Taylor Swift’s Secret Music Man: Max Martin, Elusive Hitmaker
Which songwriter just jumped past Mariah Carey’s famous Beatle-nipping number three slot on Billboard’s all-time list of number one hit makers? And scooped up ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year a fourth year in a row— for a lifetime tally of seven—based on a glittering necklace of Pop power-girl anthems including: “Raise Your Glass,” “Last Friday Night,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Teenage Dream”?
Pink? Katy Perry? Taylor Swift? The force that inspires defiant videos and top-of-their-lungs screeching tweens is, in fact, a media-shy 43-year old Swedish… man.
Martin has written more than 50 top ten hits worldwide, including sales of over 135 million singles, but unlike other top sellers, very few people except those in the industry, or who scrutinize liner notes, know his name.
The stars who sing his songs are not in the songwriting record books—he is—although they retain credit on the songs.
Bon Jovi sang “It’s My Life,” but it was actually co-written by Martin; when Britney Spears confessed that she was “not a girl, not yet a woman,” Martin co-wrote that one, too.
Even the best-known accomplished songwriters have tracks written by Martin in their repertoires. He shared credit with Bryan Adams on two songs. And while Swift may have been “feeling twenty-two,” so, apparently, were Martin (born Martin Karl Sandberg) and his frequent collaborator, Karl Johan Schuster, 29, better known (but not by the listening public!) as Shellback.
Both were credited with co-writing three of Swift’s most popular songs from her “Red” album, toiling, like secret elves, in their Maratone studios outside Stockholm, the modern era’s version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Their fingerprints are all over the next one, too.
Martin is so busy producing and writing every pop song you like, that he shuns interviews. “They like to spend the time in the studio,” came the brief explanation from someone called Tomas from Maratone, a virtual dish-session compared to the sparse information directly from the pair.
Even though Martin’s lurking presence is an open secret in the music industry, those whose careers depend on belting out “their” innermost feelings of sadness, despair and giddy love, are tight-lipped and reluctant to go on the record about the extent of the reach of this one man.
Sure, the liner notes show he is a co-writer, as do the official industry statistics, but another Martin (George, the so-called “Fifth Beatle”), one of the world’s best-known record producers, still has a higher profile, despite Max nipping at his heels.
Max Martin is just a handful of hits away from overtaking George Martin’s title as producer with the most number one singles.
Raise the topic with industry insiders, though, and most become as impenetrable as a shrink-wrapped CD case, reluctant to go on the record about this.
Martin started out in his own band, the legend goes, and was then recruited to a now-defunct record company, and, although he wrote Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” and ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys hits last century, he has really become ascendant in the past few years, writing for Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne.
Big Machine Label Group President/CEO Scott Borchetta describes Martin as humble and incredibly giving—which perhaps isn’t that surprising. Martin’s given them their highest ranking Swift hits. Borchetta says Martin’s success comes from his understanding the zeitgeist, a skill he says echoes past musical successes.
“Max in particular has been very smart about staying current and remaining a student of the craft,” Borchetta says.
Martin’s not alone in the songwriting shadows, although his track record is the most impressive. The singer Sia Furler is also the composer of the power-house Rihanna hit “Diamonds,” Ne-Yo’s “[Girl] Let Me Love You,” and Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts. She recently released her own single, “Chandelier,” and it doesn’t take much musical training to hear echoes of “Diamonds” at the very beginning.
Pharrell Williams, famous for his outsized Jiffy Pop hat, wrote songs for “Despicable Me 2,” and Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines,” and collaborated with Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, among others, and won Producer of the Year Grammys twice (as well as five others for producing and performing) before the world came to know his “Happy” video.
“People like what they like and really don’t care,” Borchetta says of these hidden collaborations. Yet images used to sell songs do nothing to dispel fans of the notion that the tunes they’re hearing sprung, unaccompanied, into the world from their favorite artists’ brains.
There’s the much-dissected Taylor Swift Diet Coke commercial, suggesting she composed the song “22” alone on the floor at the foot of her bed, and perched in a gown in a photo-shoot dressing room, guitar on knee.
A music industry insider doesn’t find the re-enactment misleading, even when there are co-writers on the scene. “Taylor definitely writes, ideas germinate in random areas; it wasn’t made up,” this person insists.
On “Speak Now” in 2010, Swift wrote every song by herself, “which is completely unheard of,” notes Saving Country Music’s founder, Kyle Coroneos. But for all her accomplishments, Grammys and Songwriting titles, and achievements, one eluded her: a Billboard Hot 100 number one hit.
Borchetta suggested Swift bring in Max Martin to give “Red” its musical infusion and her teenage dream came true: they hit number one with, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” then got together, again, to land the top spot with the Martin co-written song, “Shake It Off.”
Borchetta soft-peddles the matchmaking. “I encourage our artists to dig deep and always do their best work. If one of them gets stuck creatively we tear it down and rebuild it in their own image. If one of them has a desire to expand or work with new collaborators we discuss and identify what the needs and desires are.”
As for as keeping the songwriters’ identities so secret, it’s not too far an ethical leap from the way the industry hid the inconvenient fact that one of the Beatles (John), was actually married, in order to promote the Fab Four as eligible young men.
Even so, collaborators bring such distinct styles to what we already know as familiar themes in an artist’s repertoire, that critics notice it immediately. Swift’s just-released chart-topping collaboration with fun.’s Jack Antonoff on “Out of the Woods” has his hallmarks (Lena Dunham tweeted a photo of the two collaborating).
The Max Martin style was such a departure from Swift’s normal fare, one reviewer described the songs they wrote together on “Red” as “exotic animals on an album full of house cats.”
Yet the message resonated with her audience, who, most likely, didn’t know she had an assist. It’s that skill, making a song seem as though the person claiming to write it alone, actually did write it alone, that has kept Martin and his collaborators shaded under the money tree (not their lyric, surprisingly).
“Max just did the Maroon 5 album. I’m sure that record doesn’t sound like Britney Spears or like Taylor Swift, but he’s been successful with all of them and talented and smart enough to bring each artist their own song,” says Claudia Brant, a Latin Grammy winner herself who has collaborated as a songwriter with the top artists in her field.
As Clifford Goldmacher, a Nashville songwriter/producer explains, “Your job is to write a song so well that the audience will think the artist wrote that song.”
Brant is generous when it comes to giving credit where it is due, and maybe where it might not necessarily be, citing even the mere “energy” a performer brings to the room as influential enough on the final product to credit the artist as a songwriter on the tune. Another industry insider is not so kind, “Some artists contribute as much as a potted plant.”
Brant, an ASCAP spokesperson, would like to see more public recognition for the people behind the scenes. “The songwriters should be credited when an artist gets an award, when there’s an article about a record. If we wouldn’t have written that song they wouldn’t have their careers.” Industry players say, (anonymously, of course), that the opposite is true. “Without the recording artist’s interpretation and skill, the song sits in a drawer and is never heard from again,” one senior executive notes.
“There’s an ebb and flow to people who know how to produce and write great music,” Borchetta says. “I don’t see this time as different than any other eras.”
Martin’s invisible hand is certainly familiar to another musical generation, too. Carole King is a legendary songwriter, but one of her most popular hits, “[You Make Me Feel Like A] Natural Woman,” was, actually co-written with Gerry Goffin, and Jerry Wexler, both men. Barry Manilow may have sung the songs, but nope, he didn’t write 1975’s iconic “I Write The Songs”—that was actually penned by Bruce Johnston.
Listeners may be best off taking Swift’s (or is it Max Martin’s?) advice when it comes to needing to know how the sausage is made: just “Shake It Off.”