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Adele Owned Last Week, but a Guy You've Never Heard Of Owns Pop Music. Here's How He Did It.

You don't know Max Martin, but he knows what you like to listen to. John Seabrook, the author the "The Song Machine," explains.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Adele is unlike every other pop star because she sells albums — more albums in a week than anyone, ever*.

But she is also unlike other pop stars because she doesn’t sound like every other pop star. Since the late 1990s, most of them have employed the same group of producers to create their hits, using assembly-line techniques and technology.

New Yorker writer John Seabrook’s new book “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory” profiles the men (they are mostly men, and many of them are from Sweden) behind the music, most significantly Max Martin, who has been making hits for everyone from Britney Spears to Katy Perry to The Weeknd. Adele is this month’s hit (and we’ll be hearing her music for a long time) but Martin made this year’s soundtrack — he’s the man behind Taylor Swift’s 1989 — and he and his colleagues have run pop music for an extraordinarily long time.

Want proof? No problem. This Max Martin hits sampler takes less than 90 seconds and spans a couple decades. And a future version of it might include a song from … Adele, who ended up working with Martin on her new album, too.

I talked to Seabrook recently about Martin and the long surge of producer-driven pop music, which started up as the CD business was at its peak, kept going through the advent of iTunes and now thrives in the YouTube/Spotify era.

Peter Kafka: Is this a story about technology or about culture?

John Seabrook: It’s really an interesting story about the way that technology can shape culture, without even setting about to do it. It’s also interesting that the [song-producing] technology was [initially] not used by the mainstream songwriting people, but it sort of came from the margins — from hip-hop people, that didn’t have access to the studios.

The way that hip-hop music was made was with a producer and a rapper, and the producer was kind of in charge. And that whole relationship and system become much more conducive to creating large numbers of pop songs than the old method — the lyrics-and-two-guys-sitting-at-a-piano method, which could only produce a certain number of songs, even if you were on fire.

But if you could produce 30 tracks as a producer, and send them out to 30 different melody writers, topline writers, hook writers, you can have 30 songs pretty easily.

As you note in your book, there have been professional teams — like the ones at Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, Motown, etc. — creating songs meant to be performed by other people for a long time. What’s different this time?

One difference is that a lot of it came from Sweden, and from Max Martin in particular. He’s this genius figure that towers over the last 20 years. He’s just a few songs behind Lennon and McCartney on the all-time list [of #1 Billboard hits] and yet hardly anyone outside of the music business knows his name. The length of time, and that the influence of a few Swedes has spread throughout the whole western songwriting industry, is very significant.

Max Martin reached his first peak with Britney, Backstreet Boys and *Nsync at the peak of the CD era. The business changed radically, but he’s still successful. Is there something about the way people are buying or not buying music that helps him?

I think iTunes, and the breaking up of the album, was a huge factor. Because once you break up the album, then you have people evaluating music not for the artistic, album-length statements, but single by single, and I think that’s a much more hit-based approach. So when you have guys that don’t write songs except to be hits — they don’t write albums, they don’t care, they’re not interested in album-length statements, which is what Max Martin and the Swedes are like — I think it sort of plays into their hands.

When music — and media in general — moved to the Internet, the conventional wisdom was that we were all going to find our own niches and everything was going to be atomized. Instead it looks like culture is more condensed — at least in music, more of us listen to the same things. What happened?

A couple things happened that were hard to predict. One was that social media made it more possible than ever to let your friends know what you were listening to. It just sort of bound people together, and songs have become part of that social glue.

But I also think that other factors took place. Like tours. It’s kind of ironic — hits make a huge difference in terms of selling the tours, selling the tickets. Once tours became as important as they are today, the hits also went with it.

The third thing is the discovery problem — no one has figured out what to listen to next, or how to help you figure it out. Apple hasn’t done it. Spotify hasn’t done it. When you don’t know what to listen to next, I think you sort of fall back on the hits — the Top 40. Because at least someone is making up their mind for you.

* Or at least since 1991, when Nielsen started tracking this stuff.

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