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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2015 John Seabrook. Recorded by arrangement with W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (P)2015 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books

What the critics say

"This is a fascinating tale about an amazing phenomenon: how hits get made. John Seabrook combines a love of music and an appreciation for personalities to take us on a starry journey from Stockholm and London to New York and Orlando showing how creativity gets discovered, polished, and packaged. His book is a triumph of great writing and reporting, and the lessons reverberate far beyond the world of music." (Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators and Steve Jobs)
"Beneath the surface of today's pop music lies an industrial process as rigorous and bizarre as the one perfected by McDonald's. Seabrook shows what it takes to make a hit in a book that's beautifully written, revelatory, funny, and full of almost unbelievable details." (Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Command and Control)
"Anyone who wants to understand how the clash of cultures has shaped what we listen to should read this important book. John Seabrook has a marvelous ear for language - and perfect pitch when it comes to music journalism." (Bob Spitz, author of The Beatles: The Biography)

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  • Overall
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  • tru britty
  • 2015-10-08

Want your music canned or in a box?

This is a lively history of pop music since 1989. If you think Katy Perry is great or you hate the Backstreet Boys, you will find out why in this book.

Or so the featured music producers like Denniz PoP and Max Martin would like you to think. This is a story about that segment of pop music where the artist is usually a pretty girl or boy whose sound and look are a creation of the producer and his team.

This is a story about songwriting simplified to a formula, where words are units of melody and melody is married to the beat.

The writer looks at sound factories in Sweden, America and Korea. He follows the careers of the major Svengali producers and the acts whose hits they have manufactured, including Kelly Clarkson (who fought against the constraints), Rihanna, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry and a more recent Taylor Swift.

Spotify, the streaming music company, also gets a chapter.

You might become cynical about the music industry after this. You might get inspiration for your Ableton compositions. You might run out to see a real loose garage band or singer-songwriter just to prove to yourself that other kinds of music are out there.

But you won't look at today's music hits the same after reading this book.

28 people found this helpful

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  • Shannon
  • 2015-11-04

Insightful

The author did an amazing job of creating a timeline of music taste-makers over the past 2 decades. As a songwriter myself, it was inspiring to get a glimpse into the studio sessions of Max Martin, Ester Dean and Stargate, to name a few. I would recommend this book to anyone who aspires to be in the business of making music or anyone who is just curious about how one man, Max Martin, has continued to lead the industry in production and songwriting for TWO decades.

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  • Press8 Telecom
  • 2015-10-20

Awesome.

Best book on the music indistry ever. It was so interesting to hear how stars are made and I will probably even reread this future.

7 people found this helpful

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  • GOODEaden
  • 2017-10-27

Wow: All I've Wanted to Know

As an aspiring songwriter/producer I've always wanted to know the beginnings of a variety of careers of artists, songwriter and producers that I love. Seabrook goes deep and gives me all I think I need for a good couple of years. A great listen. This Dion guy reads really well and I like his animated style.

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  • Carson
  • 2017-10-21

New Insights Into My Career

Looking at pop music production/writing from the perspectives of the best in the world has really allowed me to feel the emotions that world brings. Thanks for writing this! I’m still on track but have much more insight about what it really means to make radio hits.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Arash
  • 2017-10-18

Pretty good insight into the music game.

As someone who creates, I head about this book via a recommendation from another music creator. Nice insight into people's processes and the struggles that go into making hits!

My only beef is that he mispronunces some names. The other voices were cool-it added some variety to the story.

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  • M.
  • 2016-07-11

Rare Combo of Fun, Fascinating & Elucidating

Would you consider the audio edition of Song Machine to be better than the print version?

Yes and No
Yes: I don't have time to read every book, and this was a well-read book with a coherent narrative that was chronological. So it was a solid listening choice.
No: There is no information from the footnotes or acknowledgements which is particularly key for narrative non-fiction.

What other book might you compare Song Machine to and why?

Gods & Kings (on audible, which I read in print) about fashion. It's an enjoyable read but also academically underpinned in a subject that so often is over "fluffed".

What does Dion Graham bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

Enthusiasm. And--also underrated--tone. Serious when it needs to be, sly or fun when the occasion called for it.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Plot twists--where someone "irrelevant" showed up again as a significant figure.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Dubi
  • 2016-03-08

Interesting Even If You're Not Interested

Excellent examination of how pop hits and pop stars have been manufactured over the past quarter century, an age when digital technology has made it a lot easier to create songs but much harder to sell them.

The book looks at some famous stars -- Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, Katy Perry, et.al. -- as well as some deep cuts into the more anonymous people behind the music -- most astonishingly, quite a few songwriters and producers from Sweden and Norway, in addition to American songwriters and record men, and the Englishmen who launched American Idol. There is also a long section on Kesha and her relationship with Dr. Luke, which was just in the news when a judge ruled on her rape suit against him.

The first thing that struck me about this book is how interesting it was to listen to something I'm almost totally not interested in (except in keeping tabs on what my kids are listening to). On one hand, there is just good writing, good research, and interesting insight. On the other hand, it's like watching a car wreck -- you may be horrified to learn that the record industry is so much more commercial than you thought, but you can't take your eyes (or in this case ears) off it, especially since it is in the process of crashing in spectacular fashion.

There is also the question of authenticity, which could explain why this particular car wreck caught my attention. I'm a lifelong rock fan (and player), and rock is about authenticity, which starts with good musicians writing and recording their own music that we perceive as being honest and real (the new HBO show Vinyl is partially about this subject). Pop music is about calculating (scientifically and mathematically, these days) what will sell in large numbers, with almost no attention paid to the artistic merits of the music.

To prove the point without resorting to my own personal favorites, just look at two huge pop stars conspicuous by their absence in this story (beyond a handful of inconsequential name drops) -- Lady Gaga and Beyonce. And that is because those two have been in control of their own creative processes from the start, contrary to all of the other canned pop stars we meet in this book and the back-room schemers who put them in those cans (one section is about Kelly Clarkson trying to break the mold and become her own authentic artist).

But abstracting from the specific content of the book, there is this: I (and I'm certain most if not all of you) usually listen to non-fiction subjects we are interested in. I always caveat my reviews of non-fiction titles by noting my interest level. This book proves to me that a good book is good, no matter how your personal interest figures in. You don't always have to be a choir in search of a preacher -- sometimes it pays to test out new waters (if I may mix my metaphors).

2 people found this helpful

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  • Elaine
  • 2016-01-10

Entertaining & enlightening

An entertaining and enlightening look at the making of popular music. One can hardly call it "composing", rather picking and choosing pre-fabricated tracks, auto-tuning a singer's voice and synthesizing random sounds. Oh, yeah, and a woman standing in a booth reading words from her phone to help write the lyrics.

The narrator does a nice job of reading the text, with an occasional foray almost singing the lyrics.

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  • B
  • 2016-01-07

Engaging and packed full of fun facts!

Dion Graham reads this perfectly, with just enough change in his voice to give character to the many personalities in the book.
I learned a lot about the pop songs that have shaped my generation and had fun doing it!

5 people found this helpful