A few weeks ago, NPR's On the Media ran a story about Matt Farley, who is likely the most prolific songwriter of all time. The story is very fun and is just under 12 and a half minutes long; you can listen to it here.
Farley is not a tortured genius who can do nothing but write songs, nor is he a sought-after balladeer-for-hire. He is not under contract with any studio or label. Instead, he's the unique product of the shifting pay model for digital music; essentially, Farley writes and records (in his basement, naturally) "search engine optimized" songs that he thinks consumers will find in their music search box and listen to. Basically, Farley is a music service spammer, but in the most charming way possible.
With the confluence of cheap digital music production and cheap digital music distribution, there has been an explosion of titles available to stream or download. Virtually anyone who wants to can create and sell their own music. There are over 20 million titles in Spotify's streaming catalog, and every one of them is available to listen to, in full, for an all-you-can-eat price of $10 per month. Similarly, the iTunes music store has over 26 million songs, most priced at 99 cents per track. Last year, they passed 25 billion (with a B) downloads.
There's money to be made, but not much if you don't have a mega hit. Spotify keeps 30% of its revenues for itself, then distributes the rest to rightsholders and artists. Though the royalty scale slides, the average payment from Spotify to artists is somewhere between half- and three-quarters of a penny per stream. For iTunes music downloads, Apple pays between 7 and 10 cents per track. Streaming services like Rdio and Rhapsody, and download services like CDBaby and Amazon, pay similar royalties.
Matt Farley understood that he might not make money off of pennies per song. But he figured that he could make money off of pennies per 14000 songs. So he set out to create music that people might search for, listen to, and (just maybe) pay $1 to own. Rather than call himself "Matt Farley," he uses his own label Motern Media and assigns specific names to each "band" that makes niche songs. Farley pays $50 to CDBaby for each album that he submits; they take care of distributing the music to the various sites and remit royalties collected. There are over 50 bands so far, and many have multiple "albums". Production costs are low; he records everything at his house, by himself and with spartan instrumentation and vocals. And most album covers are just a picture of Farley with some text stuck on top.
A selection of his music quickly demonstrates Farley's strategy. For example, available on offer from "The Best Birthday Song Band Ever" are over 1500 customized Happy Birthday songs. Most are the same song, but with a specific name or age. His Birthday Songs for Nearly Every Age record features 98 songs, starting with "Happy 1st Birthday (You Are One Year Old!)" and ending with "Happy 98th Birthday (You Are Ninety-Eight Years Old!)" All of them are identical, but for the age noted in the lyrics. You can buy the whole record for $9.99 or single tracks for $.99. The album notes on CD Baby suggest that you "buy all of these songs now and use them for the rest of your life." Similarly, Happy Birthday Vol. 4 features 100 "Happy Birthday [NAME]" songs, including Kassidy, Zackery, Larissa, Carl, and Glen. One can imagine someone searching for their kid's (or their dad's) name, and finding to their surprise a customized song. At $1, it's a cheap gift (and even with dubious quality, it still says the name and that counts for something!)
A few of Farley's other bands, with a representative song and lyrics, are as follows:
1. The Prom Song Singers - "Skylar, Will You Go To The Prom With Me?" (from Play This Song For Her, Vol. 5) - "pose for a picture, in my tux, next to you and your lovely dress, oh [NAME] will you go to the prom with me?"
2. The Smokin' Hot Babe Lovers - "Ashleigh Is A Smokin' Hot Babe" (from Songs About Smoking Hot Babes, Vol. 3) - "[NAME] is a smokin' hot babe [repeated in many variations]"
3. The Cincinnati Sports Band - "Bronson Arroyo Has Found a Home in Cincinnati" (from Reds & Bengals) - "It's Bronson Arroyo, oh oh oh oh, boy-o [repeated several times]"
4. The Spoiled Chefs - "Frozen Pizza" (from Songs About Food) - "I put it in my refrigerator, and I let it freeze, when I'm hungry I put it in the oven, and let it melt the cheese."
5. The Guy Who Sings Songs About Cities and Towns - "Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, World" (from These Songs are About Canada Places) - "Winnipeg, good city, uh huh, I like to go to Winnipeg. I go to Winnipeg all the time. Do a lot of fun stuff with my friends."
6. Papa Razzi and the Photogs - "I Love Kurt Vonnegut Books!" (from Songs About Literary Giants) - "Sometimes I am opposed to, quote-unquote experimental novels that do not follow the traditional rules of the novel. For example, novels like the ones by Kurt Vonnegut."
7. The Extreme Left-Wing Liberals - "Stop Cutting Down Trees to Build McMansions" (from Vote Democrat!) - "everyone living there, is just hanging on in quiet desperation, in these McMansions. We need to stop cutting down trees, we need to stop building McMansions."
8. The Ultra Right-Wing Conservatives - "Liberals Love Criminals" (from Vote Republican!) - "liberals think criminals are all good, and that they made mistakes because they had a bad childhood. Liberals have no sympathy for the innocent victims of homicide, but when a criminal says he's sorry for killing, the liberal's heart just beams with pride."
A particularly popular "band" of Foley's is The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, who have 9 albums full of scatologically-focused songs. On one end of the spectrum, "Poop Poop Poop Poop Song" (from The White Album (With Yellow and Brown Stains) is merely repetition of the word "poop" for 1:58. On the other end, their song "Poop Into a Wormhole" (from You Thought We Ran Out of Poop Songs Ideas. You Were Wrong.) is a lyrical sci-fi adventure, including the introductory verse and refrain:
Can I please get everybody's attention
I've discovered a wormhole to another dimension
No man alive would dare go inside
So I'm gonna squat over it and send my poop for a ride
(Poop, poop) I'm gonna poop into a wormhole
Farley often slips his phone number into his songs, and claims that he receives a call a day on average (though likely much more since he became Internet Famous). As for the big question of whether the strategy works? It seems to: Farley made over $23K last year, and his newfound popularity likely means he'll double it (or more) this year. It's just the sort of stupid creativity that I love.
BONUS FACT: As noted in the story, an estimated 20% of the songs on Spotify - about 4 million of them! - have never been streamed even one time. In part due to that story, a website has sprouted up that allows people to listen specifically to songs that have zero plays on Spotify. The site is Forgotify, and given the rate of growth of Spotify's catalog it is in no danger of extinction.