/ Design, Processes

Quantity breeds quality in the hit song industry

The continuous stream of new pop music and artists makes it feel as if there’s some magical orchestra behind all of it. As music fans and pop consumers, we are usually pretty clueless as what kind of creative process goes into making music. Our expectations of making music usually come from ideas about isolated genius music makers such as Michael Jackson or Kanye West.

This is far from the truth. The modern way of creating hit music is far from artistic despair for inspiration. Instead, global hit factories keep international Top40 radio stations crowded by following a systematic production process which you might even call hit song engineering. This is how John Seabrook describes modern music business in his book The Song Machine, published in 2015. The book reached me a bit late but made a huge impression nevertheless.

The way Seabrook describes the hit making process unavoidably reminds me of the classic engineering process. For background, I have to add that I did research for my Master’s thesis on how engineers split creative design problems into smaller, more manageable chunks in a process called decomposition. Based on this, I can’t help but to notice the similarities to the process of producing music. The work is split into smaller pieces and to more “engineers” than any person listening to a contemporary hit can fathom. And when I say engineers, I’m not referring to sound engineers, but writers and producers of many kinds that are required in the process.

HIStory of popular music production models

Most folks who’ve ever been into music probably are aware of the traditional model of music creation. In the adored singer/songwriter model, the blessed individual takes their precious time with an instrument, sometimes after considerable waiting for inspiration to hit them. Under divine inspiration, they compose music right from their soul. While this model still probably describes how scores of aspiring indie musicians work, the process of producing commercial the music people want to consume started around the same time when John Ford started his assembly line, in the late 19th century.  In the US, a music production force is known as the Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley was a machine strongly identified with a physical location. Contemporary song machines lack a clear focus.

Tin Pan Alley was responsible for much popular, hit music produced in the US until Second World War. Their key contribution was to introduce a melody-and-lyrics approach to music production. According to Seabrook, this meant that “one writer sits at the piano, trying chords and singing possible melodies, wherein the other sketches the story and the rhymes.” The work had thus been divided between two distinct professionals. This was adequate for the early 20th century, but the later part of the century brought forth a new breed of song creation.

The modern song machine

In a story that interestingly has many acts in Sweden, Seabrook explains the history of contemporary music and the rise of a totally new process. This prevalent method of 21st-century song writing is called track-and-hook. This production model calls for much finer grained musical specialization and usually involves several people doing the same thing.

The basis for the song comes from the beats, chord progression, and the instrumentation (n.b. which can be freely copied from other songs, because the copyright doesn’t apply to them). They are created by producers or track makers. On top of this foundation, writer/topliner creates melodies and lyrics. Thus single song takes input from number of specialists who focus on verse, hooks, bridges, and lyrics – all of which must eventually come together seamlessly on the Pro Tools software of the mysterious star producer.

Protools workstation example: Pro Tools workflow leaves old mixing tables gathering dust and focuses music magicians work to computer workstations.

Some producers identify even more responsibles for a single song. Dr. Luke describes a roster of “artists, producers, topliners, beatmakers, melody people, vibe people, and just lyric people”. That’s a funky bunch of seven different types of professionals contributing to a single song!

You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge too
-Jay Brow

These specializations are just a part of the total process. To create a single track for a top artist, such as Beyonce, Rihanna, or Justin Bieber, there are possibly hundreds of beats. Producers put together a bunch of backing tracks, and send them out around the world for up to fifty topliners to find the best matching melodies for their beats (or in the US-centric pop world, just around Manhattan). They are not necessarily looking for a single melody, but a few which can be used to construct the overall hit.

The producer is thus the creative director of the process. The fact that computers are used to engineer the final sounds without a need to record any instrument by a session musician further streamlines the process. In fact, Seabrook mentions in an interview that he never saw a real instrument played in any of the studios he visited! The only human handled instrument is the voice of the artist and even that is subject to major tweaking in a digital workbench.

he never saw a real instrument played in any of the studios he visited!

Seabrook describes topliner’s work as fast-paced assembly line duty, in which no single track gets worked on for long. “If inspiration doesn’t strike quickly, move on to the next track and begin a new.” This method is very productive, providing an undisputable evidence for how quantity can breed quality in creative professions.  

It might require twenty tracks to yield one recordable song, but that’s an acceptable percentage

I see three prominent reasons why this production model works. First of all the process of randomly mixing tracks with melody makers provides a great chance for lucky collisions. Second, as Steve Jobs criticized focus groups, as well as described his own thinking, you don’t know if you like it before you see it. The rapid process of hewing out song drafts certainly provides many opportunities to experience what works and what doesn’t. Third, by establishing clear and ambitious goals (say a hundred ideas in a brainstorming hour, twenty new melodies a day), you can’t ruminate on any single failure or success for long. You must keep up the momentum and not waste your time on polishing a turd, as the saying goes.

Spotify playlist full of carefully engineered hit music.

Engineering is not all

Of course, in creative industries, there’s never a single formula of success. We Finns can still evoke a trickle of pleasure by recalling how Finnish monster metal act Lordi did the impossible and won over the hearts of European pop music fans in 2007 with Hard Rock Hallelujah. This track definitely not followed any of the winning formulas that Swedish or Norwegian pop wizards had successfully applied in the competition over years (not only in their national entries). That is also why producers can quickly fade out of fashion. Regardless of the domain, consumers of creative produce, art, music, applications or physical gadgets, get tired quickly.

That is why quantity and quick delivery always wins. Not the best possible, but great right now. You may ask, does this have anything to do with my professional domain? I’m not making tunes! I think it does.

But for one, you need to acknowledge where you are in your innovation process. Have you already accumulated enough ideas, but can’t validate or evaluate them appropriately? Maybe you’re just afraid to commit to any existing idea. Or maybe you truly lack the idea to push forward.

People coming from traditional business background may consider songwriters lucky, as they need not to carry the weight of the legacy infrastructure. But they are constrained by the artist brand. Even thou the constraints are radically different from traditional product development and service design, the creative challenge of filling the blank pages is a notable one.


One more thing. You may ask if this practice is so common, why haven’t you heard of it? Simply because the record industry wants to keep it behind the scenes. They want you to celebrate only the artists. Seabrook writes how songwriter Lauren Christy had committed an unforgivable sin of publicly stating authorship of Avril Lavigne‘s songs resulting in what he describes as a professional suicide. Think about this the next time you browse Spotify, the current money making machine of the big record companies. Without a cover sleeve containing credits, this digital simplification is a perfect medium for fabricating an artist image.

Thanks to Ville Vokkolainen for recommending the book!

Text Lassi A Liikkanen, SC5
Featured illustration: Laura Rantonen, SC5