Page last updated at 07:41 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 08:41 UK

Inside Britain's top hit factory

By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News


Xenomania are one of the most successful music production companies in the world

Having crafted tunes for Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and Alesha Dixon, Xenomania are Britain's most successful songwriting and production team for 20 years.

Now they are grooming a stable of new acts who they hope will be the next generation of pop stars.

Inside the cosy country mansion that serves as Xenomania's headquarters, a warren of unpretentious rooms houses an army of young, attractive and gifted musicians and technicians, all chiselling away at future hits.

A couple of potential pop pin-ups sit around a large dining table, humming away at laptops, while the sound of singing wafts from the living room.

Miranda Cooper (left) and Brian Higgins
Miranda Cooper and Brian Higgins lead the team of singers, musicians, lyricists and producers

Upstairs, a store cupboard has been converted into one of several homely but modest rooms where vocals are recorded.

These surroundings are very familiar to the likes of Cheryl, Kylie and Alesha.

The most obvious sign that this is the nerve centre for Britain's most celebrated pop powerhouse is found on the walls of a dingy corridor next to the downstairs loo, where the gold discs hang.

The Xenomania operation is masterminded by Brian Higgins, a personable, highly driven perfectionist who got his big break by writing Cher's 1998 global smash hit single Believe.

He owns the Kent mansion, which he ensures is buzzing with creative energy 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

He runs the operation with chief lyricist Miranda Cooper, a former backing singer for Gina G.

Together the pair have helped steer pop clear of manufactured pap, and into territory that is credible and cutting-edge.

They gave hits to Sugababes before Girls Aloud rose out of reality TV and came looking for a fresh, sexy sound.

Xenomania have been responsible for 20 of Girls Aloud's 21 hit singles.

Mini Viva
Mini Viva are on course to give the new Xenomania stable its first Top 10 single

They also resurrected Alesha Dixon's career, wrote the infectious single Sweet About Me for Gabriella Cilmi and produced the Pet Shop Boys' last album. Kylie was there recently, working on new material.

After Leonard Cohen, Xenomania were the most successful songwriters in the UK singles chart in 2008, and were named producers of the year by industry magazine Music Week.

"Everybody loves pop music," says an enthusiastic Cooper.

"I think pop music is doing so well now because it's a hybrid - it's got one foot firmly in left field, one foot firmly in dance music.

"So it's probably the one genre of music that's pushing the boundaries the most."

The perfect pop hook - "something the postman can whistle" - is the holy grail for the Xenomania team, she says.

As their main muses, Girls Aloud could be seen as the embodiment of the Xenomania sound - modern, stylish, energetic and mischievous.

Xenomania are often compared to another British hit factory, Stock, Aitken & Waterman, who dominated the charts in the second half of the 1980s.

Ten years back we agreed we never wanted to be caught making the same record twice
Brian Higgins

Pete Waterman and co launched the music careers of Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Mel & Kim and The Reynolds Girls, among others.

"Obviously I think Stock, Aitken & Waterman made some good records, but they stuck with one sound," Higgins says.

"They milked it - they had a short, explosively successful career, but 10 years back we agreed we never wanted to be caught making the same record twice."

Higgins says his team has jettisoned the traditional song structure in an attempt to make every song sound a bit different.

"We'd do anything for that level of success, but artistically we'd have different values. We want a long career, never repeating ourselves."

Electro duo NiteVisions are the sons of two members of Duran Duran

After being hitmakers for hire, Xenomania are now busy discovering, developing and unleashing a stable of their own new artists.

The team have spent the past few years searching on both sides of the Atlantic for the next big things.

They now have around a dozen new acts who are ready, or getting ready, to be launched on the world.

They range from predictably in-your-face, ass-kicking girls like Mini Viva, Jessie Malakouti and Maxine, to mass market guitar boys Vagabond and JFK, to electro duo NiteVisions - who are, literally and sonically, the offspring of Duran Duran.

Mini Viva - a 21st-Century Mel & Kim - are on course to be the first of the new crop to reach the Top 10 this weekend.

"You're trying to find true stars," Higgins says.

"I'm looking for people who are hungry, exceptionally musically talented, and have got character and backbone."

After finding the raw talents, Xenomania have honed their sounds and nurtured their songwriting and performance skills.

Xenomania do not have their own record label - yet.

Instead they offer acts to major labels once they are the finished article and have probable hit singles in the bag.

As well as allowing Xenomania to take creative control of all aspects of an artist's career, the strategy also lets them take a larger slice of the earnings.

Call the Shots and The Promise have probably driven around 500,000-600,000 ticket sales for Girls Aloud
Brian Higgins

While being paid a flat fee for writing and producing songs, Xenomania looked on as the likes of Girls Aloud sold out arenas and signed merchandise and modelling deals.

That would not have been possible, they argue, without the hits they created.

"You can't avoid the fact that the value of an individual song has diminished and diminished," Higgins says, referring to the difference in price between a CD single a decade ago and a download today.

"The business is about songs driving the industry. Call the Shots and The Promise have probably driven around 500,000-600,000 ticket sales for Girls Aloud.

"Going forward, I would hope that we're staying involved with our artists for long enough on a business level to be participating in those income streams."

Cooper adds: "It makes sense, because these songs are driving all these modelling contracts and sponsorship deals and all sorts."

Xenomania now have big names queuing up to work with them. But they turn the vast majority down because they want to focus on the new acts.

Of 26 requests received from established artists in six weeks, 24 were declined.

It is a risky move, but one they believe they must make to thrive in the modern music industry.

If the fresh-faced hopefuls humming around the dining table and singing in the sitting room become household names, it will have paid off.

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