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.