‘The Song Machine’ and The Higher Ed Machine

John Seabrook’s new book and our arguments about the future of the American University

November 22, 2015

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook. Published in October of 2015.

The kind of higher education that I love is higher education unplugged. Education at a human rather than a technological scale. And my image of a professor is one equivalent to that of a singer-songwriter, teaching in the discipline that they are also creating knowledge.

This view of American higher education as a small-scale, residential liberal arts enterprise, populated by tenured and tenure track academics teaching and doing research, is woefully inaccurate.  

Today, most students are not between the ages of 18 and 22, most are not full-time students, and comparatively few live on campus. Nor are the majority of professors tenured or tenure-track, and even fewer can combine a life of scholarship with teaching.

It turns out that my understand of the music industry is as romantically wrong as how I want to understand our higher education industry.

Reading John Seabrooks fascinating The Song Machine is to shed one’s illusions that music is any less commoditized, commercialized, and industrialized than every other industry - including our own.

Sure, I think that I vaguely knew that most artists did not write all of their own songs. What I had no idea about is how far almost every pop star is removed from the process of writing and recording.

How dies a song like Rihannas’ 2007 megahit Umbrella, or Katy Perry’s 2010 smash Teenage Dream, come to life? If you think (like I did) that it starts with Rihanna or Katy sitting in their bedroom strumming a guitar and coming up with lyrics, you would be wrong.

What really happens is that a bunch of highly specialized professionals gather in a studio somewhere and create, with the aid of powerful software, the beats (tracks) and the hooks (melodies) that eventually build into a polished pop song. 

The success of the modern pop song rests on its ability to generate catchy hooks that come early enough in the song so that you don’t change your car radio, and then repeat often enough that you never get bored listening.

What is also disturbing about Seabrook’s story is just how concentrated the hit creation business has become. I had never heard of the A-list producers like Max Martin, Stargate, the Matrix, and Dr. Luke.  (Nor did I have any idea that so many of the top hitmakers come from Sweden). These producers, working with a select few songwriters and vocalists (called top-liners), are responsible for most of the biggest hits. The artist may be the vehicle for the music, but they are only one part of a long and highly capitalized and specialized production process.

We are quickly coming to an age of specialization in higher education. Course development is being separated from teaching. Priority is being placed on the creation of digital course materials and adaptive learning platforms that can go to internet scale.

The age when professors create and teach their own classes, and do so in a small enough environment that they can get to know their students as individuals, is now either the victim of public disinvestment and calls for greater efficiency and accountability - or is only available to the most privileged in a dwindling set of small residential institutions.

The higher ed machine seems ready to to overrun our colleges and universities, just as the music machine has overtaken songwriting and performing.

What we will gain and what we lose from the corporatization and technologization of higher education is certainly up for debate and discussion. A good place to start is to read The Song Machine.

What are you reading?



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