When it comes to modern music, I’m something of a cynic. My view toward most contemporary music on the radio, especially pop, ranges from apathy to outright loathing. As such, on Saturday, it was a strange, yet incredibly satisfying experience to see Carl Surken ’78, a songwriter and record producer, answer the question that’s constantly been burning in my cantankerous mind: “Why isn’t there better music on the radio?” in his presentation: “Pop Music Producers & The Real World—A Dysfunctional Marriage.”
Surken has been involved in the music industry, specifically the pop music industry, for the past 30 years, and in that time has worked with dozens of artists ranging from Rod Stewart to *NSYNC. One of the most impressive achievements of his career so far was the discovery and signing of Rihanna. This past Saturday in the CFA Hall, armed with an iPod playlist stocked with every pop hit from the ’90s to the present day and a remarkably deadpan sense of humor, he gave us an insider’s perspective on the current love/hate relationship between musicians and the industry.
The presentation began with Surken playing a musical montage of the top 15 charting songs of the past year. After cycling through the likes of Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and LMFAO, he spent the next half hour essentially explaining why most of those songs sounded so depressingly similar, which, as he proceeded to show, wasn’t so much the fault of the individual musicians, but rather the nature of the industry.
Now it probably comes as no surprise that the majority of major pop musicians don’t actually write their own music (granted, neither did such greats as Al Johnson or Frank Sinatra). However, the actual process of how these songs are created before they even reach whatever pop star they’re trying to back is somewhat more complex than it would seem. In most cases, record producers will simply go out and hire whichever musicians, songwriters, and sound engineers have good track records. But in a number of cases, the business is a bit more complex. For example, according to Surken, Britney Spears’ 2011 hit “Till the World Ends” was actually created and recorded by Ke$ha, only to be sold to Britney when there wasn’t any room for it on her new album.
One of the more ethically questionable examples of this phenomenon can be seen in the story of how “Don’t Cha,” the incessant song from 2005 that launched The Pussycat Dolls’ career, came to be. It was actually written and performed by a musician by the name of Tori Alamaze. The record labels proceeded to buy the song, pull the original version from the radio, and give it to The Pussycat Dolls to re-record. As a result, The Pussycat Dolls became one of the most popular pop groups of the decade, while Tori was never heard from again.
Having worked extensively as a songwriter and producer, Surken had a wealth of frank and often incredibly surprising stories to supplement his views. The stories ranged from accidentally providing all the instrumental work for a Rod Stewart song to padding out an R&B song for an extra minute by asking a friend to impersonate the singer after he’d left the recording studio. These anecdotes managed to convey to the audience just how deep-seated Surken’s role in the music business is and just how fickle the business can be.
Surken then shifted his focus onto how and why the industry has created such a mediocre pop music culture. What it comes down to, as he pointed out, is that the goal of the record executives isn’t to produce good music or even to make their company money, but simply to avoid being fired. Holding a different opinion or making a risky decision could prove detrimental to an executive’s standing in the company. Surken’s belief is that “an executive can do fine with no ears at all; they just need to look around and nod.” Thus, the generic repetition that’s present in so much modern music is actually intended. For the record companies, observing what has worked in the past is the closest thing they can do to predicting what will work in the future. Executives are perfectly willing to hire the same people in order to recreate the success they’ve experienced with previous works. “That way,” as Surken put it, “if the song flops, at least they can say they did what was supposed to work.”
To cement our perception of the way people in the industry think, Surken ended the speech by playing some breakout hits of the past decade and explaining why a record executive would dismiss them in most cases. For example, he brushed off Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” as dated.
“Doesn’t she realize which decade this is?” he scoffed.
He then criticized Gotye’s single, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” arguing that the singer sounded like he was dying. Of course, both of these songs went on to become huge hits that shaped their respective singers’ careers, but in the eyes of the majority of executives, being different is what made them so risky.
After covering topics ranging from independent labels to SOPA to the bizarre success of “Gangnam Style,” he spoke about his uncommon success in such a volatile industry. Ultimately, he believes the core skill that’s carried him through is his ability to analyze and evaluate music.
“You have to break it down, tear it apart, and approach it methodically,” he said.
The presentation was made interesting by Surken’s ability to do a lot with very little. He spent the entire time sitting cross-legged in his chair, occasionally playing something from his bottomless iPod playlist to make a point. Innumerable stories and ideas made it apparent that Surken approaches the industry with both cynicism and cautious optimism, aware of its faults yet in awe of its achievements.
“How does this process work? It just does, and somehow good music gets in,” he summarized.
Even a jaded cynic like myself couldn’t help but agree with him.