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Torquil Campbell, of the Canadian band Stars, decided to pivot and offer commissioned songs for people willing to spend the money. It was an effort to earn money during the pandemic.Richmond Lam/Supplied

Torquil Campbell has been a songwriter for hire before. But this time it’s personal.

The thespian and singer of the Canadian indie-pop band Stars is now accepting commissions to write and record songs for (and/or about) individual patrons. For $1,000, Campbell will compose a pop ditty or epic that is tailored to your life, concerns and circumstances.

“There’ll only be one copy of it unless you decide to share it, and your rights will last forever,” Campbell tweeted last week. “My aim is to write songs that see you.”

Like so many artistic pivots these days, Campbell’s new initiative was born out of pandemic-related uncertainty. A new wave of government-imposed lockdowns has made touring impossible, and Campbell’s theatre work is also on hold. “I’m lying in bed one morning having a panic attack,” Campbell explains from Vancouver. “What is this year going to be like? When are we going to be able play shows again?”

Faced with harsh economic realities, Campbell floated his personalized song commission idea on social media. He figured he’d get one or two responses. Instead, his inbox was flooded. “The reaction was immediate and it was unbelievable. It’s a lot of work to look forward to. But it’s also a living.”

Superpersonalized music is a niche version of what artists have always done – everybody from Bach to Rembrandt to Lightfoot took on commissions. But recent transitions such as Campbell’s – practical, almost mundanely commercial – can be seen as the culmination of a patron-focused model developing for some time now.

Pop songwriters by definition seek the widest audience possible for their music. But ubiquity doesn’t pay like it used to. To make $1,000 worth of Spotify royalties, for example, a song would need to be streamed more than 400,000 times. So, songwriters and recording artists are now going bespoke instead of big.

The most glamorous example of exclusive music happened in 2015, when the Wu-Tang Clan sold the one and only copy of its album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to hedge-fund maestro Martin Shkreli for a reported US$2-million. (Shkreli, the infamous “Pharma Bro” who price-gouged a life-saving drug, no longer owns Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. After he was sentenced to seven years in prison for securities fraud, the U.S. government auctioned off the album to an anonymous bidder.)

More recently, musicians are selling one-off digital collectibles known as NFTs (“nonfungible tokens”). Less sexy are online platforms such as GoFundMe (a crowdfunding plan used to raise money for just about anything, including recording albums) and Patreon (a subscription service). On their own Patreon page, Campbell and the Juno-nominated Stars are offering a live-streamed concert for their first 5,000 patrons.

And now Campbell, who with his Stars bandmates is given to sympathetic pop dramas and eloquent anthems, looks to audiences of one. “In our search for everyone to hear our art, we may have devalued the work,” he says. “That intrinsic value today might have to come from exclusivity.”

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After Meaghan Smith was unable to tour, she started writing songs from other perspectives, admitting that 'you have to be an empath to do this.'Candace Berry/Supplied

Where Campbell’s arrival to personally commissioned songs came out of pandemic-caused trauma to the music industry, Meaghan Smith has run her Our Song service for more than five years now. For personal and health reasons, the Halifax singer-songwriter pulled herself off the road in the mid-2010s. Unable to tour, the Juno winner lost her record deal with Warner Music Canada/Sire Records after releasing 2014′s Have A Heart.

“I needed to make up my own job, and I needed to feel I was contributing something meaningful,” Smith says. Although she wanted to continue writing songs, Smith was no longer interested in confessional music. “I’d been through hell,” she says, referring to a difficult pregnancy and the loss of her contract. “I didn’t want to be in my own head. I wanted to be in someone else’s.”

Her first commissioned personalized song, Good Good Heart, was written for a young father with a congenital heart condition who wasn’t sure he’d live to see the birth of his unborn daughter. It’s an affecting ballad in C major.

“After writing it, I quickly realized we all have different experiences in life, but we all have the same emotions,” Smith says. “The father’s fear was my fear. You have to be an empath to do this.”

The father lived, and now has a second daughter. Smith has written and recorded about 150 tributes, commemorations and other personal songs, and she keeps in touch with most of her customers. She might spend hours talking to family members and conducting research on the subject of the song.

In addition to fees that begin at $750, Smith owns the publishing rights to all her commissioned songs, which means she collects any songwriting royalties earned. Campbell doesn’t think he’ll follow that part of the business model himself. “I don’t need any more than the grand I’m being paid,” he says. “It’s a collaboration. It’s a part of their life. I feel like the exchange is fair.”

Campbell is all for demystifying the creative process and making connections with his audience. It is time, he believes, for artists to not see themselves as people in ivory towers who occasionally release art onto the world, but as shopkeepers.

“If you like what we sell, we promise we will always give a good product,” he says. “We will treat you well, we will remember your name, we will greet you with a smile and you will come back.”

Torquil Campbell, then, the melodious tailor on the corner. He’s open late, and he’s open for you.

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