The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory – John Seabrook

This book covers the heavyweights in the hit-making world. You learn pretty much everything from the 1990’s until the music outlook for 2014 and beyond, which is pretty remarkable. I read this book luxuriously, looking up every song along the way and following the soundtrack of the story.


New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook tells a fascinating story of creativity and commerce that explains how songs have become so addictive.

Over the last two decades a new type of song has emerged. Today’s hits bristle with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ear every seven seconds. Painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, these songs are industrial-strength products made for malls, casinos, the gym, and the Super Bowl halftime show. The tracks are so catchy, and so potent, that you can’t not listen to them.

Traveling from New York to Los Angeles, Stockholm to Korea, John Seabrook visits specialized teams composing songs in digital labs with novel techniques, and he traces the growth of these contagious hits from their origins in early ’90s Sweden to their ubiquity on today’s charts. Featuring the stories of artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Rihanna, as well as expert songsmiths like Max Martin, Ester Dean, and Dr. Luke, The Song Machine will change the way you listen to music.


The Song Machine covers the most important behind-the-scenes workers, from Max Martin to Dr. Luke to Stargate and Ester Dean. I’m glad I got to learn about Bonnie McKee, and found it funny how much of a push there was for “American Girl” (a song which I was surprised to be familiar with). We followed key careers like the Backstreet Boys, Britney, Kelly Clarkson, SNSD, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha. To be honest, I feel like most of those stars are less relevant today, and questions on their longevity are beginning to rise (unless they put in some serious “work work work work work.”). The story got me thinking and researching even more about the music industry. Another bonus: it was well-written, with a good lead-in (perhaps you could call it a hook?) between chapters.

I was really satisfied with the discussion on Spotify. At first, it seemed like this mystical solution. I’m glad the story mentioned some of its key shortcomings — profit squeeze reducing the platform’s ability to scale, exploitation of smaller artists, and rising competition. I think the low premium conversion rates and continued cash-sink position are risky. I do enjoy Spotify, but some of their decisions are questionable. You have all this data mined about your listeners, so why can’t you share that information with US? I want to know when, where, why, and how I listen to music, and I want to know who I listen to the most. Data nerds would gobble this up (and I am devastated that the personalized Spotify “Year in Review” is gone.

That being said, there were some things I resisted. Reality shows haven’t produced a star since Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood? Tell that to One Direction or Fifth Harmony. I also felt that some key musical stars were left out simply because they didn’t fit the narrative that artists play puppet to the song machine, and spent a long time dithering on about the 90’s (formative to pop, yes, but disconnected to me, personally). Tell me about the early days of Taylor Swift, and how she as a singer-songwriter made Love Story and You Belong With Me mainstream successes! Surely she could fit in the narrative (on how even the most genuine singer-songwriters will succumb to the song machine, 1989-style, if savvy business sense has any say).

Or tell me about the Biebs, from that fascinating period where Youtube could jumpstart your career (or how Skrillex and Benny Blanco can resurrect a career). Tell me about Rebecca Black!! And tell me about the role of mentors and endorsements, especially in the rap world. It’s so collegial and fascinating. I want to know about Drake, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Eminem, and Kanye. Is there a rap equivalent of this book?

And what about EDM? This is a 21st-century technology. It makes music production accessible to any 14-year-old “visionary” with a computer and Ableton installed. It’s made music festival culture blow up. And it’s wormed its way into pop music seamlessly, from the jarring futurism of “Till the World Ends” to autotune-everything to the here and now, where voices are being distorted like chipmunks and dying whales. Look up The Chainsmokers and the rise of the pop drop. What’s next for pop?

Related Reading

  • Billboard article on the “pop-drop
  • Reactions to Dr. Luke vs. Ke$ha
  • Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Rating: 3/5


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