That's right, I called it "manufacturing." These days, it's like assembling furniture when it comes to assembling a fresh musical entertainer for the masses. And I'm not talking about theater (though that is sometimes true as well), but music and entertainment in general. I was not around in those days, but I miss the rawness of young acts like the Kinks, the Animals, the Beatles, Kansas, America, ELO, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, the Rolling Stones, or the Who. (NOTE: Though most of the list are British acts, I don't mean just them exclusively.) Live, many of these groups sounded like dog shit half the time--but they knew it. They put their heart and soul into their performances. And they created nearly every bit of music themselves. Don't you miss hearing about that? Songwriting partnerships like Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards, or even just strong songwriters with big ass brains like Pete Townshend, where they actually did it themselves with no industry "helpers"?
These days, it's a wonder if the stars can actually sing. I mean, I'm sure they have some looks and talent (usually in dance) or they wouldn't be discovered, so to speak, but lately, it seems everything is manufactured. And in several easy steps:
One and two come pretty easily. If someone looks pretty and they can dance well, meaning they can follow even the most complex of instructions by choreographers, they're already a step ahead of the game even if they can't sing. They have two of the basic components most pop entertainers have in this day and age, and that puts them ahead of a million great voices with no other redeeming factors.
They then take these two things and combine them with "image." "Image" is whatever persona you put on to fit a changing industry. For example, Britney Spears had an "image" as a virginal teenager who wanted to be corrupted, at least until that great bondage party "Slave 4 U" on MTV. Depending on the quirks of your record label, you will either be asked to conform to what is "hot" in the industry at that time, what sells, or you will have the rare A&R executive who wants to present you as the polar opposite of what's selling, sometimes with fantastic results (witness the Rolling Stones' raw unclean down-and-dirty image vs. the early Beatles' "take me home to your mother, she'll just love me" four boys in suits image), sometimes less so.
There is a strict formula for pop hit making, and even if it sounds "emo" or overly dark, the songs of most acts these days will tend not to deviate from that formula. It's a very simple structure. You start with a verse ("A"), and some songs may have a second verse (and that could go anywhere, placement below is not a firm thing), but for the purpose of brevity, we'll lump that in as A. Then there's a bridge ("B"), and that's simply the way they go from the verse to the chorus. Then there's of course what will sell the song if written well, the part everyone tends to remember, and the industry tends to call it a "hook," but let's call it what we know it is, the chorus ("C"). Then there's the option of an instrumental, such as a guitar solo, and again it's totally optional, but often used ("D"). Then from the instrumental, you come back to the hook and fade out with it so the audience remembers it. In short, A-A-B-C-D-C-C-C.
It's an easy quota to meet, especially if you want to earn a paycheck and can turn out generic songs very quickly. In fact, there are many songwriters these days with the productivity skills that they could release six or seven different albums a month if it was just them doing the performing. People like Desmond Child and Diane Warren are notorious for being on just about every album known to man since the late Eighties with some of the catchiest tunes ever heard that fit this formula (Child for such songs as Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady" and Ricky Martin's "Livin' la Vida Loca," and Warren for such songs as Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing," Meat Loaf's "I'd Lie for You (And That's the Truth)," and Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me"). People like these are masters of pop songwriting--if you want to succeed in today's world, develop a plastique quality (meaning you can study whatever genre you're supposed to write a song for and be able to do it like that) and study the styles of songwriters like these.
Once the songs have been picked for whatever image they're going to give the entertainer, the entertainer then hits the studio to record the album. It's usually with an established producer, and the album may indeed include several "guest producers" (meaning a popular rapper or singer may come in if the push is needed for your publicity, add something to a song or two on your album, remix it, and it becomes a "celebrity guest spot" that can provide good publicity). Ultimately, however, your best friend in the studio should be the mixer--even with the producer and engineers at the controls, talk to the mixer as much as possible. They're the audio techs who create the final mix of the album to be mastered and made into the CD (or iTunes download, be that as it may) that is released. Treat them well. Feeding them chocolate muffins gives you bonus points (especially if it's Mixerman, and inquire discreetly with them about that one).
Now it's a question of the thing that should matter, but is usually one of the last things taken care of: the voice. If they're a good enough singer and need only little fixes or additions, then the label is breathing a sigh of relief. The first thing they'll do is try to mix the backup vocals high enough to cover some of your bad notes, which is trying to take the easy way out, and if the singer is really good, it will work. If that fails, digital trickery becomes their next course of action.
The three most commonly used digital tricks in the recording studio (even with very good singers) are equalization, reverb, and AutoTune. For the first, if you apply enough EQ, it "smoothes out the cracks" where your voice is concerned, making it sound very...I wouldn't say generic, but basically it sounds clean and precise (and sometimes robotic). The other two are mainly for missed or flat notes. For example, if it's a flat note (meaning you try to hit it but fall flat) but you're so in the ballpark that you're practically playing the game, talk to the guy about reverb. A good vocal reverb, well selected for the particular track, can cause the vocal to sound more polished than it otherwise would sound (a good example of obvious reverb is the final note on Meat Loaf's song "Bad for Good" off his most recent album).
If it needs more help than that, if you're missing more notes than you hit, and it's not your fault that you have a limited range, you'll see the producer ask for AutoTune. Applying AutoTune to a track is usually a last resort, but if they can hear your legendary badness quickly, AutoTune will become their best friend. Basically, it automatically (digitally) adjusts your pitch so that you sound like you're singing in the right key and not missing any notes. Again, has some of the same effect as EQ (sounds clean, precise, and a little robotic), but is basically a commonly used tool.
PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK WITH THE NEXT VARIATION, POTENTIAL PRODUCERS!
If that's not enough, and they absolutely need outside help, labels begin to sweat--and with good reason. If the producer has, say, tried a solo career and failed because they had the talent but not the looks or something else that is equally petty, they will not be above taking this step, and in fact will probably plan on doing so from the get-go. On the same note, a producer will often find someone doomed to be a backup vocalist for life and want to use them for something--they can sing like an angel, but they're...how do you say...not very photogenic. Some producers are famous for doing this. Frank Farian did it multiple times (with Boney M, Milli Vanilli, and other such acts...he still does it to this day...Sony BMG just renewed his contract--gee, I wonder why), and Dieter Bohlen has also done it to great effect. The process is called "ghost singing," and it also applies for live acts, but I will cover that in the next installment.
Basically, it goes like this: a producer (or any other number of capable vocalists) will come into the studio and do the songs themselves. The songs will be carefully chosen to match an image, and so will the voices (i.e., you'll never hear a distinctly African-American sounding voice for an Asian singer, as an example). The people who can sing will record it, usually either signing confidentiality pacts and going along their merry way with steady hush money checks, or getting credit on the actual CD as "backup vocalists," and if the producer really wants to push the envelope where plausible deniability is concerned, they'll have the "non-singing star" record also, discard their takes, and then convince the artist in playbacks that the better voice they hear is just them with a battery of effects. In legal terms, that covers a ton of tracks if someone sues for missed payment (ghost singer says "I didn't get my last check," artist says "I recorded my songs and I can prove it," there are witnesses to the artist's takes being recorded, and everyone knows via common sense that digital fixes go on every day, so it would be a losing battle).
Milli Vanilli did it, and didn't acknowledge their ghost singers. They got caught, and were forced to return awards and refund the sales of their mega-hit debut. (On a side note, the ghost singers had their own successful album a couple years later as "Try 'N' B," but their success was short-lived.) Boney M did it, and gradually acknowledged their ghost singer, and the more they acknowledged what was basically an open secret, the more they slid down the charts in their biggest markets. Right now, another mini-scandal is brewing that was revealed in veiled terms on the blog of a Hollywood lawyer (click here to read). This is the riskiest ploy a producer or label could pull, and they stand to lose a lot from it, so be very careful if this situation comes up.
The last step in the sordid business called music is success. If the music is good enough, or more likely if the product is packaged properly with the right amount of advertising (which is a different success story in and of itself), one simply has to maintain the success they've already earned.
In the old days, this was accomplished with a promotional tour. Some artists, such as Meat Loaf, worked a punishing circuit of six shows a week in as many cities to put their albums in the charts, let alone make them best-sellers. Some artists did this at great personal risk, losing their voices or endangering their health (either by workload, or taking drugs/alcohol of some kind to help them cope with said workload), sometimes permanently. But now that's not necessarily a problem. Well, let's be honest...they're gonna drink and drug anyway, it's part of the celebrity game, and it's how the entertainment "suits" keep them somewhat under control and blissfully unaware of how badly they're being fucked by said upper 1%. But risk of one's voice is rarely a problem these days, for two reasons, both also not unknown to the studio: AutoTune (or variations thereof), and ghost singers.
While it's not exactly AutoTune, and I am unaware of the machine's actual name, it serves much the same function, i.e. it fixes one's pitch. When someone sings into it live, their voice comes out better to the audience. And if that fails to impress, we add to the scene with ghost singers.
Last entry we discussed their presence in the studio. Hired hands being used for a song or two on an album is not uncommon. Hired hands doing whole albums is also not uncommon, although very risky (witness Milli Vanilli). But singers (or "singers") with actual talent use them, too, and there's hardly shame in it. With acts such as these being highly choreographed with very dance orientated staging, one naturally wants to avoid the audience knowing the only too true fact that a person cannot sing well and dance at the same time. Notice I didn't say they can't sing...they just don't do it WELL. All that dancing leaves them breathless, and missed or flat notes are common.
And so ghost singers are sometimes necessary. An artist will scour the earth looking for a singer who sounds close to their voice. That person will then be hired as a "back-up vocalist," but more often than not, depending on the choreography, it will be the back-up vocalist's voice you hear singing lead. It sounds close enough to be the real artist, it's still live, they still put on the show, they still make money, no lawsuits, no bullshit of any kind. If anything, they deserve to be commended for attempting to provide a good show for their fans instead of touring when their voice is completely shot and giving people the feeling that they should just fade away rather than burn out (I'm looking at you, Meat Loaf).
Examples of those who are known to use ghost singers include:
1. Mick Jagger
3. Cher (her latest ghost singer used to be a Cher impersonator in Vegas and was hired fresh off the block)
Example of someone who is likely to use a ghost singer, but may just use the pitch machine:
1. Miley Cyrus (I'm not one to point fingers, but a lot of her live vocal work lately has sounded like Letters to Cleo, and until recently, that band's lead singer Kay Hanley was touring with her as a "back-up vocalist"..."hmmm" is all I'll say...)
2. Britney Spears
3. Just about any other pop act in existence
With this mini-novel done, I now move on to other topics. But I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the world of pop manufacturing. I don't claim it's authoritative or even entirely accurate, but I can vouch for much of it.