Downwrite: Can Custom-Made Songs Save The Music Industry?

Tech Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Naming a star in the sky is all about the gesture. For $50, all the way up to couple hundred dollars, you can pick a name, receive a piece of paper, and point to the sky claiming a glimmering spec as you tell a story. For something more tangible, but also about the gesture, you can now own a different kind of star: a custom song from your favorite musician for just $100.

Downwrite is a new songwriting service started by Braid’s Bob Nanna and Spitalfield’s Mark Rose. The goal is to provide fans with a truly unique and power souvenir and, at the same time, financially sustain artists in a collapsing music economy.

With the abundance of music and inexpensive access to it on the internet, a song has become a devalued commodity as a digital product. Recorded music specifically, has become a way to sell other products and turned into a loss leader. So whether intentionally or not, Downwrite is attacking the question right at the heart of the matter: Are people still willing to pay for music? If so, and the service takes off, then maybe the music industry continues to rebuild around a more direct artist-to-fan model.

Instead of artists taking mindless temp jobs while they’re not touring or recording, creating custom songs gives them a more personal product to sell. Not everyone wants or needs a custom song done for them, but most established bands have their “super fans” that buy the deluxe pre-order packages or are constantly looking for reasons to buy merchandise. This is for those types of fans.

Downwrite was started back in February of 2013, but is still in a stealth-like mode. Nanna and Rose have been working on getting the formula just right before an eventual large scale launch. Right there are about 50 artists on the site from bands like Panic At The Disco, The Get Up Kids, and Hawthorn Heights. Each of the songwriters are friends of Nanna and Rose or friends of friends to keep things controlled in this early stage.

There’s still a lot of things to figure out and get ready before opening the platform to all songwriters later this year. For example, who owns the right to the song created or how can the song be shared online, if at all? These are all side effects inherently tied to a digital service like this.

“It’s all at the discretion of the artist, so if an artist did a song for someone and the person didn’t get permission to put it online, then we can politely ask them to take it down,” Nanna says. “It’s one of the reasons we haven’t opened it to everyone and kept it at a manageable number of artists, so that when something like that [copyright issues] might go awry we all understand this is a new venture and we’ll just figure it out together.”

Downwrite is first and foremost an artist friendly service, but to keep things accessible everyone is required to have a $100 entry level which usually includes one vocal and one instrument. The prices go up from there depending on complexity and time, but artists can set their own price points. This potentially helps with balancing time for some of the more popular artists.

The issue of scaling was also brought up by Jonathan Mann, a solo artist in the song commissioning business. “The problem with this model [individual song commissions] is finding the right dollar amount that makes it viable and scalable,” he says. “Too low and you’re drowning in requests, writing them non-stop for not that much money. Too high and your pricing the average person out.”

For Mann, a lot of his actual revenue comes from corporate events where he’s hired to attend the event and capture it in a song written that day and perform it at the end. He’s been featured numerous times in the news for his quick songwriting, including the one Steve Jobs picked to lead off Apple’s “Antennagate” problem.

Mann says the key for him has been speed. Writing catchy songs quickly has helped him capitalize on time-relevant events. To keep his skills sharp he writes a new song each day – currently he’s hovering around 2000 days.

“I definitely think most artists could make a go of doing commissions on one level or another,” Mann says. “It helps to be able to make something that sounds great really, really quickly.”

For Downwrite, it isn’t solving the direct to fans model for artists, there’s already lots of options available. Kickstarter provides crowdfunding for popular artists, Bandcamp a download alternative to iTunes and so on. What it is doing, however, is creating yet another completely new way to take music and give it value. Instead of another t-shirt package, fans could have the opportunity to buy custom songs and artists might discover a hidden goldmine. It could also turn out to be something fans aren’t interested in either.

“The idea of commissioning someone to write a song has been around for centuries,” says Downwrite co founder Mark Rose. “Where we are trying to break new ground is the platform and community aspect of Downwrite. We want to allow songwriters to be available to their supporters on a level that is actually about creating and inspiring. plus it leads to a really neat creative space when songs are being written about the lives and stories of other people—usually songs that would not have otherwise been written.”

It might seem a little like magic how the site works—being able to request a song and get a personal gift on the other side—but it’s not. When you visit the site and pick the person you’d like to write a song for you you’re asked to fill out a few specific questions. The idea is to give the songwriter as much information to go off of and be able to craft a song that feels personal—most likely including names and referencing fun times.

It’s a little like Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s greeting card writing job in the moving Her. People provide the things they think are important and the creative artist fills in the gaps and gives someone the means to say what they couldn’t.

“You have to think of it like, if I wanted a painting for my fiancé and I can’t do it, then I’m going to commission something I can have a little direction on,” says Nanna. “It’s still authentic, in fact, it’s even more authentic because you have these feelings but maybe you just aren’t the best at expressing them.”

The site just passed it 500th commissioned song and both Nanna and Rose seem very pleased where Downwrite gotten to and where it’s headed. There’s still a lot of work and a lot of items to check off the to-do list, however, including revamping the website and better videos explaining the process.

The hard work getting the site going hasn’t been without its benefits for the two founders though. Each has been able to stretch their songwriting skills in new and unique ways. For Nanna, the founding of Downwrite and finishing the upcoming Braid record overlapped a little and he incorporated some of those new skills into his band’s album. Something he started with Downwrite commissioned songs was videoing himself write a new song and then re-watch it the next day for a fresh perspective. He even brought Braid band member Chris Broach in on the practice and taped the two learn of them learning to play all of the new songs.

Rose, on the other hand brought up the point that he wasn’t sure how it would impact him to read the emotional stories people wanted documented through a song. As a songwriter it can test what you’re capable of to try and put yourself in other people’s place and write a touching song.

This is all part of what makes a product like a custom song more valuable and hopefully, for the musicians, worth people’s money. The custom-made songs from Downwrite might not save the music industry as a whole. The current state of the recorded music industry has a lot of issues it needs to work out.

But for the artists and fans who are actually interesting in using the service, Downwrite just might get them through another year until the publishers, distributers, and Spotifys of the world work the rest out.