The Song Machine
March 27, 2012 1:09 PM   Subscribe

"At Roc the Mic, Stargate carries on a glorious and disappearing New York tradition that stretches back to the Brill Building days of the late fifties and early sixties, when songwriting teams such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry cranked out hits for the top pop acts of the day; and further back still, to the nineteen-tens and twenties, when the Broadway-to-Sixth Avenue reach of West Twenty-eighth Street, known as Tin Pan Alley, for the sound of pianos coming from the upper floors, was the center of the music-publishing industry. With their managers, Blacksmith and Danny D., orchestrating demand, Stargate has become one of the very few writer-producers whom labels approach when they absolutely must have a hit single, or a “bullet,” as Hermansen calls it, to market an album with." The New Yorker - The hitmakers behind Rihanna
posted by beisny (31 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds

Is the writer of this 80 years old?
posted by modernserf at 1:12 PM on March 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


The hitmakers behind Rihanna
posted by Fizz at 1:13 PM on March 27, 2012


Both are tall and skinny ectomorphs

...
posted by nathancaswell at 1:14 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Further evidence: The song is neither clever nor subtle—we are a long way from Cole Porter here
posted by modernserf at 1:15 PM on March 27, 2012


Oh Mr. Seabrook, you had me at "taupe-colored felt"

Also, re: the synth remark. I think he is being utterly daft and preciously pedantic all at once. See back in his day (Princeton class of '81, represent), synthesizers were decidedly NOT computers, you know, they were like actual keyboards and stuff, not just plugins on a MacBook Pro. So, yeah.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:23 PM on March 27, 2012


Is the writer of this 80 years old?

He's probably just trying to put into as simple terms as he can the concept that the audience least wants to accept: That every single song you hear on the radio was performed almost entirely (including the vocals in many cases) by someone other than who gets any of the credit for it, and that when you read or hear that some new brilliant singer or songwriter or whatever has emerged with some fantastic back story, it's all a lie - every time.
posted by The World Famous at 1:25 PM on March 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


In fairness, most Tin Pan Alley songs weren't especially clever or subtle. Cole Porter was a bit of an outlier.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:26 PM on March 27, 2012


Don't forget Neil Diamond. A pile of those iconic stars from the late 70s were songwriters who saw how recording industry was changing to focus more on the singer-songwriter, and away from the ensemble group.
posted by clvrmnky at 1:29 PM on March 27, 2012


The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”
Who are these people maddeningly changing their radio every seven seconds?
posted by deathpanels at 1:29 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gimme a C! A bouncy C!
posted by not_on_display at 1:29 PM on March 27, 2012


Metafilter: thump thooka whompa whomp pish pish pish thumpaty wompah pah pah pah.
-or-
Metafiter: na-na-na and ba-ba-ba
posted by modernserf at 1:30 PM on March 27, 2012


Sometimes producers send out tracks to more than one top-line writer, which can cause problems. In 2009, both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson had hits (Beyoncé’s “Halo,” which charted in April, and Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which charted in August) that were created from the same track, by Ryan Tedder. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyoncé shared a credit with Evan Bogart. Tedder had neglected to tell the artists that he was double-dipping, and when Clarkson heard “Halo” and realized what had happened she tried to stop “Already Gone” from being released as a single, because she feared the public would think she had copied Beyoncé’s hit. But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; “Already Gone” became just as big a hit.
Why is it that they left the mashup to an internet unknown? It's not a great mash-up, but come on! Cross-over potential?

And now it strikes me as odd that riddims are unique to reggae. For an example of riddim re-use: Benny Hill Riddim. Seriously, it's a thing.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:30 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you were wondering if this had been made into a science-fiction novel yet, you're too late.
posted by deathpanels at 1:30 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well. Now I know who to blame.
posted by Splunge at 1:33 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anything that can be done on an assembly line in the US can be done in Shenzhen, for a lot less.
posted by tommasz at 1:34 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


deathpanels: If you were wondering if this had been made into a science-fiction novel yet, you're too late.

Tangentally, let me recommend Zoo City, which isn't wholly about engineering music, but that's a interesting element in the "weird noir, set in contemporary Johannesburg, featuring an ex-junkie protagonist named Zinzi December and her magic sloth." (encapsulation quote from DJ/ rupture)
posted by filthy light thief at 1:35 PM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


deathpanels: Who are these people maddeningly changing their radio every seven seconds?

At home, my music collection is ever-expanding. At work, I have slightly more limited universe of streaming media available. But with the radio? 20 or 30 stations that can be boiled down to 5 or 6 categories. And it's a good chance half of them are playing ads. Listening to radio is like reading in a waiting room -- it's someone else's media collection, and I have to dig around to find something that I vaguely like. I might get lucky and hit a string of songs that fit my mood, but then there's another ad, and I'm off to skip through all the channels again.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:40 PM on March 27, 2012


I don't listen to the radio, but I actually quite a lot of modern pop because it's a modernized mass-market extrapolation of the stuff I grew up listening to: Pet Shop Boys, Kraftwerk, New Order, etc. My favorite piece in the article is this:
Their second attempt was more promising. Dean carried her iced coffee into the recording booth, which adjoined the control room. She was dimly visible through the soundproofed glass window, bathed in greenish light. She took out her BlackBerry, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she had copied from magazines and television programs. She showed me a few: “life in the fast lane,” “crying shame,” “high and mighty,” “mirrors don’t lie,” “don’t let them see you cry.” Some phrases were categorized under headings like “Sex and the City,” “Interjections,” and “British Slang.”
I find the cut-and-paste asthetic applied to the songwriting here to be fascinating.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 1:48 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


tommasz: Anything that can be done on an assembly line in the US can be done in Shenzhen, for a lot less.

If this were only an assembly line production. From the article:
A relatively small number of producers and top-liners create a disproportionately large share of contemporary hits, which may explain why so many of them sound similar.
This isn't assembly line by drones, it's collaboration by people with lucky and/or honed skills.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:50 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


This isn't assembly line by drones, it's collaboration by people with lucky and/or honed skills.

Yeah I was prepared to find this depressing but it was actually fascinating. Just cause they have their process figured-the-fuck-out doesn't mean it's not creative.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:53 PM on March 27, 2012


i normally hate pop music, but i like, nay love, almost every one of Rihanna's songs. they have great beats and make me want to dance. so this music machine is working pretty well i guess.
posted by sio42 at 2:05 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is the writer of this 80 years old?

A lot of the readership of The New Yorker is, actually. I wish they had run this article while my dad was alive, because I would have loved to hear his comparisons with the Brill Building era.

Ester Dean sounds like a really interesting person. I would love to see a documentary about her and other people who do this kind of work!
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:08 PM on March 27, 2012


This article is fascinating. I love journalism about people who are the absolute best at the weird thing they do.

Eriksen said, “A lot of writers want to be artists. Most of them can sing, and a lot of them can sing really well. But, to be an artist, that’s another story. To be able to perform, to be the person everyone looks at when you walk into the room, with all the publicity and touring, and then to be able to get that sound on the record—that’s not easy. You can be a great singer, but when you hear the record it’s missing something.”

What is that? I asked.

Eriksen thought for a while. “It’s a fat sound,” he said, “and there’s a sparkle around the edges of the words.”

posted by thehmsbeagle at 2:08 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


It’s a fat sound,” he said, “and there’s a sparkle around the edges of the words.

I use a plugin for that.
posted by dubold at 2:18 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


This reminds me of that Coupland line about songs about robots, written by cash registers—only less appealing.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:27 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


See Also How Much Does It Cost To Make A Hit Song?
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 2:35 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought this would be an expose of the government's secret Stargate project but apparently General O'Neil has again managed to keep it covered up.
posted by Ber at 3:17 PM on March 27, 2012


Who are these people maddeningly changing their radio every seven seconds?

My favorite radio station in the car is WSCN (otherwise known as the Scan button). On infinite repeat.
It pauses for roughly 5 seconds, so a song has even less time to catch my ear than noted in the article.

(Maddeningly, my new car only cycles once before stopping. Damn you, VW!)
posted by madajb at 3:27 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


A lot of the readership of The New Yorker is, actually.

Average age of the New Yorker readership is apparently 47 years. I can kind of understand how someone in their 50s or 60s might not have paid any attention to pop music in some decades and might still sort of vaguely imagine that there were musicians with musical instruments involved.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:35 PM on March 27, 2012


I mentioned this system in all the DJ earworm end-of-year mash up threads. He can make the songs sound so seamless because it's only a few producers making all the songs that he's mixing.

Producers are the real artists in almost all dance music and pop music.

It's gotten to the point now, btw, that some producers in dance music are famous enough that the can pay other producers to make stuff under their name. I've had multiple friends that produce get asked to ghost write songs for more famous producers for cash but no credit.
posted by empath at 3:47 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Trying to read this article was much like trying to read about dynastic succession in imperial China: I kept trying to find something that would interest me enough to focus on the people and topics but could not.
posted by mwhybark at 4:48 PM on March 27, 2012


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