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Interview: Mark Rose and Bob Nanna of Downwrite

Downwrite-Bob-Nanna-Mark-Rose-2013Downwrite is a new, innovative songwriting platform launched earlier this year that allows anyone to hire artists to write custom songs per their personal specifications, while ensuring every artist is fairly compensated. The site already features several prominent musicians within the alternative music scene. idobi writer Catherine Yi sat down with founders Mark Rose and Bob Nanna to discuss bringing their idea to life, the amazing products it’s spawned so far, and how they intend to foster an entire community of songwriters.

Could you start off with giving us some of your own musical background?

Bob: I’ve been playing, writing music, and touring for now over 20 years in a bunch of different bands, starting with a band called Friction, then with the band Braid and Hey Mercedes. Braid’s doing a record right now, so this is something that’s not only near and dear to our hearts, but something we’ve been really putting into practice and living for a long, long time.

Mark: Music was always something I’ve been doing in middle school and high school, starting bands and whatnot. I went to Columbia College here in Chicago for music composition and at the end of my second year, Spitalfield got a deal and started touring. So I dropped everything else and for the last 10 years I’ve just been doing music full-time. Now I’m focusing on the singer/songwriter stuff under my own name, but that’s been my life for a while now.

How did you guys first come up with the idea for Downwrite?

Mark: It first started with Bob and I hanging out together, having some adult beverages, and talking about how we wished there was a way that we could let people know that we are available to write music. The next morning, that turned into why don’t we make this more of a community of sorts where we could get a bunch of writers involved and eventually any and all writers could be on board writing songs.

I saw a news post recently about a couple more people joining the site. What are some of your newest artists to come on board?

Mark: In the last month, we’ve brought on William Beckett from The Academy Is…, who’s now doing his solo stuff and just released a solo record, Bob Morris of The Hush Sound, Carmen Cirignano of Young Statues, JT Woodruff from Hawthorne Heights. Yeah, there’s been so many actually, recently. There’s been quite a few.

Right now your website says all its songwriters are “hand-picked.” What do you guys look for in choosing songwriters?

Mark: What we first wanted to do is, once we decided we wanted to try to build out a site for other artists to get on, was to pick up the phone and call some friends. Like any new company or new business, we wanted the people we were working with to be people we had a good relationship with so that we could get feedback and go through some of the bumps and bruises early on with people that we felt comfortable with. So naturally we went to writers and artists that we’ve toured with and that we’ve been friends with. As of right now, we just want to keep it as varied as possible, genre-wise, and get as many people on there that are comfortable using the site to get in there and use it and provide us with feedback. Eventually, once all of the kinks and everything are worked out, we’ll be able to open it for anyone to come in, and it won’t be hand-picked, you can just go in and set up your profile.

That’ll be pretty huge compared to what it is now.

Mark: Yeah, and I think part of the reason why we want to go that route is because there are so many songwriters out there that could benefit from a service like this. We want to be there for everybody and represent all different genres, different ages, different demographics, etc. I think even when we open it up, we could still feature certain artists that we have a connection to or different types of artists for different reasons, but ultimately it could just be a powerful tool for songwriters across the board.

What has the reaction to the site been like so far?

Mark: It’s been fantastic. The coolest thing is that both sides, the artist and the people requesting songs, have been giving great feedback so far. It’s coming across as powerful and special, which is our goal going into it. So, so far so good. I mean, we expect there to be bumps in the road as we expand and more things happen, but we’re ready for it and actually looking forward to it.

Bob: Yeah, and being that Mark and I are both songwriters, we want this to be a site that helps songwriters and so Downwrite takes a very small cut. The majority of the money goes to songwriters. That’s how we’re able to pay so much out to each of the songwriters, which is something I think that even the sites and services that are even remotely like ours can’t say. There’s a reason why we’re growing so slowly: it’s because we’re paying the money to the artists. They’re the ones doing the work.

Yeah, I really like how it’s artists helping other artists.

Mark: Yeah, and the more people who know about it, the more artists that get involved, the bigger the community is. I think that in itself is pretty cool because it organically grows and starts to snowball on its own the more people hear about it and want to know how they can get on as a writer or look through the artists to see who they want to connect with to get something written for themselves.

What exactly are the steps for someone to get a song written? Like what kind of information do you guys request?

Mark: Each writer is a little bit different. We have it set up right now that everyone has their own personalized questionnaire. When you request a song, you fill it out so you’re giving them the direction and the tools to make something for you. As a writer on a board, not just someone behind the scenes, that part of it is really cool because when you get that notification and start reading as a songwriter, you instantly start working on something that you otherwise wouldn’t have written. As far as the pricing tiers go, we let everyone customize the different levels of production they’re offering and how much they want to charge for it. Right now we have one rule across the board that every artist on the site has to have at least one option that is $100 because we like to keep it affordable, but at the same time, there’s a lot of higher level production or studio production that can be a higher price.

Since you guys are both songwriters for the site, could you describe your recording process for these songs and how it differs from your regular professional work?

Bob: It’s very similar. I ask a few questions for the requester to tell me what they would like it to be about, who it’s for, and maybe give me some background on the person or the story, etc. I’ll also ask if they want a slow song or fast song, happy song or sad song. And then I’ll look at that email and take some notes. Then I’ll put the email away and sit down and start writing the music in the direction that I’m given. I’ll start with the music and I’ll write a verse or a chorus, some extra parts, and then I’ll start humming vocal melodies and then I’ll start putting lyrics in where those vocal melodies were. In terms of the writing process, that’s sort of how I work in general with any of the projects I’ve worked in. Basically, you sit down with your guitar and you think about what it is you want to write about, whether it’s something that I want to write about or something that someone suggested I write about, and then I just play what comes naturally and do the vocal melody, work on that a little bit, and then start plugging in lyrics.

Mark: For me, the process is similar to when I’m writing for my own releases, but the difference is I don’t write too many songs from other people’s perspectives when I’m writing my own material. I have tackled it once in a while, but it’s usually something that I’m personally connected to that I’m drawing from those emotions and those experiences and channeling it, whereas when I’m working on somebody else’s request it’s kinda fun to channel their experiences and write from somebody else’s perspective for a change. And again, like I mentioned earlier, you’re writing a song you would not have written. I can’t speak for all artists involved, but some of the artists that I’m pretty close with that I talk to, it’s like as a songwriter you have an endless supply of unfinished ideas and hooks and demos and chord changes and things that you’ve never really gotten around to using and it’s cool to unearth some of that stuff and to immediately put it into play with somebody else’s idea. Some of the songs that I’ve been writing are going to be transformed into stuff that I do end up releasing and we’ve had examples of that with Matt Pryor from the Get Up Kids. On his new solo record, there’s a song he wrote on there that was directly inspired by a Downwrite song that he wrote, so that stuff’s pretty cool.

That is really cool. And you guys have a podcast too right?

Bob: Well, it’s the Get Downwrite podcast. We try to do it weekly or as often as we can and the idea was if you’re not a songwriter, if you’re not looking to buy a song, but you’re just interested in the site, we wanted to put out content every week, so we decided to do a podcast. It’s not just talking about the website – it’s also diving into a little bit of the songwriting process that Mark and I go through, like some of the fun inspirational type stuff that we’ve been through, shows that we’ve played, the first album that made you want to pick up a guitar or whatever. At its core, it’s a podcast by two songwriters about songwriting, about music, about inspiration and stuff. And we’re goofy, it’s not super serious or highfalutin. But it’s under the Downwrite umbrella so as a songwriter you would hopefully listen to the podcast to get a little insight into that process.

Mark: And we try to bring in some of the artists that are on the site, if they’re in town or if they’re available for like a quick phone call or something and talk about what they’ve been up to, what their thoughts on the site are, and their experiences on the site too. It’s new water for all of us that we’re treading in here, so we know that there’s going to be some writers and artists that are concerned and have questions X, Y, and Z. As we go, we’re finding out new things that are working or that aren’t working and like Bob said, we’re talking about all sorts of stuff, not just songwriting but the things that have influenced us as writers. Like Steve Soboslai from Punchline is a writer on board, and it’s fun talking to him about the first concert he ever went to because that’s not really a commonly asked question in interviews and I feel like fans of Steve or friends of Steve would be interested to know that. The answer is the Crash Test Dummies [laughs]. So we like having some fun.

What do you guys consider some of Downwrite’s biggest accomplishments this year?

Bob: Well, the fact that we’ve had this idea for at least two and a half years, getting this up and running is probably the biggest accomplishment. Getting it running and seeing the response to it and that it’s working and it’s making people happy and it’s making songwriters happy is a huge accomplishment. We could talk numbers and say we delivered over 200 songs and these are songs that would not have existed if it wasn’t for Downwrite, which is a really cool stat to think about. It’s weird talking about greatest accomplishments, like let’s talk about the next accomplishment.

Mark: I would add that when we came up with the idea, it started with just trying to find a way to let people know that artists are available to write songs in their down time. Like what we were really trying to accomplish was when writers and songwriters are not touring or not recording their own music, based on the way the current industry is going, a lot of them have to find other lines of work when they’re home, whether that’s bartending or a normal day job, and how we really wanted to tell writers like, “Hey you know what, do something you enjoy doing and that you’re good at, which is writing music,” and seeing that come to life has been cool. In February, when we launched with just Bob and myself, if you said like, “Hey, by the end of this calendar year, you’ll have over 30 artists and well over 200 songs completed and delivered,” I would have said you were crazy, but it was really cool to see that happen.

Well Bob, you said you wanted to talk about the next accomplishment – what do you guys hope to achieve next year?

Bob: Here, what’s today’s date? We’re going to talk to you on this same date next year and we’ll make a list.

Alright. December 4th, 2014, we’ll do another interview.

Bob: Perfect. But seriously, I would love for us to have reached the point where the site is open for anyone to get on there and to set up their own profile and manage their own queue and start their own projects. Like use the site in ways that we haven’t even thought of right now, like for collaborations, or for straight up sourcing of material for an album. I think there are a lot of ways that artists can use the site that we just haven’t thought of yet. I want this to be like a community or network where everyone’s chipping in ideas and it’s for the good of everybody. So that’s really my goal for the site. It would be great if by this time next year, that was the case – anyone could go on and we had a nice, great, healthy community, network system that just ran and hummed along.

Mark: Yeah, I’ll add into that. When Bob and I start talking with either each other or with other artists or just friends or whatever, and start talking about the different things we could do down the line, the conversations just start spiraling into crazy places because there are so many creative things that could be done, inspired by fans and sponsored and paid for by fans. To just toss out one idea, one thing we had talked about was a build-your-own EP where say you’re a requester and you pick four or five writers from the site and you give them all the same request and then they each write you a different song because that’s what would happen and then you package it together as like an EP just for you or for whoever you’re giving it to. It could be crazy because each artist would do something totally different with the same materials they’re given.

Bob: And here’s another crazy thing. There’s a person who has gotten songs from a bunch of different people on the site who is basically making a mixtape for his girlfriend. He’s gonna propose to her so he’s having different artists from the site – and I hope I didn’t ruin the surprise…if you’re reading this, it’s not you! He basically assigned each artist a different aspect of their relationship – their hometown, and like, her pets. So one person’s writing about this particular thing and another person’s writing about this particular thing to make this one whole well-rounded love letter, basically.

Wow, that’s insane.

Bob: Yeah, and like for instance, me, I’m getting married next year and what I’m doing is having artists cover some of my and my fiancée’s favorite songs, some of our songs, to play during not the ceremony but cocktail hour. She’s not gonna read this…oh actually she might read it. Ah whatever, it doesn’t matter.

Mark: If you’re reading this, it’s not you!

Bob: [laughs] Anyway, I guess the point is, I’m siked to see what people come up with, the people that are requesting, and the artists.

Well I’m sure there are gonna be a ton of aspiring songwriters that are going to want to get in on this. Can you let us know how everyone can keep track of everything that’s going on?

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. The easiest way is on Downwrite.com, there is a link to sign up for the email list and when you do that, you can select if you’re an artist and then you won’t get our normal weekly update – you get updates more about the songwriters and what we’re doing with songwriters and when things are going to start opening up and when we’re taking submissions, etc. So I would recommend signing up for the artist email list or the fan email list, and then we also have a Contact section. You can fill that out and get a message over to us, specifically if you want to introduce yourself and give us a few links because we’ll definitely be looking through those to contact everybody once we have something for them. And last, but not least, [email protected] is our general email box, which we look through all the time.

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