A pop star is the voice of a number-one single, but they're rarely the only brain behind a smash hit. Making a song is a team sport: a collaboration of wits, talent, and beats brought together by writers and producers. Katy Perry may be a household name, but her success is due to the contributions of a lot of different people.
A hit song is made in the studio. The producers create the chord progressions, master the riffs, and add in the beats and instrumental sounds. A writer, who is often able to sing, works on the lyrics on top of the sounds already created by the producers. The group then workshops the words into the classic pop song structure (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge) before sending the demo recording around to artists they think the song would work for.
To understand trends in popular music, we need to know the people behind its production. Here are a few of the people behind the Top 40's biggest names:
Jeff Bhasker: The Slow-Jam Master
Biggest hits: "We Are Young" by Fun., "Girl on Fire" by Alicia Keys, and "Run This Town" by Jay-Z
Jeff Bhasker is a songwriter, keyboardist, and producer. That's him in the scarf on the left. Bhasker moved to Los Angeles in 2005 and ended up in a cover band with Bruno Mars. Through LA artist circles, Bhasker became friends with Kanye West, and ended up working as substitute keyboardist and later musical director for Kanye's Glow In the Dark Tour. In just a few years, Bhasker emerged from a cover band member in LA dive bars to producing Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire."
Bhasker's songs, more than other major producers, dominate the popular slow jam. Think Beyoncé's "I Care," Taylor Swift's "The Lucky One", and Fun.'s "We Are Young." Bhasker brings the rhythm and groove of hip-hop into the catchy riffs of pop. As he told GQ, "In the hip-hop genre, you can get away with it: you turn the mic on, the rapper raps. Big deal. But to get an Adele-like vocal performance out of someone or to write a great song or capture multi-layers and levels of music, it's an entire tradition of producing that goes back 75 years."
Bhasker won the Grammy Award for best Rap Song in 2012 for his work on "Run This Town" by Jay-Z and featuring Rihanna and Kanye West.
Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco: The Pop-Prince Dynasty
Biggest hits: "Teenage Dream" by Katy Perry, "...Oops I did it Again" by Britney Spears, and "Diamonds" by Rihanna.
When it comes to pop princesses, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Benny Blanco have staked their claim to the throne. They work with the same artists, sometimes even together, and are known for creating songs that wedge themselves into your subconscious on repeat so that you wake up singing them in your head for weeks. I'm looking at you, "Teenage Dream." These three men have each taken their turn in the spotlight of pop-princess hits, making them a production legacy that spans decades.
Martin was the pop music producer of the early 2000s. He sealed his spot among the Top Forty gods with hits like The Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" and Britney Spears' "...Oops I did it again." Recently, Martin was the brain behind Taylor Swift's Red with songs like "We are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "22." Martin's ability to pick out a pop single and spread it like wildfire is unmatched except maybe by his protégé, Dr. Luke.
Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald
Dr. Luke spent 10 years as a Saturday Night Live guitarist before he was pulled to fame by Max Martin for Kelly Clarkson's 2004 hit "Since U Been Gone." Dr. Luke continued his success with Max Martin by quickly co-writing and producing Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend," and Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." In October 2013, Dr. Luke had two number 1 songs on back-to-back weeks: Katy Perry's "Roar" and Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball."
Unlike in the hip-hop community where producers work almost exclusively with pre-recorded sounds, Dr. Luke is known for working with both live instruments and pre-recorded samples. Though the album sales industry has collapsed around him, Dr. Luke has continued to churn out hits. It is a very careful balance, he told The New Yorker, of "the right artist with the right song at the right time."
Benny Blanco is the next in line for the pop-prince crown. At only 25, Blanco has already produced dozens of major hits. "I just want to sound different than everyone else," he said. "I don't care if it sounds bad. I just want people to be like, ‘Yo, that dude Benny was different.' Even if it sounds awful, at least they can't say, ‘Oh well, I've heard that before.'" Blanco told the New York Times.
Blanco still creates his hits with real instruments like Dr. Luke, and has already built a resumé of catchy pop songs both on his own and co-produced. Blanco is the man behind hits like Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" and "Payphone," Rihanna's "Diamonds," and Ke$ha's "Blow."
Ryan Tedder: The Soul-Pop Master
Biggest hits: "Rumour Has It" by Adele, "I Was Here" and "XO" by Beyoncé.
Ryan Tedder is the front man of rock group OneRepublic, but he's also a producer. His sound, as described to Billboard, is a mix of "American gospel rock meets anything British." The artists he works with are known for just that. Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, and Justin Timberlake all turn to Ryan Tedder when they want a hit with a little bit of soul.
Tedder might be one of the most profitable producers in the game. It is estimated that he made $2.5 million dollars in 2013 alone off of hits like Adele's "Rumour Has It" and Beyoncé's "XO."
Ester Dean: The Writing Machine
Biggest hits: "Firework" by Katy Perry, "Rude Boy" and "S&M" by Rihanna
Ester Dean isn't a producer; she's the god of addicting catchy lyrics. Dean is a top writer in the industry who often provides the voice for the demos sent to artists, but she also creates the lyrics that brand a song as #1. It was Dean who wrote "Come, on rude boy boy, can you get it up? Come on rude boy, boy is you big enough" for Rihanna's "Rude Boy" and "na-na-na-na Come on!" for "S&M."
"I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it's words but most time it's not" Dean told The New Yorker, "And I just see when I get this little chill... and then I'm like 'Yeah, that's the hook.'" Dean also released her own single "Drop it Low" in 2009, but she's much better known for writing lyrics for Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Ciara, Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Beyoncé.
Stargate: The Norwegian Hit-Makers
Biggest hits: "So Sick" by Ne-Yo, "Only Girl in the World by Rihanna, and "Irreplaceable" by Beyoncé.
Stargate is a Norwegian production company that creates about 80 demos each year. Twenty-five end up on records. Made up of Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, Stargate enjoyed some moderate success in the late 90s before hitting a rut. Unsatisfied, they picked up their studios, moved them to New York, and ended up producing Ne-Yo's "So Sick" in 2005. It reached number one on the Billboard charts worldwide.
"I got hooked on American culture from movies," Eriksen told The New Yorker, and Stargate's style certainly reflects that. While Max Martin and the Pop-princes were developing the bubble-gum pop of Britney Spears, Stargate followed the roots of 1980s R&B. Think Prince circa "Purple Rain." Or just listen to "A Place With No Name," Stargate's contribution to Michael Jackson's new posthumous album Xscape. Stargate carried these R&B grooves into their new music as well. Just listen to their 2006 production of Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable."
The Cataracs: The Up-and-Comers
Biggest hits: "Partition" by Beyoncé, "Slow Down" by Selena Gomez, and "Like a G6" by Far East Movement
The Cataracs are the new kids on the block. Originally the duo was composed of Niles "Cyranizzy" Hollowell-Dhar and David "Campa" Benjamin Singer-Vine. After a couple of hits as musicians and being featured on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Cataracs shifted gears to become producers. They discovered Dev, and soon after met Top 40 success by producing "Like a G6" by Far East Movement.
In 2012, David left the group, leaving just Niles to carry The Cataracs. Since then though, the small indie-pop production company has worked with several industry titans from Robin Thicke to Enrique Iglesias. On Beyoncé's new album Beyoncé, The Cataracts produced "Partition. " At the 2:43 mark of Selena Gomez's song "Slow Down," a voice says "It's, it's, it's the Cataracts," adding the new generation's stamp of approval. The Cataracs may be the production company to watch.