One of the most interesting things of the digital age is the variety of methods bands have utilized to generate an income while making music. One of the most widespread examples is the rise and increased presence of merch. To some degree, that method works because you can't download a shirt. My personal favorite method is the Melvins method whereas the band releases highly limited, highly ornate pieces aimed squarely at their core audience.
Another particularly interested method is a new idea pioneered by Punknews polarizer Max Bemis of Say Anything. Through Bemis' song shop, for either $75 or $150, one can commission Bemis to write a song one one's behalf on the topic of one's choice. Although, it should be noted, that while Bemis does write the song on the purchaser's chosen topic, Bemis retains all rights to the song and merely licenses the purchaser the right to private use of the song, very much mimicking the rights acquired when one purchases a song off iTunes.
The system is interesting and innovative, although, in many ways, it harkens back to medieval England. During the Dark Ages, making money off art was a concept that simply didn't exist. So, the main, and nearly exclusive way, that art was created was through commissions. Either noblemen would sponsor artists to create art on their chosen topic or the Church would pay artists to create certain works along a strict guideline of Artistic Dos and Don'ts. It would seem that because it is so difficult to support oneself on music, Bemis has chosen to regress to the age of Iron, instead of allowing himself to wither at a job that doesn't utilize his talents.
So the, if Bemis is tied to the highest bidder, what could be the result of this pairing? Curious, I found that Punknews staffer Gen Handley actually commissioned Bemis to write a song for his then girlfriend/ now ex-girlfriend some years ago. Because the terms to Bemis-custom tunes are so restrictive, I traveled to Gen's house to check out the jams.
I arrive at Gen's house and he lets me inside. Although he's Canadian, his house is surprisingly empty of maple syrup and jean jackets. Before I can question his national pride, Gen states, "My ex-girlfriend and I were big Max Bemis fans. Say, do you like Say Anything?"
Instead of replying, I make a show of taking off my studded leather jacket which has a Crass logo stenciled on the back. With my jacket off, I reveal my Amebix t-shirt and begin to flex my biceps, showing off my three Black Flag bars tattoos...
Gen frowns. Still, he continues "I had Max write this song because Say Anything was my girlfriend's favorite band. Basically, I sent him like 200 words and he wrote a song around it."
"But, you and your girlfriend broke up afterwards, right?" I ask.
Gen pauses and looks out the window. With muted breath he replies, "Yes…but we're still…friends." He then pauses, crosses the room and looks out another window.
Looking to break the mood, I declare, "Well, to good and bad break ups!" Gen replies "To good women and bad break ups!" We both look for a tumbler of Bushmills, but unfortunately find that the only beverage in Gen's house is a quarter-filled 2 liter bottle of flat Diet Lemon-Lime Shasta. Gen makes some excuse about his beverage glasses "being out for retro-fitting" and pours me three fingers of Shasta into an empty pickle jar while he keeps the plastic bottle for himself. We awkwardly toast and he hits "play" on his lap top. I set the untouched "glass" down while Gen isn't looking.
Bemis' "Fingertips" [sadly, not a Stevie Wonder cover] begins with Bemis counting off the tune with a stripped down rawness. Based around a heavy struck acoustic riff, Bemis sings in an imperfect, but honest voice. Perhaps the song is a little maudlin with the same emotion of wistful longing throughout, but it is remarkable how much seemingly true sentiment Bemis can put into a song about another person's love affair.
It's unclear how much of the lyrical input is Bemis' and how much is Gen's, but despite some of the clichés in the song such as "Where you go / I wanna be baby" and "You drive me so crazy," Bemis does drop in some unusual, and purposefully ambiguous metaphors such as "We fight and scratch like kittens do often."
Though, perhaps as he has to follow a certain series of events, the song feels less like a song, and more like a litany of experiences set to an acoustic instrumental. Although the song is striking in its specificity, some of the lines sink like anchors, simply because they don't flow with the rhythm of the song nor they play off each other. But then again, in the striking simplicity and low key nature of the song, it does feel genuine.
It's difficult to say how successful the song get. Gen informs me that his ex-girlfriend loved it, so for the intended parties, the song did exactly its job. But, then again, this creates a dangerous dynamic. Does art need to be able to do a "job?" In tethering the artist to the purchaser, the artist is no longer free to create music that he would create on his own, but is rather bound to certain rules. As the beautiful art of the Dark Ages shows, talent will always find the most clever ways to work within confines of certain rules, but the rules themselves stay, thus hampering creative development. One needs no further proof of this than the following Renaissance period when artists could make money off art and there was a subsequent creative exposition of ideas, concepts and elevation in style and form.
Jesse Michaels once famously stated "My view on making money from art is that when anybody who makes art makes money, it's one of the good guys winning. I'd rather see someone from a punk band make their money from the band then punching the clock where they aren't going to utilize their talents." But it seems that the only way artists can fully utilize their talents instead of wasting them is by being directly responsible to a patron, which seems both dangerous and subversive. Bemis should be commended for struggling to find ways to keep making art. Yet, it's sad that the only way artists can continue to make art is by making work for hire.
After the song concludes, I ask Gen, "So, what caused the break up? What happened afterwards?"
Gen shrugs and replies, "You know, I'm not sure. I think she started seeing some guy called Mox or Mack or something?"