Cash for Catharsis: Paying Artists to Write Songs About You

Evan Sawdey

Say Anything's Max Bemis recently reopened his "Song Shop", wherein you can "buy" a Say Anything song for $150, the finished acoustic number arriving in your inbox a week later. Yet is it worth it? Where does the line between creativity and commerce end?

Ever want to be immortalized in a song? Or, more critically, do you have a spare $150 laying around?

Say Anything, for the uninitiated, is a surprisingly literate, self-consciously humorous emo-rock act fronted by Max Bemis, a young man who has a strong, distinct personality that stands out amidst the sea of generic Alternative Press flavors-of-the-week that come and go every month without much notice. Bemis' "official" debut album, 2004's excellent … is a Real Boy, was a theatrical, intelligent affair that got all the attention it deserved: few emo-rock albums carry as much pop-savvy or emotional heft as this album did, never once leaning into overly-poetic (see: indulgent) lyrics, simply because Bemis was so self-deprecating to be nailed with heavy criticism. Though his follow-up disc (2007's double-disc affair In Defense of the Genre) was predictably bloated, Bemis showed no signs of slowing down his Pollard-like output, contributing to last year's Punk Goes Crunk album (a cover of Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money") and releasing a full-length album from his Two Tongues side-project just a few months ago.

It's interesting, then, that Bemis has done the unusual move or opening up (or, more accurately, reopening) a "Song Shop" on the Say Anything website. On the embedded YouTube video that accompanies it, Bemis explains that this is an experiment, wherein for a fee of $150, you can submit one or two paragraphs about a situation you're having, and Max will write a full-bodied full-length acoustic Say Anything song just for you, named after you. It's literally that simple.

This "song shop" idea raises a lot of questions, not only about the motivations of the artist, but also the motivations of the purchasers and the intrinsic "value" of songs. First off, it seems like Bemis isn't exactly desperate for a buck here: he's got a new Say Anything album in the works, and In Defense of the Genre debuted in the Top 30 of the pop charts when it came out, so financially he's set. After churning out two discs of material for Defense and a whole new batch of songs for Two Tongues, perhaps all Bemis is looking for is a challenge. He mentions in the video that when he was a kid, to have his favorite artist actually write a song about him would've been the biggest thrill in the world, and so he's simply providing that opportunity for others.

Though the sentiment is sweet, his claim that something like this has never been done before is not entirely accurate. Artists have commissioned out songs dozens of times over, and even "I Kissed a Girl" songwriter Jill Sobule (author of the 1995 hit, not the vapid 2008 Katy Perry version) recently put out an album of songs that was 100% financed through fan donations, one fan even paying $10,000 to go as far as to sing with Sobule on a track. What Bemis is correct about in his post is that utilizing the internet is a fantastic way for artists to connect directly to fans, and to have one Jill Sobule fan get the chance to sing with his idol -- well, how often do you get to pay for that privlage?

Bemis' project, though, is unique and quixotic in a few ways. Though Radiohead's infamous In Rainbows experiment brought the question of the "value of music" in the Age of Downloading right to the media forefront, what Bemis is asking is that you place a price of $150 on a song that hasn't even been written yet. Obviously, this is the ultimate non-returnable item, but the only people who are pay are going to be the hardcore fans. What if they're disappointed in the song? What if they think it's too short, or somehow doesn't address the problem that they submitted in the first place? A quick glance at the legal talk indicates that once a song is written in the "song shop", the rights of it are actually retained by the RCA Music Group, implying that if Bemis ever got down on his luck, that personal song he wrote for you could be released as part of some cash-grab album release, your personal pain made totally public for the world to see (yet if you're sharing that pain with Bemis and his handlers in the first place, you're undoubtedly willing to share just a little bit of yourself to the public at large, and shouldn't be surprised if that happens).

Furthermore, if I pay for a song and all I put in the description is "I am awesome," is Bemis still obligated to do a song about that? I mean, I did just pay him $150, so why shouldn't he write a tune about my inherent awesomeness? What if I'm and ask him to write a song about me? An ice-cream shop willing to pay $150 for an emo jingle? What if 100 of my friends all submit our requests on the same day, and Bemis is contractually obligated to fulfill them within the week timeframe of which he stipulates on the Song Shop page (there is no mention of a refusal or unwillingness on Bemis' part to write the songs dictated in the legal speak)?

These are all valid questions that apply directly to how much Bemis wants to creatively challenge himself. Is it worth it? Have you, the reader, actually done it? If so, were you satisfied with the song you received? None of this is easy territory to navigate, but it raises many questions about creativity versus commercialism: simply put, where do we draw the line?

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