With all the bloodletting in San Francisco's indie music scene, it takes a fairly industrious band to stave off death — or destitution. Most musicians find conventional ways of pimping themselves, whether by scoring commercials or licensing music for video games. Some sell their material to more promising entertainers. Some find offbeat ways of merchandising themselves. One of the strangest thus far is a personalized song campaign launched by Dubious Ranger, a local four-piece whose members drew inspiration from 16th-century patronage systems. A month ago, they began offering fans the opportunity to purchase a custom-made song, in any genre, with any attributes, for just $25. Now, with six songs down and fourteen in the queue, they've amassed a huge archive of weird stuff — including a paean to "big mammals" for an elephant protection organization, and a victory anthem for a high-school student competing in the German International Olympics. They also understand why old forms of commission don't really work.
The idea spawned from Dubious Ranger's guitarist Jonathan Eccles, who had been arguing with someone in an online forum about the concept of patronage. (Actually, it wasn't so much an argument as a series of protracted discussions, Jonathan said.) Eager to advance the conversation, Jonathan called his brother Alexander — the band's classically trained keyboardist — to ask whether Beethoven actually hated serving all the dukes and counts who hired him for their vanity projects. Then came the epiphany. Jonathan sent an e-mail to his bandmates — one of those garbled, ecstatic e-mails without any periods — announcing his idea. "I said, 'Hey guys ... We're all gonna do this, and we're gonna go crazy doing it, and it's gonna be so much fun.' I was soooo wrong about the fun part."
Initially, the band members thought it would be easy to import an old-world business model into a modern market. They couldn't expect any deep-pocketed customers (kings are hard to find these days), but could surely find a lot of people willing to pay $25. Not to mention it was a great way to get down with the fans. "We were kind of looking for the idea of, what's the most uncomfortably intimate [way] a band can connect with its listeners?" said Jonathan. "When you're directly writing a song for those listeners in an obviously sellout way, that seems to be breaking the final fourth wall." It was tantamount to former Nine Inch Nails' drummer Josh Freese auctioning off golf dates.
They decided to let patrons request a song in any genre, with any mix of influences, any rhythmic idea, or any lyric sheet — even specifications to say a word with a certain syllabic pattern. For a band like Dubious Ranger, the whole multi-genre thing didn't seem that hard. After all, the four band members are classically trained but conversant in many different musical styles. They all met at Branson high school in Marin, where bassist Aaron Sankin played in the jazz band while drummer Brendan Ahern and the Eccles brothers studied classical chamber music. (Brendan started out as a flutist but later learned drums for a band he started with Aaron and Jonathan called Dr. Def & the Sexual Educators.) Virtuoso pianist Alexander, who currently runs the Branson School's music program, focused on classical piano until age nineteen. He discovered rock music at 21, while pursuing a history degree at Stanford University. It changed his whole outlook. Shortly thereafter, Alexander began writing his first solo rock album under the alias "Dubious Ranger." (Jonathan explained that all rock stars need a name — you can't just make an album and call it "My Stuff.") It was a bumpy transition, Jonathan said: "like if an alien attempted to make rock music but it only heard Chopin, and it only read about rock music."
As a quartet, the guys have experimented with every style under the sun — including a couple that didn't go over so well (metal, for one). They formed Dubious Ranger three years ago and started gigging around town, sharing stages with rock group Full On Flyhead and a polka-funk outfit named Sex with No Hands. Their label, the Nothing Room, also features a power-pop quintet with dueling keyboards called Mass Fiction. They treated the personalized-song project as a new intellectual exercise. That isn't as easy as it sounds, given the specificity of people's requests. For the elephant song ("Big Mammal") they received a sheet of lyrics — which, unfortunately, had no rhythm at all — and an audio sample of an elephant yowl. Jonathan managed to find a polyrhythmic drum pattern to nail the words in place, and the guys built a melody on top. They recorded it with the lyrics scrolling by on a Word document, and someone repeatedly pushing the "page down" button. Brendan sang lead. Aaron described the result as "Ween covering Tom Waits in an Afro-Zeppelin drum circle."
Other songs allowed the guys more latitude. Usually, they get some guidelines as to theme and genre (e.g., "I want it kind of dancey" or, "Make it sound like the band Iron & Wine"), but no prescribed lyrics. They'd get together with scratch pads, write the words out in piecemeal fashion, then build a melody on top, Alexander said. Commissioned to write a song for San Francisco author Broke-Ass Stuart (who writes instructional manuals on budget living), they perused Stuart's web site, then listened to his favorite songs about being broke. In the end, they decided to poach the soul-blues style of Otis Redding's "Tramp." For a Grateful Dead-themed birthday song, Aaron and Jonathan sat together in Jonathan's basement studio, cobbling a guitar solo and bass line that would sound uncannily like Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. When a client requested a Pixies imitation, Jonathan called Alexander at work and asked him to come up with the chord progression. "I said, 'Okay, C minor, F7, and on the chorus go up to E-flat,'" said Alexander, explaining that the typical Pixies track uses uneven bar lines — say, two catchy chords on the first hook, with a weird, dissonant chord on the bridge. He wrote it out on a napkin.
All told, Dubious Ranger has written some pretty interesting commissions in the last month, even if the songs lack coherence or consistency. It's also a fairly labor-intensive project that pays almost nothing. Twenty-five bucks a song means roughly six dollars apiece, not counting overhead. In other words, the personalized-song project is a money-losing operation. But that's kind of the point, said Jonathan, who conceived of it more as performance art than an actual marketing campaign. "Musicians always needed to make money to keep making great music," he wrote in an e-mail. "Ten years ago, that was through selling CDs (some of whose songs would often be sellout singles you came to hate), and hundreds of years ago that was writing songs for some archduke who you thought was an idiot. But you still needed to write that song so you could have a roof over your head while you composed your more personally relevant masterpiece."
Alas, there is an end in sight. Dubious Ranger plans to run its experiment through Valentine's Day, since the guys can't pass up an opportunity to serenade someone else's sweetheart. After that, we're left to our own devices.