Why Do All Pop Records Sound The Same?

This article makes for some pretty depressing reading re: the current state of pop (especially if you’re a Maroon 5 fan!)….is it true though? Sure some pop is made by committee but it does feel a little bit like people moaning that’s it’s not good as it used to be…yes or no?

Cuepoint
Turn the knob, have your perception analyzed (Source)

Desperate to get their music on the radio at all costs, record labels are employing powerful software to artificially sweeten it, polish it, make it louder— squeezing out the last drops of its individuality

There was once a little-watched video on Maroon 5’s YouTube channel (now deleted, but visible here and here) which documents the tortuous, tedious process of crafting an instantly-forgettable mainstream radio hit.

It’s fourteen minutes of elegantly dishevelled chaps sitting in leather sofas, playing $15,000 vintage guitars next to $200,000 studio consoles, staring at notepads and endlessly discussing how little they like the track (called “Makes Me Wonder”), and how it doesn’t have a chorus. Even edited down, the tedium is mind-boggling as they play the same lame riff over and over and over again. At one point, singer Adam Levine says: “I’m sick of trying to engineer songs to be hits.” But that’s exactly what he proceeds to do.

Note: This article originally appearedin the March, 2008 edition of Word Magazine. That was a long time ago—before YouTube started to usurp radio as the place where people discovered music, before music streaming services, before the vinyl revival and before audiophile digital music players like Neil Young’s Pono.

The final version of “Makes Me Wonder” came in three versions: Album, Clean (with the word ‘fuck’ removed from the chorus) and Super Clean (with ‘fuck’ removed more thoroughly, and ‘God’ removed from the second verse). It was a spectacular hit, number one in Panama, Croatia, Cyprus, South Korea and Hungary and many larger countries. Why? Because it was played on the radio over and over and over again.

When you turn on the radio, you might think music all sounds the same these days, then wonder if you’re just getting old. But you’re right, it does all sound the same. Every element of the recording process, from the first takes to the final tweaks, has been evolved with one simple aim: control. And that control often lies in the hands of a record company desperate to get their song on the radio. So they’ll encourage a controlled recording environment (slow, high-tech and using malleable digital effects).

Every finished track is then coated in a thick layer of audio polish before being market-tested and dispatched to a radio station, where further layers of polish are applied until the original recording is barely visible. That’s how you make a mainstream radio hit, and that’s what record labels want.

To be precise, “Makes Me Wonder” was particularly popular on U.S. radio stations playing the ‘Hot Adult Contemporary’ format, which is succinctly described within the radio industry as: “A station which plays commercial popular and rock music released during the past fifteen or twenty years which is more lively than the music played on the average Adult Contemporary station, but is still designed to appeal to general listeners rather than listeners interested in hearing current releases.”

Playlists of Hot Adult Contemporary stations are determined by a computer, most likely running Google-owned Scott SS32 radio automation suite, which shuffles the playlist of 400 to 500 tracks, inserts ads and idents and tells the DJ when to talk. The playlist is compiled after extensive research. Two or three times a year, a company like L.A.-based Music Research Consultants Inc arrive in town, hire a hotel ballroom or lecture theatre and recruit 50 to 100 people, carefully screened for demographic relevance (they might all be white suburban housewives aged 26–40). They’re each given $65 and a perception analyzer—a little black box with one red knob and an LED display. Then, they’re played 700 seven-second clips of songs. If they turn the knob up, the song gets played. If they turn it down, it doesn’t.

If a station needs more up-to-date information (bearing in mind that they’re “designed to appeal to general listeners rather than listeners interested in hearing current releases”) they can run a ‘call-out test,’ where people from the right demographic are cold-called and interrogated about 30 seven-second clips played over the phone.

So Maroon Five’s job is clear. Just as a modern politician’s job is to deliver seven second soundbites, their job is to deliver seven second audio clips which will encourage young-ish people with a high disposable income to turn a little red knob at least 180 degrees clockwise. No wonder they look so stressed.

Read the full article below:


Tom Whitwell is a digital product consultant in South London. He is gradually re-purchasing his iTunes library on overpriced vinyl, and designs open source music, this article is taken from the Cuepoint Website

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