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PC Music's Cunning Shift from Internet Fad to Major Label Hit Factory

Through collaborations with Charli XCX, Liz, and Carly Rae Jepsen, the label are launching a multi-pronged attack on the mainstream. But maybe that was the plan all along.

af Daisy Jones
25 marts 2016, 9:37am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

When PC Music affiliates AG Cook and SOPHIE released their first official single via XL Recordings in 2014—QT’s “Hey QT”—they quickly became one of the most talked-about (and argued over) music phenomena of the year. For some, there was a palpable feeling of excitement around the collective, whose effervescent, slicked-back hyper-pop creations injected a wry, much-needed playfulness into club culture. As our own Kyle Kramer wrote at last year's SXSW, "Just let go and enjoy, OK?" For others, they represented something more negative—a label led by a middle-class white dude who appropriated femininity in the name of irony, epitomizing a kind of eye roll-inducing art school conceptualism that felt suspiciously like a joke that nobody else was in on.

Two years and an avalanche of releases later, the “divisive” nature of PC Music—and their equally candy-coated affiliate SOPHIE—has been labored over so often, it feels a little boring to continuously position them in this way. The flurry of think pieces and hyped-up interviews seem to have petered out, and the initial noise surrounding them has muffled into a dull buzz, like a can of QT’s energy drink that’d been left out in the sun for too long. Yet while that may be the case, something more curious has also been happening. The mainstream pop world has begun to take notice and everyone from Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen to McDonalds, Red Bull, Samsung, and Columbia Records have become badge-wearing advocates of dance music’s weirdest export.

This hasn’t exactly happened overnight—PC Music’s slow and steady creep into the mainstream has been so seamless, we’ve barely noticed it at all. The first real inkling of their transformation from gimmicky underground record label to big league hit-makers came last year, when SOPHIE lent his production skills to Madonna’s “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” injecting a heady dose of his bright fizzy sound into a huge, global release. As Sasha Geffen wrote in the Chicago Reader, “[The track was] the first real taste of Soundcloud’s pop simulacra finding its way into capital-P pop music…the industry is getting faster, sniffing out rising talent like SOPHIE before most of the music world even hears of them.” Exactly one month later, SOPHIE’s “Lemonade” was being used in a McDonalds advert: a sure sign that their sickly sweet beats were on their way to peak commercialism.

Following that, PC Music inked a deal with major label Columbia Records, swiftly releasing Danny L Harle’s sparklingly brilliant EP Broken Flowers. The statement that came along with this partnership was particularly telling: “A new, perfect breed of major label. A new, highly advanced pop weapon.” Adding: “We’ve been very busy this summer and finally the time has come to start unleashing large scale content of all shapes and sizes.”

They weren’t lying, either. The label has since aligned itself with global pop maestro Charli XCX, kick-starting a collaboration that would eventually result in her most recent EP Vroom Vroom. The release is four glittering, plastic pop tracks that sound like the musical equivalent of putting ten mentos into a 500ml Coke, and it’s entirely produced by label founder A.G. Cook and SOPHIE, including a baby-voiced collaboration with PC Music’s Hannah Diamond. Pitchfork, who reviewed the release, described it as “pointedly uncommercial and abrasive,” noting Charli’s decision to ditch mainstream sounds by employing underground producers. However, by the same logic, you could also view the collaboration as evidence that PC Music are beginning to shape the mainstream in their vision, rather than Charli XCX embracing the underground. It’s a dichotomy that was addressed in that same Pitchfork review, with writer Laura Snapes asking: “Is she sending up pop’s shallow triumphalism? Or reinforcing it?”

To get to the bottom of PC Music’s slow and steady infiltration of mainstream pop, we can look for patterns in the past. Stockholm’s Cheiron Studios was a hit-making factory of the past; essentially the place where pop music was redefined in the late 90s. Made up of an array of star-producers and songwriters, the studio team would work with artists to churn out hit after hit, resulting in the mammoth commercial success of artists like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Like PC Music, the studio had their own particular sound. As Alex Needham described it in The Guardian: “[It] was melodic but hard-edged, fiendishly catchy, packed with drama and somehow sweetly hymnal, with the same total technical precision and happy/sad dynamic as their Swedish forebears Abba.”

The studio closed down at the turn of the millennium, but its writers and producers continued to work with artists to produce global smash hits. Max Martin was a key figure at Cheiron Studios, and he went on to write some huge pop bangers, from Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” (2004) to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (2008) to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (2014) and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” (2015). Any tune with a huge hook that you’ve sung at the top of your lungs in the shower probably has a Martin credit. His name is synonymous with commercial success, and his creations have become the pure embodiment of modern pop.

Tellingly, PC Music founder A.G. Cook is a fan of both Cheiron Studios and Max Martin. He told TANK after the label’s inception: “I've always enjoyed playing a bit of an A&R role… I'm relatively up to date with chart music. I like keeping track of the mega-producers who have been responsible for endless hits over the last decade or two—Max Martin is probably my favourite, I'm usually drawn to his tracks whether they're for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift or Cher Lloyd.”

Given Cook’s infatuation, it makes sense that PC Music always genuinely intended to stage some sort of mainstream pop assault, despite those early accusations of parody. Take Hannah Diamond – their first serious attempt at launching a real pop star. She emerged fully-realised in 2013, characterised by her own intensely glossy, cute aesthetic, like a self-aware version of Britney Spears in 1998 after the release of “…Baby One More Time”. Shortly afterwards came QT, an even more meticulously moulded type of star—all peroxide hair and lip gloss—a virtual avatar for all the sickly sweet pop she creates to be guzzled down like the fizzy pop drink she peddles.

In a way, we can view these early PC Music “protégées” as walking, talking advertisements for what the label could do later. It’s almost as if QT was created to say: “Look, if we can do all this with a popstar that essentially doesn’t exist, imagine what we can do for you!” In fact, when you look at PC Music today, there’s really not much difference between their model and the model of a hit-making factory like Cheiron Studios. A.G. Cook and Sophie are the in-house writers and producers—the acts on the label are the artists. And now, like Max Martin, they're branching out into writing and producing for other people.

Last year, Mad Decent pop queen LIZ made a drastic switch from her usual commercial r&b sound into an all the more balloons and bubbles pop aesthetic with “When I Rule The World,” and it didn’t take more than ten seconds of the intro to figure out SOPHIE was behind it, placing himself at the production helm. The song went on to soundtrack a huge Samsung campaign, and in a subsequent interview, Liz mentioned even more unreleased music in the pipeline, written with A.G. Cook.

Just three weeks ago, PC Music’s Danny L Harle was pictured outside a music studio with Carly Rae Jepsen, hinting at a possible collaboration between the pair (ironically, the Canadian singer has also worked closely with Max Martin, who produced her 2012 track “Tonight I’m Getting Over You”). Basically, it’s not hard to see how the PC Music style is slowly becoming a pervasive force in 2016’s pop landscape, and it’s quite logical to envisage how an aesthetic adopted by Liz, Charli XCX, and Carly Rae Jepsen in one year, could become the mainstream aesthetic du jour within months.

When Rolling Stone asked A.G. Cook and Sophie if they were making fun of pop music, they didn’t hesitate in their answer: “No, I never set it up in that way,” explained Cook. “We take it seriously. This is a big part of our lives. There’s no way that satire could be at the core of anything.” Sophie then chimed in: “Why would you bother investing so much of your time and energy in something that’s basically laughing at something and not contributing anything? I don’t think that’s a worthwhile use of your time.”

Perhaps we’ve been so wrapped up in trying to figure PC Music out, we haven’t noticed what’s been there, sitting in plain sight, slowly creeping into our top 40, onto our TV screens and into the newest album’s small print. The questions about their authenticity now seem dated and narrow minded, and it's clear the label mean total business—whether you like it or not.

Their hyper-saturated influence is spreading, to the extent that it is even felt outside of their own contributions, from Kim Kardashian’s advert for Hype Energy to the sugary-sweet obnoxiousness of new artists like GIRLI. As they make the move into producing and writing for other artists, wrapping up deals with major labels and soundtracking global ad campaigns, A.G. Cook and Sophie are slowly building PC Music into a pop empire. They’re everywhere—and that’s exactly where they planned to be.

You can follow Daisy on Twitter.

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