You enter your favorite band name into Spotify, you find their entire catalog, but you also notice an entry down at the bottom of the list. It appears to be a song about the band. Out of curiosity, you click to listen, and in doing so, you’ve just helped Matt Farley earn his inspired, insane living off of music.
Under the guise of 60 monikers and band names, Farley records short, outrageous, often improvised songs based on celebrities, sports teams, politicians, musicians, and comedians, banking on the fact that curiosity will get you to stream one of his songs (or for the more adventurous, straight up buy it on iTunes). If he had only made a couple of releases using this strategy, this would be fairly unremarkable and the profits wouldn’t surpass even the modest investment of digitally releasing an album. But the reality of the situation is that Farley has released approximately 14,000 songs across 500 albums on Spotify and iTunes. These honey-trap songs have caught thousands upon thousands of people off guard, and just last year he earned $23,000 from the ridiculous tunes he bangs out on a keyboard in a basement in Danvers.
Learning about Farley’s ingenious strategy for turning a profit on recorded material in an era where most musicians are lamenting the extreme difficulties of the industry is a forehead slapping moment of revelation. After you hear about it, the method seems so simple and obvious: Flood the market with songs containing keywords that people search for, do it thousands of times until sheer math suggests that a portion of your songs are going to be inevitably consumed by music listeners. But then, if you’re like me, you begin to imagine the man hours required to accomplish something like this on the scale that Morten Media (the blanket company name Farley uses to refer to all of his efforts) must put in to make this a reality and you start to wonder, “Who the hell is this guy?”
Farley was kind and forthcoming when I requested an interview with him, and he exudes a sense of normality in his responses.
“One problem is that some of the things I’ve sung about are becoming out of date. So, I don’t think I’ll ever be set for life from this,” he says. “If I can continue to make enough money to afford to continue making music like this, I’ll be happy. The themes of my albums just come from thinking, “I wonder if anyone would want to hear songs about ________.” The blank field there is filled in by Farley with everything from accused murderer Amanda Knox, esteemed actor Alan Alda, peer pressure, LSD, poop, and getting blocked by Pitchfork editor-in-chief Mark Richardson.
It should be noted at this point, these songs are not particularly good. The keyboard playing is rudimentary and sloppy and the singing is strained and not overly melodic. What is interesting, however, is the sheer fact that they exist and have been released. Imagine the serendipitous feeling of having an unusual name like Xander, for instance, and stumbling upon a birthday song with your name in it on Spotify. If I’m Xander, there’s no way I’m not listening to that at least once, no matter what the quality is. Farley has recorded hundreds and hundreds of birthday songs using mostly the same instrumental backing track but switching out the vocals with a new name for each vocal take – Sadie, Andy, Sebastian, Nadine – the list goes on forever in an attempt to cover the bases on all popular names. “I can get 100 of those recorded in a day,” Farley says. “It’s not fun at all.”
But also, Farley can be unexpectedly hilarious in these songs, as well. Singing very specifically about the most un-songworthy topics can often result in a sheer comedic win. Without knowing Farley’s modus operandi, imagine how puzzling and subsequently hilarious you’d find a song like “Mike Daisey, Why You Gotta Tell Lies To Ira Glass?” if you came upon it accidentally while searching for an episode of “This American Life.” You’d wonder, “Who is this person singing and why did they do this?” If you listened to the right song, you’d actually find Farley’s phone number sung within the lyrics, and you’d be free to call him and ask these questions directly yourself.
Of the phone calls he receives from listeners, Farley says, “Sometimes people dial the number after hearing it. Lately, I’ve been averaging at least two calls every day. Often, the conversations are a little strained because the callers are so shocked I answered that they don’t know what to say. But the reaction is around 90 percent positive. Sometimes it’ll be a group of kids calling who want to mess with me. That’s not as much fun.”
Farley keeps his overhead low. He records the songs on a Tascam Digital 24-track recorder he bought in 2009, mixes directly to the CD-R burner built into the unit, forgoes the (quite expensive) mastering process, and snail-mails the finished album to CD Baby (an online music distributor for independent musicians) to its headquarters in Portland, Ore. A few weeks later, his new compositions are available digitally to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. CD Baby charges $50 per album and that dollar figure is, literally, the only financial risk Farley takes with each album.
“Most albums make at least $50 in a year,” Farley says, “but there are a few albums that have been out for years and still haven’t even reached $50. Overall, I’d say 90 percent of my albums make back the $50 investment in the first year. With a hundred songs per album, that’s not very hard to do.”
During Farley’s adventures in creating an online song empire, he’s become aware of several obscure rules set by iTunes that most people, even independent musicians, don’t know about. Since it’s in his financial best interest to load as many songs as possible onto each release, he asked iTunes what the maximum number of songs for a single album release was (100, it turns out). He’s been told he’s no longer allowed to put his contact information on the album cover itself (most Morten Media releases feature a mid-quality snapshot of Farley looking wide-eyed at the camera with some text breezily added in Photoshop).
“I did a series of prom songs. A ‘________, Will You Go to the Prom with Me?’ song for 500 different girl names,” Farley says. “I named the band How To Ask a Girl to the Prom, with the album titles being ‘Play This Song For Her Vol. 1-5.’ But I was told that online music stores don’t like band names that describe the music so plainly. So I renamed them The Prom Song Singers.” Obviously, this instance is not a matter of high artistic integrity, but for a moment please pause and consider the ramifications of iTunes or Spotify having a say in a band’s name.
When I ask Farley if he wonders if some of these restrictions are direct reactions to his body of work he answers, “I’m not sure if I caused any rules to be created.”
For now, Farley seems to be the only one at this game, at least at the level he’s currently operating. But the more that you consider his efforts, the more you can find parallels to how a spambot is programmed to operate, or at the least, the way in which online editors tailor headlines explicitly as clickbait. I can imagine a time in which this money making technique is employed by people with less personality and humor than Farley, and that future might be grim indeed. Since there is no one in charge at CDBaby, iTunes, or Spotify to decide “what constitutes a song” (yet), what’s stopping a spammer from creating a program that finds popular keywords, generates some very basic electronic tones, and slaps a voice simulation which speaks the keyword over the “music”? In other words, this whole process could be automated and it’s not unreasonable to predict that Spotify could be completely swamped with spambot songs in the next five years (in fact, this is already happening in the world of e-books, with some books being comprised of automated collections of YouTube comments). What would happen then? Would we have committees representing these online platforms that decide what is an actual song and what is not? Would that be a healthy reaction to a bad situation, or the beginning of an extremely depressing bureaucratization of music?
If this does happen, and Farley is identified as the man who fired the first shot, countless people will wonder, “Why did he start doing that?” It’s a good question, and one that is rather easily traced.
“I have been part of a musical duo called Moes Haven with my friend Tom Scalzo since college,” Farley says. “The Moes Haven albums are my most serious band. I put countless hours into Moes Haven [25 released albums and thousands of unreleased songs] and the only things selling were songs like ‘Shut Up Your Monkey’ and ‘Pickle Sandwich.’ Our Dylan-esque love songs were completely ignored.”
Listening to the Moes Haven catalog is an odd experience after immersing yourself in an ocean of Morten Media novelty music for a few days. Suddenly, there are acoustic guitars (by Scalzo) and Farley’s voice sounds more sincere and as a result, sort of sweet and pretty at times (not unlike legendary folkie Loudon Wainwright III, actually). There are traces of the absurd humor he’d eventually make his trade, but mostly the Moes Haven songs are sincere love songs.
These songs offer a window into the path Farley likely would’ve preferred his music career had taken. It’s like finding an old notebook of poems that some multinational corporation’s CEO wrote as a young man — the seed that mutated into something wholly different during its growth process. Thinking about this and listening to the Moes Haven song “Stay with Me” is a legitimately melancholy experience (go ahead, try it now for yourself).
I go back to the novelty song Farley wrote about Pitchfork editor-in-chief Mark Richardson (“Music Writer Mark Richardson Blocked Me On Twitter”) and listen to it again. Farley’s voice is bizarrely cartoonish and froggy here in this recording, and it’s hard to identify the line of how much of this song is a joke and how much is actual grief over the situation. Over a digital keyboard’s piano sounds, Farley sings:
I told him about the fact that I am the most prolific songwriter in the whole world
I gave him a link to my website
And you know what happened very shortly after that?
He blocked me from his Twitter account
I was so embarrassed and devastated about that
I don’t have a big promotion team helping me to get people’s attention
So I tried to tell you myself
And you blocked me
Mark Richardson, what am I gonna do to get some attention from cool people like you?
I want to have articles written about how interesting I am by people like you!
I would argue that Matt Farley is, on some level, brilliant. As he turns the new industry model on its head with his relentless onslaught of absurd-keyword-song-inventions, I find it interesting how he can’t help but let some personal truth slip out just a tiny bit here and there in these songs (something we’ll never see in a spambot song, if they become a reality). Songs are inherently built for self expression and sometimes, even when one tries to achieve the opposite, that’s exactly what happens — in a haystack of nonsense and money-making attempts, a kernel of truth is found. For Matt Farley, I found it here in this silly song about an interaction with a prominent music critic.
If you do take a few minutes to explore the absurd world of Morten Media, I suggest you check out the birthday songs, the songs where he reviews movies, the celebrity songs, and maybe even check out the poop songs. But also take a moment to listen to a bit of Moes Haven, because I have a sneaking suspicion that just as much as revenue is a motivation for Farley, an equal motivation might be an over-the-top Hail Mary attempt to get you to listen to the music he actually cares about, existing under an impressive mountain of fake-outs, hoping to be discovered and adored by music fans.
[Graphic illustration by Ryan Walsh]