Musicians write custom songs for any occasion
Matt Pryor just recorded a song that captured the entire relationship of a couple, from first date to breakup. But they were strangers to him. And he was hired to do it.
“The guy said, ‘You wrote us a song three years ago. Then she cheated on me, and now she’s dead to me,’” recalls Pryor, a singer-songwriter with the influential Kansas City band The Get Up Kids.
“So I wrote it pretty angry but vague. It’s not like, ‘Oh Brenda, you bitch!’ It’s written from someone who’s hurt. It’s someone who’s angry. Those are things I can do.”
It’s something Pryor does quite often.
He is among several KC-area songwriters who create personalized, made-to-order compositions. Pryor recently completed his 1,000th song for hire.
He finds his customers through the online service Downwrite (downwrite.com), which lists a roster of successful musicians.
Lawrence’s Katlyn Conroy advertises custom-made songs through her own social media (katlynconroy.bandcamp.com).
“The first year I was just reaching out as if I were promoting anything else, like a show or a project or a benefit,” says Conroy, best known for her work with the band Cowboy Indian Bear.
“My main goal the first year wasn’t even money; I wanted to work on doing more solo material. I thought, ‘If I can customize a song, it’s going to be a really cool practice in how to write one quickly, how to challenge myself to not write about me — because I always just write about me — and how to write in a style I’m not used to.’”
She figured most of her requests would be romance-themed, so she launched her songs-for-hire one Valentine’s Day.
“But I also wanted to leave it open for as much audience as possible. So it can be about a partner, a pet, a best friend or someone who you just want to express your love or appreciation for. Or the opposite,” she says.
Pryor originally got intrigued by the concept after his friend Max Bemis, frontman of the Los Angeles band Say Anything, opened an online store in which he offered to create customized singles for $100.
“I was too scared to do it on my own because I worried if it did poorly, that would just be like, ‘Pryor sucks,’” he says.
Then he heard about Downwrite, founded by Chicago performers Bob Nanna of the band Hey Mercedes and Mark Rose of Spitalfield. Their website promotes: “A lyric to capture or celebrate a moment; a melody to help remember what’s important. From first dances, best friendships and reflective tributes to personal theme songs, soothing lullabies or individual projects.”
Pryor liked the “community vibe. And I felt, ‘Well, if this fails, then it’s on them.’”
The indie-rock singer got his first order on the day he joined. Six years later he is cranking out tunes at an astonishing pace.
“I would say 75 percent of what I do is weddings, anniversaries and holidays — just-wanted-to say-I-love-you kind of things,” he says.
He charges a base $100 per composition, which buys a recording of himself accompanied by guitar. The next level up adds piano and harmonies. $500 includes a full band.
Then there are “upgrades”: handwritten lyrics. A seven-inch vinyl single. Even a video of Pryor performing the track.
“If you were going to buy an anniversary present that was unique and not mass-produced, a hundred bucks seems fair. I’ve charged more, and I make more per song but get fewer orders. Honestly, I’d rather get more orders and keep it fairly reasonable,” he says.
“I don’t fault any musician — or any other artist — for having a side hustle. It keeps me writing and keeps me home.”
Laci Bostick of Kansas City has been a fan of Conroy’s for almost a decade. That’s why Bostick hired her on four occasions.
“I love her voice, lyrics, emotion and style,” Bostick says. “We share a birthday and love of Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes). When she advertised writing songs for Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be a super special gift for my then-husband. We had seen Katlyn perform together. I’m divorced and have had her write songs for three other men. I keep hoping one will feel my love and effort through her song.”
Conroy describes her style as “apparition pop.” (“I write stuff that ends up spooky or eerie-sounding, even though that might not be the subject matter,” she says.)
Bostick usually sends her a detailed description that provides context for what she needs the lyrics to cover. Her latest involves a bar-hopping trip to St. Louis, where she ended up meeting a guy who was into Stokely Carmichael speeches and a plant-based diet.
Three of the four cuts Bostick procured could be considered “love songs.” She claims her favorite lyric among them is, “We’ve done drugs / But you’re the most addicting thing to me.”
“I’ve never gotten a request I couldn’t fill,” says Conroy, who generates 25 to 45 songs a year.
While she knows she can get paid much more, she keeps her rates disarmingly low. She only charged $25 per song her first year – and that included “drawing a portrait of you and your significant other.” The highest she’s ever charged since then is $50.
Although both Conroy and Pryor have never been stumped by a topic, they admit some prove rather bizarre.
Pryor once had a request for a tune about an octopus falling in love with a robot. He’s done a theme for a comic book based on a missing dog. He also wrote the jingle advertising a frontier board game.
“A lot of them are kid songs that incorporate a 2-year-old’s nickname — like Binky-Poo or something. They give you a list of the kid’s nicknames and another list of their favorite toys,” he says.
“If you come up with a good enough metaphor, you can write a song about anything.”
Downwrite musician Josh Berwanger recalls his most unusual topic.
“I got one wanting a song about ’80s and ’90s pro-wrestling, ‘Full House,’ Urkel, drugs, how hipsters suck, making love and summer camp,” he says. “It ended up being a song I really liked. I sort of just took samples from some of the TV shows. As crazy as all that subject matter sounds, I may re-record it and put it on the next album.”
A veteran of the area bands The Anniversary, The Only Children and Radar State (alongside Pryor), Berwanger uses this format to bolster his own skills.
“I find the challenge as a positive. I end up writing sometimes four to five songs out of (each job). So I’m able to capture what the customer wants and also come away with something I want to use,” he says.
Berwanger enjoys approaching the task when he’s “in a non-creative mood.”
“It’s when someone is asking you to write something for them that is personal — or about ‘Full House’ — and it makes me sit down and forget anything in my head and open up more when I’m in the ‘not-wanting-to-touch-a-musical-instrument phase.’”
But some topics are much harder than others.
“The biggest challenge is when something’s really sad,” Pryor says. “I had one about a kid dying. A 3-month-old infant. I can write about kids pretty easily. But the memorial ones are kind of difficult. It’s not something I like to dwell on.”
Is it an honor to be asked to memorialize a child in song?
“It’s an honor to be asked to write anything for anybody,” Pryor replies.
For music fans, the ability to connect directly with an artist can often be the most profound reward obtainable.
“I have an acquaintance who likes to say live music only happens once,” Bostick says. “Personalized songs from a musician with immense talent and emotion should be treasured. If I ever received a gift like this, I’d be blown away.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”