Thoughts on "The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory"

This timely and interesting book by author John Seabrook provides an often searing look at the high-end of celebrity pop music. All of those number 1 hits you hear on the radio are manufactured by one of several giant music conglomerates, and our dear celebrity pop artists are mere afterthoughts chosen for their unseemly desire for fame meshed with their physical beauty. Though it focuses on the brilliance of the handful of producers who create the vast majority of pop hits the book is truly about the power of large corporations in modern America. The promise of the internet to free entrepreneurs from corporate structures and to cut out middle men has proven to be only half true. What we can now see is that very few break into wealth, popularity, or, more broadly, success without the aid of some large corporation or other institutions that have existed before the creation of the Internet.

The entire wealth generated by the music industry is dependent on the handful of pop hits created by a handful of producers. These producers hand off their songs to interchangeable artists who are then branded and promoted, and then their songs are promoted in a form of collusion between the giant music corporations and the handful of gigantic radio corporations. The hits themselves are an example of the engineering of consumer products to best please the reward pathways of the brain. As in fast food manufacture, where food is laced with just the right combination of salt, fat and sugar to stimulate an addictive release of dopamine, the producers have stumbled upon the right melodies and harmonies and release of tension to create a rewarding “bliss point.”

It is the same in almost every major industry: from music, pharmaceuticals, and food to television, video games and your favorite social media apps. The music is forced on us in one other way that is specific to enormous corporations: you are bludgeoned with it relentlessly until you begin to enjoy it because of the familiarity with it, another psychological quirk that has been leveraged….

The problem with all of this is the fact that the reason corporations are so successful at creating and managing consumer products while masking the naked capitalism involved is because they are the only institutions with the resources to create, market, and make profitable these products, which are sold in a fundamentally dishonest way. I don’t think anything can truly be done to change the situation but the facts leave me feeling that we live in a controlled and sanitized reality, that doesn’t actually match the world. Perhaps the great sin of scientific progress has been to make the world fundamentally inauthentic, and maybe we need to find an antidote for that for our psychological well-being.

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