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Songs 4 Sale: To Pay the Bills, Some Artists Are Writing Music Directly for Fans

Members of Stars, Everclear and other acts are turning to the ages-old commissioning model for additional revenue.

On Dec. 30, Torquil Campbell, co-lead singer/songwriter of the Montreal-based indie band Stars, tweeted that he would accept song commissions from fans for $1,000 each at the start of the new year. Almost immediately, the artist received a flood of direct messages.

“It’s been insane. I haven’t had a response to anything like this in years,” says Campbell, who has received over 70 commissions to date. “I’m sort of trying to figure out why, in a way. Really, all I said was that I was available to hire to do what I do for a living, but that seems to have blown people’s minds.”

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Campbell initially characterized the commissioning project as an effort to “survive” amid the ongoing pandemic and its continued negative impacts on the touring industry. But COVID-19 is only the most recent, and acute, setback for independent acts, some of whom have argued that streaming revenue alone doesn’t provide enough money to pay the bills. That reality, coupled with the loss of earnings from touring, has led Campbell and several other artists to turn to the centuries-old model of individual song commissions – and some are seeing substantial returns.

Song commissioning is nothing new. Before the dawn of recorded music, composers like Handel and Bach relied on the generosity of aristocratic patrons to produce some of the greatest works of the Baroque period. “That is the way artists lived for long periods of time in history,” says Campbell, who records the songs out of a Vancouver studio he rented through a local program that leases space in empty buildings to artists. “So, it seems both old and new, in a strange way.”

Inspired by her bandmate, Stars member Amy Millan put out a call for song commissions on Twitter just four days after Campbell did. The singer is charging $1,000 as an individual and $2,000 as a duo with Campbell, with whom she’s collaborating on select commissions. The project is just the latest example of Stars’ loyal fanbase pitching in to help the band members survive a dark period. Earlier in the pandemic, the group launched a Patreon page that has so far brought in six figures (membership is $5 a month) by allowing fans an inside look at the creation of Stars’ next album, which is due for release on Last Gang Records in June.

Millan says that most of the commissions she’s received to date have been love stories, often tied to the band’s songs. “A lot of people grew up with our music, they’ve fallen in love to our music … And it’s kind of a beautiful thing, because they’re tied to us, and we’re tied to them now,” says Millan.

Roots-rock band The Steel Wheels was one of the first to try this kind of song commissioning during the pandemic. The group recorded over 90 commissioned songs in 2020 alone (both originals and covers) and have so far released two compilations of the original music spawned by the project: Everyone a Song Vols. 1 and 2. Though the band originally offered covers for $300 and original songs for $450, lead singer and main songwriter Trent Wagler says the originals proved far more popular. The group — which is spread out across the country and has largely leaned on drummer Kevin Joaquin Garcia to mix the tracks via his home studio in Brooklyn — has since increased the price for an original track to $1,500 (the band makes it clear to commissioners upfront that The Steel Wheels owns the rights to all commissioned music).

Aside from the obvious financial benefits – Wagler says The Steel Wheels earned roughly the equivalent of “three good festival gigs” in 2021 through song commissions – the project has been gratifying for the band in less expected ways.

“The biggest benefit for us, was that it kept us engaged and it kept us creative…as a band, it kept us alive,” says Wagler, adding that the group “actually grew musically” because of the project. It even resulted in their first-ever synch in a feature film: “Water and Sky,” an original song that was used in the 2021 film South of Heaven starring Jason Sudeikis and Evangeline Lilly. Another track spawned by the project, “It’s Your Fault,” sat in the top 50 of the Americana Radio Singles Chart for seven weeks, while the compilation on which it appeared, Everyone a Song Vol. 2, ranked in the top 50 of the Americana Radio Albums Chart for 10 weeks.

Other musical artists have been scoring commissions through a variety of platforms, including so-called “song shops” like Songfinch and Songlorious. The most ambitious of these is Downwrite, which allows musicians to set their own prices (though it sets a “floor” to keep acts from undercutting each other) and includes both publishing and distribution functions to help songs have a second life beyond the commission itself.

Founded by Chicago-based musicians Bob Nanna and Mark Rose in 2013, Downwrite was relaunched by CEO Jake Morris and CFO & COO James McHugh in the wake of the pandemic in May 2020 and quickly took off. Last summer, the company hired She Wants Revenge singer-guitarist Justin Warfield as vp artist services, partly to help woo other prominent artists to the platform. Since Warfield’s hire, Downwrite has nearly doubled its artist count, from around 100 to about 200, including such names as Filter singer Richard Patrick and Filter guitarist Jonny Radtke, Asdru Sierra of Ozomatli, Barbadian singer Shontelle and Everclear’s Art Alexakis. The platform also recently added a matching tool to its official website to try to extend the service’s appeal to broad-based music fans — i.e. users looking for an original wedding or birthday song who aren’t pre-existing fans of any of the artists. Additionally, Downwrite has several resident producers, engineers and mixers on hand for artists who require additional resources or support outside of their home recording studios.

Downwrite takes an upfront 20% fee on all commissions, with the rest going to the artist. The company also offers a commercial license option for the fans commissioning the songs where they can receive 5% on any future revenue, with the artist and Downwrite splitting the rest 75/25, respectively. (For artists with exclusive publishing deals elsewhere, the platform will contact the company in question to try and hash out an agreement that makes sense for both sides.) “We’re trying to do something proactively with the music. We’re not just going to sit on it and store it away,” says Downwrite COO & CFO James McHugh. “We want to use Downwrite to create hits.”

For Warfield, who once received $4,000 for a single commission on the platform (most of his time at Downwrite is spent on executive duties), the song commissioning model is ripe for a creator economy that has lately seen a surge in demand for rare, one-of-a-kind items like NFTs. ” You can put a banana on a wall in an art gallery, but it has to have that note and certificate of authenticity,” he says. “And you can download a song or stream a song from me, but that’s not the same as me making a one-of-one for you.”

Downwrite bills itself as “artist-friendly,” though part of the appeal of commissions for Campbell, Millan and Wagler seems to be removing intermediaries from the equation altogether.

“To make a lot of money streaming or if you’re trying to play the algorithm just right, you’re just gonna make yourself crazy,” says Wagler. “To me, this felt like a more gratifying thing where it’s like, ‘Let me simplify it to the smallest denominator… That’s really gratifying compared to like, trying to see how many playlists we can get on on Spotify.”

Campbell is even more hopeful for the long-term potential of the one-to-one model.

“I think that there’s a lot of room for people to return to an economy that is less unfair…and controlled by middlemen,” Campbell says. “And if we choose to do that with each other, we’ll all benefit from it.”