A conversation about the murky values of the music industry with John Seabrook, author of 'The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory'.
Modern pop is at a crossroads. Audiences are demanding more than ever from their top 40, hits come and go within the blink of an eye, memes do better than singles, and albums we anticipated for years are #over two weeks after release. How does the industry keep up with the seemingly constant evolution of pop music, a world where Macklemore can go from being lauded to being politely told to Mackle-less as a matter of urgency? Who decides what makes a hit and how are they crafted? Who is getting all the money Samsung shelled out on ANTI? And why the hell, in 2016, does Lady Gaga still have to out the industry as being like a "fucking boy's club"?
New Yorker writer John Seabrook penned a revelatory book in mid-2015 – titled The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory – on the mechanisations that operate behind the scenes of your favorite pop tracks. Travelling from New York to Los Angeles, and then on to Stockholm and Korea, he charted a course from the origins of modern pop to its most contemporary iterations, via anecdotes, first hand accounts, and spending an afternoon in the studio with Max Martin. The result is a headfuck of a plunge into the unseen and, more often than not, grossly unjust processes that keep our top 40 ticking over like an iPhone factory.
We caught up with John to talk about the cloaked powers in the music industry, gender inequality, the forthcoming tech industry war, and how pop has mutated in 2016. We also ruminate a bit about the genius of Fetty Wap.
Noisey: Hi John. One of the things that fascinated me about your book was how it exposed the pattern of male svengalis lurking behind most female popstars. From Lady Gaga to Ariana Grande, we've had plenty of brave accounts highlighting sexism in the industry, but just how bad is it behind closed doors?
John Seabrook: There’s a lot of gender inequality for sure, probably more gender inequality than race inequality. For instance, it usually breaks down that the men tend to be the producers and the women tend to be the hook writers. So, you have men (producers) and women (topline writers) and the way the studio sessions are set up and run, the producers—the men—book the rooms and are usually paid by the hour by a label. Whereas the women—the hookline writers—are only paid based on whether or not their songs make the cut. Most songs do not get made into records. So all the time they spend in the studio working on songs that don’t get made into records, is basically time they’re not paid for. Whereas the men are always paid, whether or not the songs turn into records.
Do you think women are being confined to writing roles because they keep getting pretty much told to take a backseat?
Totally. There is a Clive Davis/Kelly Clarkson anecdote in my book which is the purest example of this. Kelly says at one point that it’s inconceivable to a guy like Clive Davis that a girl can sing and write songs. That’s not the assumption that’s made with men.
So what power does the female songwriter hold?
The irony is, the songwriters are more important than ever in the process. Mainstream artists write less and less of their own songs. Yet, as we move into the streaming world, the songwriters are getting completely screwed. With the decline of record sales, they lose out on the mechanical royalties they would get from selling albums and then with the shift from terrestrial radio to streaming, the amount of money you get is far, far less.
Is that simply an unfortunate consequence or is it intentional?
The labels made these deals so they would get most of the money, and the songwriters who didn’t have any political power in the whole negotiation were the ones who basically got shafted. So the paradox is that songwriters are incredibly essential to the process, yet treated like they’re not really worth paying. I don’t know how that’s going to end up but if the songwriters can’t afford to write songs, the whole enterprise is going to fall apart.
When you spent time with producers like Max Martin and Dr Luke, were they aware of the disparity between male and female roles?
They certainly acted like they were when I asked about it. But then the Kesha stuff went down after I had my time with Dr Luke and there was no follow up about that. A lot of it’s just about money. The music business is not like many other creative businesses in that there are very few standard practices or ethical standards.The movie business, the book business, and the TV business, all have pretty well established guidelines of how to behave when creating a movie, television project, or book. Those things just don’t exist in the music business. It’s all about power and hustle. The only ethic that exists is: take what you can.
Why it’s like that has to do with the fact it historically grew out of an organised crime rip off of black artists who didn’t understand the value of their publishing and had their copyrights taken off them for very little. This ended up enriching all these white guys and it’s become a haunted graveyard that the whole business is built on. When push comes to shove, it tends to revert to this very primal “I’ll screw you before you can screw me” attitude.
Has the rise of Soundcloud, streaming services and readily-available production technology changed the distribution of power at all?
The answer to that is very strange. All of these trends would seem to be democratizing the industry, but what’s actually happened is that the major labels have reacted to this by trying to create a system that only the major labels will be able to control. Look at the rise and promotion of all these ‘super producers’ – it’s guys that only major labels can afford to hire. It’s as despotic as it could be. And in terms of how the songs make their way into the world, one thing the labels still have a lot of control over is terrestrial radio, particularly the Top 40 pop stations. So they focus their resources on the kind of stuff only they can do.
You mentioned in your book that the tech industry could be a major player in rebalancing the rules in the music industry. How so?
The tech industry and the music industry are at war right now. The tech world has completely different values, so much more transparent. It deals in data: you can look at it and say, “This person deserves this much money and this person deserves this much money.” It all makes rational sense. But in the music industry, the major label's system of accounting is as non-transparent as it could possibly be. Almost no one gets to see their royalty statements and no one could really understand them without a team of lawyers. They’re desperately fighting to hang on to that opaqueness, because it makes it possible to skim money off the top and get money that doesn’t get distributed to the artist. That’s the war of the worlds that’s going to be fought out over the next 20 years. I think the tech industry will prevail, because it’s hard to sweep data under the rug, but the music industry has done a great job of fighting it so far.
What do you think people want from their pop music now?
In the book there’s a quote where someone says, “It’s really about love and partying.” People kind of like to hear what has come before in pop and they don’t always look to it to express anything more than that, but I think that’s changing now. As all music seems to be merging, genre-wise, pop seems to be growing up a bit and talking about more adult subjects. What you really pick up in the music industry is there is a great deal of fear. No one really knows why it works. They get credit for success but deep down no one has a clue why a particular song has taken off. So I think the natural impulse has been to do the same thing again and again and that has been a big reason why mainstream pop has previously stayed the same.
Obviously the radio has a massive influence on American pop music. Do you think that’s the same in Britain?
You guys have a completely different and partly state-funded set up. I don’t think you get the same level of purely commercially-driven music as we do. If you spend an hour in a car in the USA, you’re gonna hear the same 5 or 6 songs repeated about 3 or 4 times in the course of an hour. It’s a relentless assault of the top 10 songs, and the playlist just seems to become shorter and shorter with a higher number of repetitions.
One of the themes in the book is that songwriters and producers are starting to create songs for this repetitive playlist, so it doesn’t matter if you like it on the first listen because you will like it on the fifth listen when the hook has embedded in your brain. But it isn't necesarily working. In the American charts, the top 5 positions very recently was four Canadians and two Brits – we have this very commercially driven system but many of the top artists we’re listening to are not actually American. I think this tells you that you still need that creativity and thinking outside of the box that you can only get in a less commercial environment like Britain or Canada. It sounds fresher or more authentic.
There's an increasing pressure for our popstars to be more politicized now. Do you think that worries their labels?
Obviously people like Nicki Minaj, who I think is great, are more willing to speak out when they spot things like racism or economic inequality. But with someone like Katy Perry—with the image of Katy Perry that has been constructed for her—it's hard to address these issues because her All-American girl persona would be damaged and less pop-friendly. Rihanna is an interesting case in point, though. She probably could speak out more without damaging her image but she doesn’t and I don’t know whether that’s because she doesn’t want to get involved in politics or what. I think her stature would be enhanced if she spoke on more of the topics Nicki Minaj does, but I don’t know whether it’s the people around her or what but it would be nice to hear more from her.
So what’s going to happen next?
At the bottom of everything in the book, we’re talking about power. A lot of power is still concentrated in the hands of a few people but at the same time you’ve got these technological changes that seem to be beginning to erode that power. A lot of that depends on whether the streaming services are going to replace the money lost by file sharing; right now it doesn’t seem like it’s filling the gap. Once we see how that pans out, then maybe we’ll see the big moves made and real change. But right now it seems like everyone is just hanging onto to what they have and hoping it doesn’t go away.
One last question: who is your favorite popstar right now?
I find myself going back to Rihanna again and again. But also Fetty Wap – people think it’s too far out there but that guy is a popstar. And he’s a real artist. Of the top 10 US songs in 2015, only "Trap Queen" was written by the artist alone. No co-writes. Only Fetty Wap is a real singer-songwriter in the old school terms. I look to him and the people he’s inspired as the real interesting stuff in pop right now.
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John Seabrook’s ‘The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory’ is out now.