Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Welcome to the $hit factory


I just read a depressing book review. The book is The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook.

I’m tempted to read the book because I’m interested in music, but I’m also tempted to eschew it because I’m interested in art. You get the impression from the review in the NY Review of Books that these two things have become detached.

Sad. They used to be so close.

If you’re my age, you remember when musicians were reasonably autonomous, at least in that, if they got signed by a recording label, they’d get to be themselves and they’d get to do original material. Dylan was Dylan, The Stones were The Stones (I won’t even mention the four moptops!), and Janis was Janis.

Now, the thing that exists first and foremost is the hit record. It’s conceived by an expert hit-maker (the Swede, Max Martin, as featured in this book), and it’s developed by a committee of instrumentalists and lyricists for a top-level singer like Beyoncé to perform. Sometimes the labels find a newcomer to do the hit, thus launching a whole shitload of future hits for that singer.

Talk about formulaic …

I’m afraid if I were serious about music, my potential hit, “Mystery Cake,” would never see the light of day in this environment!

What really scares me is that publishers will take note of this system and find a way to engineer novels to be hits.

What really really scares me is that they already have.

16 comments on “Welcome to the $hit factory

  1. kingmidget
    February 5, 2016

    What I always appreciated about my way back when was that every hard rock group, every metal band, every big hair band … always had a ballad. You couldn’t apparently put an album out of head banging, thrashing guitars and driving drums, unless you also slowed it down for one touching four minute song. And that ballad was always that band’s biggest hit.

    My favorite artists are the ones who write their own songs and sing them with minimal production. The others are just performers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 5, 2016

      That’s an interesting observation. I’ve been hearing Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” a lot lately on Sirius, and it drives home your theory. (Chicks like ballads, could that be it?)

      Seems like when Autotune came into picture is when things really went haywire, because less than stellar singers could be tweaked, i.e., the un-beautiful need not apply. You look at the performers of the ’60s and ’70’s and see a lot of regular-looking guys n’ gals with bad teeth. Not these days …

      • kingmidget
        February 5, 2016

        Yep. It’s much more about the package than actual talent.

  2. The Opening Sentence
    February 5, 2016

    Wasn’t the Motown label built on a ‘hit factory’ process? I remember the 70s when the same production line of pop groups entered the charts with annual regularity, songs usually written by Nicky Chinn or Micky Most (and I’m not making those names up.) You rarely saw the likes of Led Zeppelin on Top of the Pops and yet they were filling Madison Square Garden.

    There’s been a $hit factory in every decade, but the quality acts still persist if a music fan is prepared to go looking for them. And the teeth haven’t necessarily improved either.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 5, 2016

      I think you’re right about that. Motown had quite the machine, and Holland Dozier Holland were the Max Martin of yesteryear. But there does seem to be a qualitative difference to my ear; the Motown sound doesn’t seem manufactured, even if it was. Some artistry in that …

      It’s true that you have to go looking for the good stuff. I always relish finding a new band that presses all my buttons!

      • The Opening Sentence
        February 5, 2016

        Yes, it’s probably unfair to lump Motown in with the factories that came after them. My point was that ‘hit manufacturing’ isn’t a new phenomenon and that there is always great music to be found in other places.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 5, 2016

        I suppose it even goes back to the ’20s, with crooners and Tin Pan Alley!

    • Parlor of Horror
      February 5, 2016

      The difference is back then you had both, the hit machines and the artists that were signed because they had something within themselves that were unique. That will never happen today. Neil Young would never be signed to a label today, nor Zeppelin. The labels don’t want to cultivate an artist or let them do their thing. When Kelly Clarkson wanted to write her own songs and release an album with her own choice of producer and studio, the label let it tank. Even Aerosmith has been part of the $hit machine for the last few decades. However they are occasionally afforded to release an album without the hit maker writers and producers. ‘Honking on Bobo’ is an exceptional blues based rock album but you’ll never hear any of those songs on the radio.

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 5, 2016

        True. Now we do have indie bands, but they can be hard to find through the usual ways — radio, record stores. They can also be very regional. You have to know about them to be able to hear them.

  3. Parlor of Horror
    February 5, 2016

    Yes, Kevin, that was something I was alluding to in previous comments on your posts about the publishing business.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 5, 2016

      So right. It’s not gettin’ any better either …

  4. John W. Howell
    February 5, 2016

    The publishers are way ahead of the game. In 1978 a top selling book was a total factory job.

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2016 by in Music, Publishing and tagged , , .
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