A few weeks ago, Staged Haze had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Warfield, Vice President of Artist Services at Chicago-based Downwrite. In case you’re not familiar, Downwrite is a growing music platform where fans and artists come together to connect, collaborate, and create—literally. It’s as easy as signing up, browsing through a catalogue of artists, and reaching out to co-create songs or experiences together. Plus, Downwrite is a leading platform in terms of artist empowerment, with artists pocketing most of the money they generate.
Read on below to learn more about Downwrite, opportunities for collaborating with artists, and how Justin got involved with the platform.
Staged Haze: Tell me a little bit about Downwrite. How is it helping bring artists and fans together?
Warfield: First off, thanks so much for doing this. Downwrite is a creator economy platform that allows fans and entities to commission original, bespoke, or custom songs, pieces of music and experiences from their favorite artists, musicians and bands. It’s non-exclusive, meaning it can live alongside your Bandcamp, your TuneCore, your Twitch, your Spotify, whatever music apps you work with.
Downwrite allows musicians, artists and bands to create and to be supported by the people who are the most invested in them. I mean that figuratively and literally—the fans. And so for myself, as a lifelong musician, recording artist, touring musician, and composer, when I found out about it, I was pretty blown away.
For me, it’s an incredible opportunity for people who make music to connect with their fans to earn significant income and to do what they love. Today, the role of the artist and a musician has been devalued by the industry, by the corporate interests, by the flooded marketplace, and a lot by streaming. And so it feels really good to be doing something that’s on the side of the artist and helping put money in artists’ pockets, helping them build catalogs of music and doing what they love and writing songs.
Staged Haze: I remember a few months ago, SoundCloud shifted to a model that they say benefits independent artists, and I feel like what Downwrite is doing is similar in the sense that it empowers individual artists to make money and engage with fans.
Warfield: You know, I would never denigrate another platform; I think any move towards empowering the artist or putting money in the artist’s pocket is positive and I’m never going to be submerged in that. But I do feel that a lot of the platforms who have benefited the most are making these little baby steps towards equitable payment. Ultimately, everybody says they’re artist friendly. But the question is, what are you willing to give up?
Staged Haze: Makes sense. What made you want to get involved with Downwrite?
Warfield: Yeah, it’s a good question. So for me as an artist, my life is recording and touring, and what that looked like for artists in February of 2020 was very different from March 2020. Like everyone else, my personal, professional, and emotional life was completely upended by a once in 100-year global pandemic. And so in the immediate term, I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to go in an airport and travel internationally to play a music festival in Latin America—and the answer was no. Not because I didn’t want to play the music festival, but because I was more concerned about going to the airport. As somebody that was really up on the public health, I was very concerned. So when I, along with my former bandmate, decided to cancel some shows, that was a tough decision.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I realized early on I had to completely change. And like we’ve all heard the P word—“pivot”—being used to death. But I realized early on that I had to completely change and adapt. And one thing that I was craving was the connection that I had from live shows for the 15 years prior, the connection I had at the merch booth, craving the connection with fans that I had from playing live music, or from being in the studio and exchanging ideas and information and music with other people. I had nowhere else to go but my screen on my device. And I started peeling back the layer of mystery that I had been shrouded in as an artist for so long. I liked the idea that in a world where we were so accessible by DMs, that somebody could DM me and tell me how a song of mine impacted or changed or affected their life for a period of time. But I also felt that it took away some of the magic of what made music special to me, where music and artists were more accessible.
And so all of that is to say I started going on Instagram and talking to people, whether it be Instagram Lives where I would DJ records, I would play guitar, sing a cover song or answer questions. And it made me feel the spontaneity and excitement of what it was like to do a live show. And I also started to connect with more people. So when I found out about Downwrite, I realized that it was based on the principles that I had developed at the merch booth and playing shows, which is developing deep connections to people I was fortunate to have as fans.
Staged Haze: What types of songs are co-created on Downwrite? So, for example, if I joined Downwrite as a fan, what might I expect?
Warfield: There’s a couple different ways that the platform works. The platform is growing very, very fast, but in a sort of measured way. Knowing what it is that we want to accomplish, and going out and attacking it, and providing more opportunities for artists and for fans. If you were somebody that found an artist that you loved on the platform, whether it’s a band, singer, songwriter, rapper, or an instrumentalist, you might say, “I want a song.” And there’s a range of offerings that you have in the form of different packages, and one might be the more economical option that you can afford. And let’s say you want a short song from this artist. So if you came to me and you said “I love your music, and I’ve got everything of yours, the merch, the ticket stubs,” whatever—but I want something bespoke and custom just for me.
What I love about Downwrite is that if you’re an artist, it will not work the same for you as it does for me. It can’t—because every interaction is so unique. You’re going to make a different kind of record than me, you’re going to play a different live show than me, you’re going to make different merch than me. And you should have a different experience as a creator on Downwrite. And it’s a creators’ economy. It can be what you want. For example, I might have an offering that says you can connect with me and get a burst of inspiration, or maybe a shoegaze song, maybe a rock song or hip-hop track, or even an acapella and acoustic song. And somebody might say, “I love that idea, I want to be surprised, so this is a custom sort of package that I can build.” And we can build a package of any length; I can make it shorter, I can make it longer, I can offer one that’s very stripped down, I can offer one that has a little bit more instrumentation, I can offer one with different guest musicians and a fully built out production, and the price would vary accordingly.
Staged Haze: I imagine that’s very meaningful for fans, especially if fans see an artist on Downwrite that they have a strong affinity toward.
Warfield: Exactly. You might say, “I want to tell you about a particularly challenging part of my life, or an incredible summer, or a relationship or a lost friendship.” And I can hear that story, and I can take bits of it, and I can create a song that’s inspired by your story. And that is incredibly meaningful and moving to the fan, because then it’s their story too.
My goal with every artist that I speak to in an A&R capacity is that we should be making the music that we want to hear in the world. And that’s encouraged because ultimately, how cool would it be if you commissioned a song for your girlfriend’s birthday, or an anniversary? Something that had an afterlife after you commissioned it.
Staged Haze: It sounds like there’s a lot of different opportunities for collaboration involved.
Warfield: Which is crazy. Like, if I’m talking to a rapper today, who’s a street performer who’s had incredible viral exposure and is blowing up and also making records, his experience on the platform is going to be very different from multi-platinum artists who have written songs that have been prom songs for years, or that have been wedding songs for the last 25 years. And whether it’s a singer-songwriter who is coming to the platform as an unknown and wants to grow and build their fan base, or whether it’s somebody who’s a legacy or heritage artist, or a chart-topping person with evergreen songs—everyone has a place to have, but it’s all going to be different.
Staged Haze: Yeah, I feel like you guys have a very unique value prop that I haven’t really seen or heard about anywhere else. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Warfield: I’ll say, for other platforms, the real measure of how artist-friendly you are is what you’re willing to give up? To the artist, right? The answer for us is on the front end of a commission, we’re willing to give up 80% of it. And on the back end, we’re willing to give up 75%, meaning we put our money where our mouth is. We truly are empowering the artists, there’s no other sort of platform out there.
The way that I view other platforms that are making commissioned songs is, it’s sort of a little bit like “don’t peek behind the curtain.” And meanwhile, these artists are working for what could amount to very close to minimum wage, depending on what state you live in, to produce one song. And most artists that I know make music not only because they’re driven to and they love it, but because they don’t want a minimum wage job. So the idea that somebody would come to me and commission me for a song that I might make $100 on is just incredibly devaluing to my brand, and to what I’ve worked so hard for, whether I’m a new artist, or whether I’m a multi-platinum artist.
Downwrite is all about helping artists. It’s all about providing opportunities and making music. And what I get to do is reach deep into my bag across all genres, and across all cultures, and work with a variety of artists and help them find their place within Downwrite so that they can make the kind of music they want for their fans and make the kind of money that they deserve.
Sign up for Downwrite here to see if any of your favorite musicians or artists are available for collaborating.