Long-time New Yorker writer John Seabrook’s wonderfully witty and sometimes gossipy book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, explains how the pop songs of artists like Rhianna and Britney Spears have, over the last couple decades, come to be produced by teams—sometimes very large teams.* Those of us of a certain age imagine pop song melodies and lyrics being worked out on a piano or guitar by the Gershwin brothers or Irving Berlin in the Tin Pan Alley era, Phil Spector and Carole King in the Brill Building heyday, or John and Paul during the British Invasion.
In other words, we imagine something close to romantic loners coming up with brilliant ideas on their own and turning those ideas into art. Seabrook explodes that mythology: today’s pop stars rarely have much to do with creating their hits, other than laying down vocal tracks, which are almost always enhanced with pitch perfecting software like Auto-Tune. Songs are actually constructed or “manufactured” by producers, who reap gains from specialization and economies of scale—like any other industrial organization.
In these literal hit factories, producers create the underlying track with repetitive hooks from electronic snips of older songs and digital instrumental elements, while topliners add the vocal tune and lyrics. Virtually no musicians playing real instruments are involved. Seabrook lets us know that the once ubiquitous “session musicians” and complex mixing boards are gone, replaced with laptops and software. As Marc Andreessen famously observed, software is eating the world—including the pop music world.
Although I have eclectic music tastes and usually listen to music on my Bose Quiet25 Headphones while writing proposals, I didn’t know about the profound music business transformation. Even more startling is that this new music world order began in Sweden, of all places, a couple decades ago in Cheiron Studios. Founded by producers Denniz Pop and Max Martin, Cheiron created mega hits for an endless stream of pop acts from the Backstreet Boys to Katy Perry to Taylor Swift.
Music fashion may change, but the underlying players have been relatively stable for a surprisingly long time. While I’m well read in pop culture, I’d never heard of Denniz, Max, and a constellation of descending producers and topliners grinding out songs from Stockholm to Brooklyn to West Hollywood, like the amazingly successful and prolific Dr. Luke.
As I was reading The Song Machine, I realized the parallel between writing songs and writing proposals. Like the traditional melody and lyrics approach of pre-Cheiron song writing, grant writing is usually done in a standard way: The internal or external grant writer facilitates visioning meetings with stakeholders to develop the project concept, drawing circles and arrows on a white board, and the proposal is then written iteratively, just like Carole King and Gerry Goffin writing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in 1961.
In contrast, Seliger + Associates uses the Cheiron approach, and we developed our system almost 25 years ago—around the time Denniz and Max were using computer hardware and software
advances to change the music world. In our grant hit factory, we’ve adopted a track/hook and topliner method for grant writing: The track is formed by the RFP structure that usually dictates the basic project elements (e.g., outreach, case-managed services, follow-up, etc.), research citations in the needs assessment, and agency background.
The track is also larded with short repetitive phrases (e.g., “vulnerable youth,” “African American-centric organization embedded in the target neighborhood,” etc.), forming the hooks. Rhetorical flourishes, which may be relatively nonsensical like top topliner Ester Dean’s lyrics for the Katy Perry hit “Firework” (“‘Cause baby, you’re a firework / Come on show them what you’re worth”), are our toplines. Like Dr. Luke, we add and polish our toplines in the second and final proposal drafts, over the track/hooks laid down in the first draft.
When Seliger + Associates began in 1993, we initially used the hoary and cumbersome traditional melody and lyric grant writing approach. I’d fly to meet clients from Alaska to LA to NYC, then go through the visioning exercise. As the Internet emerged, we realized that this was not only too time consuming and expensive, but also no longer necessary. Over the next few years, we perfected the virtual scoping call and track/hook and topline approach that is illustrated in two Process Diagrams on our site.
Most of our potential clients are amazed that we can write any grant proposal based solely on an hour-long scoping call, whatever background info the client provides, our reading the RFP, and our imagination. But we can, using an analogue of The Song Machine revealed by Seabrook. When I look at the websites of putative competitors and related organizations like the American Grant Writers’ Association (AGWA) or The Grantsmanship Center (TGCI), it’s obvious that they’re stuck in the Brill Building of grant writing.
* Seabrook echoes the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s 1974 hit “Free Man in Paris:” “But for the work I’ve taken on, Stoking the star-maker machinery, Behind the popular song.”