The importance of a live beat

After 11 years of blogging on rock & roll and business—and nine years hosting this site—it's come to this. A cat video.

I'd like to think there's a business lesson here. The value of collaboration? Of following our animal spirits? Of looking for innovative partners in unusual places?

But now that I have your attention...

Following up on my post last week in which I mentioned that much of pop music is the product of computer-generated vamps and beats, I should give some props to John Seabrook and his recent book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. Seabrook exposes the secrets of the electronic "robopop" that a small group of "songwriters" use to create melodic hooks on top of. All of this is then fed to famous singers (like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Katy Perry, or Nicki Minaj) to customize and call their own. The result is "highly processed," "industrial strength" pop, composed by a handful of specialists. And a new business model for cranking out popular music.

This accounts for the similar sound and feel of many Top 40 hits. In fact, in 2009 Beyonce (in "Halo") and Kelly Clarkson (in "Already Gone") used the identical track for their two hits, though with different vocal lines and lyrics.

Yet some of these songs have been SO well crafted and arranged I'd take my hat off to their creators if I wore one. To take an early example: You may not have swooned over the Back Street Boys and their rendition of "I Want It That Way" (unless you were a 12-year-old female at the time), but the tune—despite its lyrical non sequiturs—does have gorgeous melodic hooks and world-class production, thanks in large part to Sweden's ubiquitous writer/producer Max Martin. And if that's also a product of brilliantly designed software, well, so be it.

I remember walking through the streets of Boston on a late September afternoon in 2013, listening to "I Want It That Way" booming and echoing off the brownstones on Beacon Street. Forgetting who recorded the song (which might have biased me against it) I was so enraptured by the celestial sound (and especially the ethereal call-and-response vocals) I thought the very gates of heaven had opened. Then it dawned on me it was the BB Boys, who were playing an outdoor concert on the Esplanade a quarter mile away. I was so grateful for the experience—as were the enraptured 20-something-year-old women gathered on the sidewalk in small groups singing along to every word—I didn't care HOW the song was written. Someone or some thing had composed a hell of a song. And Max Martin—an actual human being, I'm told—pulled the whole thing together.

Yet as an old-skool musician I do confess to some ambivalence about all of this. And the recent passing of Beatles' producer George Martin reminded me of the artistic masterpieces that two songwriters, four musicians, and one producer could generate from nothing.

I guess I still prefer the human-generated stuff—except for the occasional rhythm track produced by a live cat.

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  1. I think the key point here is your remark, "Forgetting who recorded the song.." Exactly. Or who wrote it, arranged it, produced it, did the artwork, wrote the software or fetched the drummer a cup of tea during the sessions. As endlessly fun and fascinating as it is to talk about the people involved, what really matters is the song and the performance. The rest is fluff.

  2. But these folks aren't looking for the random occasional listen on a street corner.

    They're looking for rabid fans.

    Or are we no longer talking about the connection to business? Because, y'know, someone who notices my web design, then tells someone else "Normally I hate the guy, but he got this one site just right" — that's marketing I don't want.

    Help me out here, John. What's the lesson I'm missing here?

  3. It's become the era of the brand-able personality. I read that the relatively obscure studio singers who come up with the great melodic hooks and phrases that are then presented to Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and others are singers who are just as good as -- or better than -- the stars who copy their parts. But the stars are the stars because of personality as much as talent.

  4. I'm still trying to make sense of all this. I wasn’t paying much attention to pop hits for a long time and didn’t realize how much music is coming from a few folks who have cracked the code on creating ear-friendly melodies (usually on top of hot R&B dance tracks). This obviously results in: (1) lotsa tunes that can worm their way into our frontal cortex; and (2) lotsa sameness. I'm a sucker for good melodic hooks and vamps so even as a rocker I can enjoy some of this high fructose pop. And much of it IS smartly/cleverly put together and I respect the craft of songwriting. But I also love the great melodic rock of the 60s and 70s— the best of which was anything but formulaic. (Think Beatles. Think Steely Dan.) Thus my ambivalence about the current state of things. And my hesitancy to unabashedly endorse the new model.

    1. Your not-quite-disclaimer puts me squarely in your corner. Or brings you to my circle. Or some other geometric progression. Or chord progression.

      I obviously need a drink. And some Steely Dan.

  5. When we talk about, "the new model" and hark back to the sixties and seventies, it rather implies that those years were Year Zero. This, of course, completely ignores the stuff that came before. So if we'd been writing this blog 40 years ago, would we be saying that Tin Pan Alley was the real way to write and all these new songwriter / performers were OK but we couldn't really endorse this new model? Things change. The only question for us as fans is: did I enjoy that performance of that song?

    What matters to us as BizLeconsFromRockaboogiewoogie folks is: do the witers and performers get due reward?

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