hit Factory: HBO’s Vinyl and ‘The Song Machine’

It’s no secret that the music industry has struggled to catch up with new technologies and applications that have eroded the industry’s total revenue – labels and artists still have not become entirely educated on how Spotify streaming payouts work, for example. This reinforces the ‘hit culture’ that the industry has strived to achieve from the very beginning, treating artists and songs as products rather than creative beings, from Dr. Luke and Max Martin’s assembly line production of pop songs to the unbundling of albums on iTunes that made it more lucrative to have hit singles rather than complete albums.

In The Song Machine, John Seabrook does an excellent job of explaining the many cogs of the pop music machine, from the top line melody makers to the Swedish songwriting factory Cheiron, to the executives and tastemakers at the top of labels who craft the deals. It really is amazing to see how mechanical the whole song production system has become in modern music. It’s also pretty fascinating to learn about the origins of some of the most successful behind-the-scenes producers and songwriters, like Max Martin, who are responsible for a good amount of Top 40 hits in the last decade.

From the moment Swede Denniz PoP reconfigured Ace of Base’s album The Sign and were signed to write for the Backstreet Boys’ debut, popular music was headed into a new direction, for better or for worse. Music became a formula that, if all the necessary pieces were in place, could easily result in hit songs over and over again. And as the book also explains with Kelly Clarkson’s sophomore album as an example, any diversion from this perfected equation resulted in disappointment and unmet expectations. And if these songwriter communes and production houses continue to produce songs that reach the top of the charts, there’s no reason to move away from the formula, regardless of how impersonal and conniving the industry would become. The book discusses hits of the (recent) past, but still remains very relevant, especially when artists like Ke$ha and Kelly Clarkson speak out about their mistreatment as young aspiring artists in the “song machine.”

HBO’s Vinyl fictionally profiles a different era decades before Britney Spears, but taps into this same idea – the music industry has always viewed artists as products instead of artists in the truest sense of the word. Where John Seabrook unveils the nuts and bolts of production, Vinyl describes the pen and paper of the deals. When Richie Finestra’s A&R guy asks the raw punk band to emulate The Kinks for a showcase, it’s a man thinking about radio marketability and not musical innovation. When Finestra sells off his original enterprise, he tries to retain Little Jimmy Little and his raw, authentic blues style, which was pushed off for a bit until he gained a following, but ultimately succumbed to the money and let him go. (Perhaps an obvious metaphor, but Little Jimmy Little would be attacked by his new label management and lost his voice, preventing him from ever returning to his true, authentic music roots and driving him into the underground DJ scene.) The music industry has always been boiled down to the question, “What will make us the most money?” And whether it’s Finestra’s shady dealings and drug offerings to the formulaic earworms of modern pop producers, the industry will cling to whatever will sustain it and fans will eat it up.

Not much has changed between the Brill Building era and the digital music era. Labels are still trying to find new (or reinvent old) ways to salvage revenue in an industry where “customers” have become accustomed to free music on YouTube and Spotify. Artists are still treated as commodities, whether or not the artists themselves see any of the returns. And this hit factory method of songwriting has taken all the blood, sweat, and tears out of popular music in favor of overly-produced songs guaranteed to make money. (A cut that is dwindling for the performers who now have to share royalties among a whole staff of songwriters and labels who own their publishing rights.) The music industry should be working to support these artists and their vision – Sony Music dropping super producer Dr. Luke and his Kimosabe imprint to allow Ke$ha to continue her art is an important (if only symbolic at this point) first step.