Making the transition from artist to professional songwriter usually divorces the composer from the final shape of the piece, leaving the execution in the hands of distant artists, producers and on the most unfortunate occasions, an A&R representative provided by the record label. Andrew Huang, however, has found a way to hang on through the whole process. In terms of sheer number of compositions sold, the twenty-something Huang is undoubtedly the most active professional songwriter in Toronto: he's the twisted genius behind "Songs To Wear Pants To", a web site on which he sells songs written in response to listener suggestions, and he has unleashed at least 500 or 600 tunes since starting the site in early 2004.
Requested topics range from the obligatory Super Mario Brothers theme to a polka dance tune gunning for the Macarena and Hokey Pokey, and during the 71 left-hemisphere-scrambling seconds of song #39, Huang used as many SAT vocabulary words as he could fit into a coherent verse. Among the simplest and tallest of the orders: "Be Björk." "How 'bout a rap song in which none of the lyrics contain the letter 'e'?" suggests another. And in a verbal feat on par with "Alphabet Aerobics" by Blackalicious, Huang delivers.
It sometimes plays out as a game of cat and mouse between Huang and the submitters, who have tried to trick him by asking him to use the digits of pi as guitar tab or draw his lyrics from a book chosen at random. Song #130, entitled "Andrew vs. Time", asked him to switch topics every four seconds, switch accents every five seconds, switch instruments every six seconds, and switch styles every seven seconds. He responded with a six second song. But then Huang was hit by the sort of entrepreneurial spark that sometimes proves to be fodder for business and commerce courses decades later: he added an optional payment system. Requests delivered by a few friendly presidents shot right to the top of the queue; more recently, a re-launched web site with integrated shopping cart software heavily emphasizes sales, both of the custom songs and branded merch. (Key item: shirts that say "PANTS.") Huang proudly notes that "Songs To Wear Pants To" is his full-time job and sole means of financial support.
The impetus for the site came during Huang's college years, when a half-assed search for a menial part-time job went nowhere for just a little too long. "I had a really stupid resume, which probably didn't help." Huang laughs, "My resume was a comic strip of me talking to my friend about how cool I am. It got me one interview." At a time when most would sell off a guitar or vital organ, Huang instead threw up an eBay auction for his songwriting abilities, offering to write and record music to the winning bidder's specifications. The first one went to a wannabe Amy Lee who asked Huang for a NIN-style gothic industrial instrumental track so she could sing over it. "I did a few of those," he recalls, "The bids were going pretty high, like $80 or $90 US dollars."
In April 2004, "Songs To Wear Pants To" launched as a corollary to the auctions, and when the paid commissions were absorbed by the site shortly thereafter, he found that he had a two-pronged pseudo-business — one so strong, in fact, that he didn't bother conducting a job search when graduation rolled around. "The people who are asking me to make weird, free, fun, ridiculous songs to put on the site tend to be teen or pre-teen kids, largely in the States," he says, "My customer market is people from 20 to 35."
The customers are leaving happy, it seems — nobody has yet asked for a refund, and Huang says he's always been able to deliver. "I don't think there's been a time when someone asked for something that I really could not do," he laughs, "No one has asked for opera." But when his schedule allows, he still does songs for free as a way to generate interest in the site, and that's where he really flexes his comic muscle. "I want to keep it entertaining for people who visit," he says.
For a man with a comic book resume, the humor was a natural development. "When I first started the site, I didn't have the idea that the songs would necessarily become so over the top and intentionally funny," says Huang, "but with the kinds of ideas I was getting, maybe it's just my personality that wanted to try to be clever with them and twist the requests around in an unexpected way."
He gets 20-30 free requests a day, most of which have piled up into an 11,000-strong unread folder in his email account, and gets a paid request every day or two. Those will typically cost between $50 and $150 per minute, and Huang says his monthly income ranges between $500 and $1500 Canadian. "Since it's all freelancing, it really fluctuates a lot," he says, "But I live pretty simply, so it's not a big deal." Controlling his urge to buy musical equipment has helped tremendously, he adds. What he does have is remarkably modest for someone supporting themselves with a full-time music recording and production gig: he owns three microphones, for example.
The section of the site's FAQ devoted to equipment questions is accordingly short and sweet: "Learn Ableton Live inside out and buy a condenser microphone that costs at least as much as one month's rent," it says. (Huang's weapon of choice is an Audio-Technica 4040.) He does have a full stable of instruments, though — melodica, tablas, upright bass and a drum kit, among others — and relies heavily on MIDI and softsynths as appropriate. For higher-paying gigs that lean heavily on instruments he can't competently futz with — "I cannot play wind instruments to save my life," he admits — he'll hire outside talent.
But despite heavy college coursework in composition and a childhood rife with formal training, Huang says the production is often the key to making the customer happy. "A lot of it is more to do with the sound than the notes," he says. "I think people have an intuitive ear for production now, more than they might have used to, where songs are carried a lot more by how crisp they sound or how punchy the drums are than the actual strength of the melody. Not that the strength of the melody isn't important, but a lot more analysis will go into picking the right tempo and mixing or knowing whether I need a shaker."
Amazingly enough, Huang sees the web site as totally distinct from his other musical projects — the ones where the pants are optional, that is. "I definitely have to keep up writing songs for myself for that kind of satisfaction," he says, "but it's really nice to have a body of work that's so different from what I would produce on my own." But "Songs To Wear Pants To" does bring about its own sort of personal fulfillment: "It's nice to know that I'm doing a unique thing that people are able to use to give gifts and show love to their friends," he says. Paying the rent ain't too shabby either.