Hardcore music fans race to solve the record industry

When he’s choosing your music for you, Carl Chery, 37, is in Culver City, California, sitting at his desk in an office with no signage, trying to decide whether Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (jumpman, jumpman, jumpman) has jumped the shark. Or sometimes he’s at home in his one-bedroom apartment on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, walking around in his living room with new Gucci Mane blasting from a Beats Pill. Or at the gym going for a morning run on the treadmill, thinking about your gym and your treadmill, listening through headphones for changes in tempo and tone: Will this song push you through the pain? Is that one too long on the buildup?

“It’s hard to describe because it’s more of a feeling or instinct,” says Chery of his process. He’s from Queens, New York, which, despite his residence in Los Angeles for the past four years, is obvious when you hear him talk. “It kind of just happens. You sit there and you start moving and just do it.”

For a while we thought we could choose our own music. Remember that? In the wake of the last century we seized the right to take our pick from all of the songs in the world (All of the songs in the world!) and told anyone who didn’t like it exactly where they could go. And when it turned out that was too many songs after all (how many lifetimes are needed for a complete survey of Memphis soul? Or Brazilian funk?), a new category of music services appeared to ease our burden. But these services were flawed, said someone about to make a lot of money, and could only recommend music based on what we were already listening to. Did they even really know what we wanted? Do we not contain multitudes? And so now we have people like Chery.

Since he left XXL magazine to join the music-streaming service Beats Music (now Apple Music) as head of hip-hop and R&B programming in 2012, Chery and around a dozen of his colleagues, working largely behind the scenes, have embarked on a never-ending quest to organize every song in history into concise playlists that you can’t live without. (Taylor Swift used one of Chery’s when she fought her treadmill and lost.) In 2014, when Tim Cook explained Apple’s stunning $3 billion purchase of Beats by repeatedly invoking its “very rare and hard to find” team of music experts, he was talking about these guys. And their efforts since, which have pointed toward curated playlists (specifically, an industrial-scale trove of 14,000 and counting) as the format of the future, have helped turn what was once a humble labor of love for music fans into an increasingly high-stakes contest between some of the richest companies in the world.

How Auto Tune conquered pop music

Sebert, whose label did not respond to a request for an interview, has built a persona as a badass wastoid, who told Rolling Stone that all male visitors to her tour bus had to submit to being photographed with their pants down. Even the bus drivers.

Yet this past November on the Today Show, the 25-year old Sebert looked vulnerable, standing awkwardly in her skimpy purple, gold, and green unitard. She was there to promote her new album, Warrior, which was supposed to reveal the authentic her.

“Was it really important to let your voice to be heard?” asked the host, Savannah Guthrie.

“Absolutely,” Sebert said, gripping the mic nervously in her fingerless black gloves.

“People think they’ve heard the Auto-Tune, they’ve heard the dance hits, but you really have a great voice, too,” said Guthrie, helpfully.

“No, I got, like, bummed out when I heard that,” said Sebert, sadly. “Because I really can sing. It’s one of the few things I can do.”

Warrior starts with a shredding electrical static noise, then comes her voice, sounding like what the Guardian called “a robo squawk devoid of all emotion.”

“That’s pitch correction software for sure,” wrote Drew Waters, Head of Studio Operations at Capitol Records, in an email. “She may be able to sing, but she or the producer chose to put her voice through Auto-Tune or a similar plug-in as an aesthetic choice.”

So much for showing the world the authentic Ke$ha.

Since rising to fame as the weird techno-warble effect in the chorus of Cher’s 1998 song, “Believe,” Auto-Tune has become bitchy shorthand for saying somebody can’t sing. But the diss isn’t fair, because everybody’s using it.

For every T-Pain — the R&B artist who uses Auto-Tune as an over-the-top aesthetic choice — there are 100 artists who are Auto-Tuned in subtler ways. Fix a little backing harmony here, bump a flat note up to diva-worthy heights there: smooth everything over so that it’s perfect. You can even use Auto-Tune live, so an artist can sing totally out of tune in concert and be corrected before their flaws ever reach the ears of an audience. (On season 7 of the UK X-Factor, it was used so excessively on contestants’ auditions that viewers got wise, and protested.)

Indeed, finding out that all the singers we listen to have been Auto-Tuned does feel like someone’s messing with us. As humans, we crave connection, not perfection. But we’re not the ones pulling the levers. What happens when an entire industry decides it’s safer to bet on the robot? Will we start to hate the sound of our own voices?

African American Museum investigates

 

It’s people reflecting real circumstances. Generally, you look at the country being prosperous in the 1980s and things like that. But there’s still class issues, there’s still poverty, there’s still violence, there’s still discrimination, racism. So hip-hop and rap is a community voice; it’s real people speaking about real circumstances of where they lived and showing their social conscience. It’s really speaking for the underrepresented and people who don’t have a voice for themselves.

What happens is that you start to have this message and then the musical elements of it catch wildfire, and it starts feeding into evolving genres. Like the social message coming out of rhythm and blues in the 1960s and 1970s, and soul music and funk and jazz, it coalesces into something new on its own. It’s a contemporary reflection of another way of voicing not only creative expression, but cultural expression and commentary on social circumstances, which really is a historical tradition in African-American music. It’s always been that quest for freedom and voicing the concerns of the communities and life circumstances of African Americans, and so it’s our contemporary evolution of that.

he revolutionary, controversial and too-short life of Tupac Shakur has inspired books, documentaries and films from the time he was killed at age 25 in 1996. The latest is the new biopic All Eyes on Me, starring Demetrius Shipp, Jr and directed by Benny Boom. But while the film touches on the forces that shape Tupac as a defining voice of the 1990s hip-hop movement, it doesn’t dive deep enough into the historical context of the genre. In search of a better sense of the musical legacy that molded the legendary artist, Smithsonian.com sat down with Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Reece delves into the long history of hip-hop and explains why Tupac is the Bob Dylan of his generation

No Longer Exempt From Trademark Protection

Filing for trademark protection for a word, phrase or symbol is simple enough. But actually getting that trademark has always been much more complicated. Not only must the U.S. Patent and Trademark office decide whether your mark is worthy of protection, but until today, it had the power to turn down your application if it decided your phrase, word or symbol was derogatory. Not anymore, reports The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes: Today, the Supreme Court ruled that a 71-year-old “disparagement clause” of the federal law governing trademarks violates the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on Matal v. Tam in January, was unanimous in its opinion, finding the law in violation of the right to free speech guaranteed by the Constitution. In the opinion delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, he writes current trademark law “strikes at the heart of the First Amendment” by instructing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to turn down applications for trademarks that contain slurs and other speech that could be considered offensive.

It all started when The Slants, a rock band from Portland, Oregon, filed for a trademark to protect the name of their increasingly popular band in 2010. Their application was rejected on the grounds that the name—an ironic invocation of a racist slur—was disparaging to Asian-Americans. “I took a moment,” Simon Tam, who fronts the band, told the New York Times’ Sarah Jeong. “Then I said, ‘Well, do they know we’re of Asian descent?’” Tam decided to contest the ruling as part of his ongoing attempt to flip a hateful label on its head.

As Tam’s lawsuit worked its way up the courts, it came up against the Lanham Act. Also known as ​the Trademark Act of 1946, the legislation prohibits trademarks from disparaging people, institutions, beliefs or national symbols or bringing them into “contempt, or disrepute.”

The law has been invoked in other trademark denials, as when the group Dykes on Bikes—a lesbian motorcycle club—was denied a trademark because of its “vulgar” name. However, reports the Bay Area News Group’s Sophia Kazmi, the decision was reversed when the group convinced the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that “dyke” is no longer seen as derogatory. Later, Dykes on Bikes withstood a legal campaign to have the trademark dismissed after accusations that it was “scandalous and immoral” and excluded men.

The decision was celebrated by the American Civil Liberties Union, which wrote that turning down The Slants’ application “was censorship, pure and simple.” And another group is celebrating: the Washington Redskins. The Supreme Court opinion is likely to impact the future of the team’s fortunes—and name. The football team has been locked in multi-year litigation over six trademarks associated with the team that were canceled after the USPTO called them disparaging to Native Americans. As Jenny Vrentas reports for Sports Illustrated, the issue of the Redskins’ name among Native Americans is a complex and fraught one. Unlike The Slants or Dykes on Bikes, the name wasn’t created as an attempt by a community to reclaim an offensive term.

Composer Made Melodies Out of Mountainsides

At the turn of the twentieth century, the countries of Europe and their neighboring empires were entering into a period of intense ethnic awareness. Nations were on the brink of a revolutionary upheaval that would redefine their borders, both geographically and psychologically, paving the way for two World Wars and the ‘age of nationalism.’

For Eastern nations, like Armenia, situated on the cusp of East and West, the same search for identity, the answer to the question What is Armenia?, was further complicated by the jockeying of neighboring empires.

Ethnomusicologist Sylvia Alajaji, author of Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile writes that, by the turn of the century, “two ‘Armenias’ were in existence.” Having experienced a formal “carving up” a century earlier between Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires, Armenia was less a unified nation of like-minded people than it was an ethnic population, scattered across competing empires.

It was divided not only geographically, between East and West, but also by class – between the rural, agrarian peasants who occupied the expansive countrysides, and the intellectual elite in the cities.

 

Up to that point, the traditions and particularities of Armenia’s large peasant population had been for the most part disregarded by the upper classes. Many urbanites had considered peasant life base and degenerate, but the villages, isolated and untouched by the effects of globalization and modernity, offered a unique opportunity to search for the authentic ‘national spirit’ when the need finally arose. Folk music in particular, the simple songs passed down orally in villages, became a fetishized object of this new movement.

The late nineteenth century saw it become increasingly vogue for musicians to look to the rural countrysides for inspiration. Composers like Jean Sibelius in Finland, Edvard Grieg in Norway and Antonín Dvořák in present-day Czech Republic, gained notoriety for incorporating indigenous musical idioms into their Western-style compositions. Most famously, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók ventured out into the field to collect peasant songs, what he considered the pure sounds of Hungary, and later came to be regarded as a national icon for doing so.

But what does the pursuit of a national identity look like for the Armenians, a people struggling to choose between East or West? And how did music reconcile (or intensify) that schism?

Komitas Vardapet, an Armenian priest and musicologist from Constantinople who traveled across Anatolia collecting and analyzing the music of rural communities, was in many ways similar to Bartók. He received his musical education in Berlin and used his Western training to create a national tradition. He spoke a number of European languages, including French and German, and his primary goal was to promote Armenian music in the West.

The Big Top Circus Tent at the 50th

Rather than simply blow out the candles to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Smithsonian’s 2017 Folklife Festival proved it’s still limber enough to dance with fire. Underneath a Big Top tent on the National Mall, a pyrotechnic display by UniverSoul Circus launched the two-week festival. The magic of the circus and the retelling of stories of how people from near and far have created America is the focus of its two programs “Circus Arts” and “On the Move: Migration Across Generations.”

From now until July 4, and then reopening July 6 to 9,  on the National Mall between 7th and 12th Streets, S.W. in Washington, D.C., the Folklife Festival’s schedule features everything from capoeira dancing, to stories of migration, to lessons in trapeze.

“We build a city every year on the National Mall,” says Michael Atwood Mason, the director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “We’re telling stories of the American experience.” Since 1967 the festival has featured programming aimed to showcase America’s living cultural traditions. “When so much threatens to pull us apart, the festival helps us find what we share,” Mason says.

The theme of the circus evokes a sense of nostalgia for some. “I was last at the circus 30 years ago,” says Bill Mansfield, a folklorist from Washington, D.C., and attending the opening ceremonies. “In this digital age when you can stream everything, it’s great to have the real, live human element.”

For the young, the circus still occupies a place of wonder. “They keep asking about acrobats, and they’re only 4,” says Laura, a childcare specialist, who works at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, referring to the gaggle of excited kids seated around her under the Big Top.

In a time when the face of the American circus is changing, the festival has also made room for young performers to test their chops in the ring. “It makes it feel so much more important to step out of the tent and see the Capitol Building,” says Maya Zuckerman, a young acrobat visiting with her troupe from Circus Harmony in Florissant, Missouri. They’ll perform along with other youth troupes each night before the Big Top events.

Outside the Big Top, the beats of music from around the country reverberate across the festival grounds. “Different styles of music from around the world help us see how much we have in common with one another,” says Christylez Bacon, a progressive hip-hop artist from Washington, D.C. performing at the festival. To demonstrate he pulled a pair of spoons from his pants pocket, an instrument with an international history as varied as America’s, and began to play. Accompanied by his own beatboxing, it was a style all his own.

Then husband and wife duo Roy and P.J. Hirabayashi, of San Jose, California, rolled their Taiko, a barrel shaped Japanese drum, into the Story Circle, an area of the grounds that will feature programming about native populations and people from afar that have made America home.

They’re joined by the Grammy-award-winning conjunto band Los Texmaniacs, who have a similar mission with their music. From San Antonio, Texas, the group’s music tells the story of life straddling the border between two countries. Most recently, they played at the opening celebration of the National Museum of American History’s newly renovated west wing gallery  “The Nation We Build Together.”

There are also a suite of hands-on activities, from storytelling workshops with the youth empowerment organization Gandhi Brigade, puppet making lessons, and—for the daring—trapeze.

You’ll find Robin Eurich in the Circus Science tent—he’s the elder clown with the Panama hat and cane—teaching the physics behind all those circus stunts. “You don’t need to be brilliant to teach Newton’s laws,” says Eurich. You just have to let them try, and fail, and try again at juggling. And that’s what he’ll be doing for the next two weeks. “I’ll be here until I pass out,” he says good-naturedly, doffing his hat to the city’s well-known heat and humidity.

Start Pressing Vinyl Records

By any measure, vinyl records should have gone the way of the dodo. In the digital age, we have no trouble getting our music fix without turning to large, delicate records that require a bulky machine to play them. But instead of disappearing into the ether, vinyl has been making a comeback. They’re so popular, in fact, that Sony Music Entertainment will start pressing vinyl for the first time in 28 years, as Alec Macfarlane and Chie Kobayashi report for CNN Money.

Though Sony hasn’t released many specific details, the company has said that by March of next year, it will be making vinyl at a pressing plant near Tokyo. Sony, which represents chart-topping artists like Adele and Beyonce, stopped making vinyls in 1989. At that point a more wieldy option—CDs—became the go-to choice of many music lovers.

CD sales have tanked in recent years, as the technology was edged out of the market by digital music and online streaming services like Spotify. But LPs—short for “long playing” records, first introduced by Columbia Records in 1948—have been enjoying a surprising resurgence. In 2015, Chris Morris reports for Forbes, vinyl sales climbed 32 percent to $416 million, the highest sum since 1988.

Morris goes on to explain that vinyl began to soar in popularity as “hipsters in their 20s and early 30s sought a way to differentiate their music listening. Albums were old school, filled with hisses and pops that digital music had erased. But those flaws added a depth and warmth to the music that even people who once owned extensive album collections had forgotten after years of listening to digital music. (Digital is technically cleaner, but the compression technology in MP3s tends to dull the highs and lows.)”

The trend has been welcomed by the music industry, but it has also created a problem. As Travis M. Andrews points out in the Washington Post, many record labels shuttered their vinyl presses when it seemed like the technology was becoming obsolete. Meanwhile, companies that still produce vinyl have struggled to keep up with demand.

Despite its newfound popularity, vinyl is “unlikely to ever be a major growth or profit engine,” according to the global consulting firm Deloitte. But vinyl records aren’t as niche as the used to be, and Sony is jumping on the bandwagon—once again.

All vampire night clubs

The first person I met in Berlin was a boar-hunting friend of a friend, who agreed to talk to me only if I didn’t print his name. He was in his early forties, six and a half feet tall, muscular, lean, and fair, with shaggy reddish-brown hair, some stubble, and a great deal of self-confidence. He had on worn jeans, biker boots, a loose faded black T-shirt, and a scarf, and yet I’ll confess I found myself picturing him trim and tidy in Heidelberg duelling garb. Preconceptions can be hard to shake when you’re fresh in town.

It was a Sunday night in the dregs of December, sleety and dark. We were at a bar in Mitte, the formerly bombed-out and abandoned East Berlin district that was reclaimed by squatters, clubbers, and artists after the Wall came down and is now agleam with fancy restaurants, galleries, and shops. Transplants often describe Berlin’s neighborhoods as analogues of New York’s, to assess where they fit along the gentrification continuum. Mitte, they say, is SoHo. Like SoHo, it is often full of tourists. But this bar, an early post-Wall pioneer, had a gruff, local air.

The boar hunter stirred an espresso at arm’s length and regarded me with martial skepticism. He was a veteran of the city’s after-hours party scene, but he seemed weary of it. “Everyone knows about this,” he said. “You should write instead about black rhinos.” He’d recently bought fifteen thousand acres in Namibia, in a rhinoceros preserve, to help support a conservation program. He said, “I once shot an elephant.”

He had moved to Berlin from Düsseldorf in 1993. He was a philosopher by training (his business card had him as a “Dr.”) but an industrialist by trade: he’d inherited a manufacturing firm from his father, and had done well enough with it to pursue a life of pleasure and ease, though without ostentation, in keeping with the ethos of Berlin. He’d recently returned from a four-week surfing trip to the Basque coast, where he and a girlfriend—two, actually: one for the first half of the trip, and one for the second—had lived out of a VW bus. There were other women in his life, among them a physician’s wife, whom he’d met online. (“He gave her fake tits—Thank you, Mister!”) He described his plans for the following weekend: a day hunting wild boar in a forest on the city’s outskirts, then a “sex party” (which should never be said without a German accent) at an acquaintance’s apartment, where he’d arrive with one woman but pair up with others (“It’s a seedy thing”), and, finally, perhaps, just before Sunday dawn, Berghain.

Berghain is a night club that opened in 2004 in an abandoned power plant in what used to be East Berlin. The name is a mashup of the last syllable of its neighborhood, Friedrichshain, and the one across the Spree, Kreuzberg, on what was once the other side of the Wall. It is the most famous techno club in the world—to Berlin what Fenway is to Boston—and yet still kind of underground and, as such, a microcosm of Berlin. The people I’d talked to who had been to Berghain—and there were many—conjured ecstatic evenings, Boschian contortions, and a dusky Arcadia that an American hockey dad like me had never even imagined wanting to experience.

Favourite music over and over again

What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening. But evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music.

To begin with, there’s the sheer amount of it. Cultures all over the world make repetitive music. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois counts repetitiveness among the few musical universals known to characterise music the world over. Hit songs on American radio often feature a chorus that plays several times, and people listen to these already repetitive songs many times. The musicologist David Huron at Ohio State University estimates that, during more than 90 per cent of the time spent listening to music, people are actually hearing passages that they’ve listened to before. The play counter in iTunes reveals just how frequently we listen to our favourite tracks. And if that’s not enough, tunes that get stuck in our heads seem to loop again and again. In short, repetition is a startlingly prevalent feature of music, real and imagined.

In fact, repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song. The psychologist Diana Deutsch, at the University of California, San Diego, discovered a particularly powerful example – the speech-to-song illusion. The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.

Appreciating Carly Rae Jepsen For Dummies Maybe

Hello! And welcome to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Appreciating Carly Rae Jepsen For Dummies Maybe.” It’s really great that you’ve chosen to click on this link, for whatever reason. Thank you. As a D-list celebrity Carly Rae Jepsen appreciator, I get a lot of questions via email and Twitter about my second-favorite Canadian pop star. Maybe you’ve got a little crush: “Trent, do you know if Carly Rae is single?” Perhaps you’re a “Call Me Maybe” structuralist: “What is the deal with this song?” Or maybe you’re just challenging the authenticity of my “like:” “Do you really like Carly Rae Jepsen?”

No matter what site you were browsing before you clicked on this link, welcome! If you’re a tl;dr kinda asshole, I’ll give you this (for everyone else: spoiler alert!): I really do like Carly Rae Jepsen, really, which, if you’re still reading this, begs the crucial question of the Guide: “How do you really like Carly Rae Jepsen, really?”

This Guide grew out of my simple and very personal passion for the holistic beauty of Carly Rae Jepsen and her hit song. Although I have been passionate about songs before and will certainly be passionate about songs in the future, I won’t write appreciation guides about them. There is something special about “Call Me Maybe,” it’s safe to say. Aside from being very popular, it is a litmus test for the presence of humanity, optimism, and warmth in the listener. It’s also the first and only music that can appropriately follow “Bizarre Love Triangle” on a wedding dancefloor while maintaining the high integrity of both songs.

Where is this Guide guiding you? With your open mind, it will take you down the path towards becoming more in tune with all around you, maybe. Where you go from there is a simple matter of time — the more of it you spend with the song, the more you will draw those around you towards enlightenment maybe like a moth to a flame.

Before the program begins, let’s answer the most primal of questions in this universe: “What is ‘Call Me Maybe?’” Watch it now, whether you’ve seen it or not, and no cheating! Watch all the way to the end. You trust me, right? 😉

Whether you know Carly Rae or not, you have probably already heard this song. If you haven’t already heard it, “Call Me Maybe” at least reminds you of something you’ve heard before — it oozes the universal familiarity inherent in all good pop songs. (If you haven’t heard it, by the way, you should get out more. At least change the channel from C-SPAN every couple of months maybe.)

The hitmakers behind Rihanna

On a mild Monday afternoon in mid-January, Ester Dean, a songwriter and vocalist, arrived at Roc the Mic Studios, on West Twenty-seventh Street in Manhattan, for the first of five days of songwriting sessions. Her engineer, Aubry Delaine, whom she calls Big Juice, accompanied her. Dean picked up an iced coffee at a Starbucks on Seventh Avenue, took the elevator up to Roc the Mic, and passed through a lounge that had a pool table covered in taupe-colored felt. Two sets of soundproofed doors led to the control room, a windowless cockpit that might have been the flight deck of a spaceship.

Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, the team of Norwegian writer-producers professionally known as Stargate, were waiting there for Dean. Both are tall and skinny ectomorphs with pale shaved heads who would not look out of place in a “Matrix” movie. Dean, who is black, is neither skinny nor tall; she reached up to give them big hugs, which is how she greets almost everyone. They chatted for a while. Dean has a comical, Betty Boop-ish speaking voice, which will be featured in the upcoming animated film “Ice Age: Continental Drift.” (Sid, the giant ground sloth voiced by John Leguizamo, is finally getting a girlfriend, Dean’s Sloth Siren.) After ten minutes or so, she pronounced herself “ready to work.”

Most of the songs played on Top Forty radio are collaborations between producers like Stargate and “top line” writers like Ester Dean. The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds; the top-liners come up with primary melodies, lyrics, and the all-important hooks, the ear-friendly musical phrases that lock you into the song. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, the president of Roc Nation, and Dean’s manager, told me recently. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”

The top-liner is usually a singer, too, and often provides the vocal for the demo, a working draft of the song. If the song is for a particular artist, the top-liner may sing the demo in that artist’s style. Sometimes producers send out tracks to more than one top-line writer, which can cause problems. In 2009, both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson had hits (Beyoncé’s “Halo,” which charted in April, and Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which charted in August) that were created from the same track, by Ryan Tedder. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyoncé shared a credit with Evan Bogart. Tedder had neglected to tell the artists that he was double-dipping, and when Clarkson heard “Halo” and realized what had happened she tried to stop “Already Gone” from being released as a single, because she feared the public would think she had copied Beyoncé’s hit. But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; “Already Gone” became just as big a hit.

A relatively small number of producers and top-liners create a disproportionately large share of contemporary hits, which may explain why so many of them sound similar. The producers are almost always male: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, David Guetta, Tricky Stewart, the Matrix, Timbaland, the Neptunes, Stargate. The top-liners are often, although not always, women: Makeba Riddick, Bonnie McKee, and Skylar Grey are among Dean’s peers. The producer runs the session and serves as creative director of the song, but the top-liner supplies the crucial spark that will determine whether the song is a smash. (When I asked Tricky Stewart to define “smash,” he said, “A hit is just a hit; a smash is a life changer.”) As Eric Beall, an A. & R. executive with Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., a music publisher, puts it, “The top-line writer is the one who has to face a blank page.” Stargate works with about twenty top-liners a year, and creates some eighty demos. These are sent out to A. & R. departments at record labels, to artists’ managers, and, finally, to the artists, for approval. Around twenty-five of Stargate’s songs end up on records each year.