DANVERS — Matt Farley’s basement looks like anyone else’s. DVDs line shelves, along with books and old VHS tapes of horror films and framed photos from his wedding day. Then you see a keyboard, a microphone stand, a chair covered with a blanket, and a digital recorder.
It is here that Farley, 35, spends hours upon hours writing as many as 20 songs a day, a level of musical productivity that earned him close to $24,000 last year by selling songs through digital retailers such as iTunes and the online streaming service Spotify.
He has mastered the art of musical click bait, songs with titles that are just sneaky enough to show up in your search results, and catchy enough to pique your interest and drag you down a virtual rabbit hole.
Your search for Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” might also bring up Farley’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody, Anybody!” Or perhaps you’re simply intrigued when stumbling upon a song called “I’ve Got You Under My Skin, You Subcutaneous Parasite, You.”
Either way, your click or download has just contributed to Farley’s bank account. The conceit is so obvious that it’s amazing no one beat him to it.
“When you read about it, it sounds heartless, like there’s no soul to the songs,” Farley said recently. “And maybe when you listen you feel that way, too, but I don’t think so. It’s not an entirely crass attempt to trick people. I think it’s actually pretty good.”
Since forming his first band in the late 1990s as an English major at Providence College, Farley has written more than 14,500 songs under 64 band names such as the Passionate & Objective Jokerfan or the Toilet Bowl Cleaners.
Farley works fast, estimating it takes about five minutes to make each song: three minutes to get the equipment ready, two to play and sing the lyrics, which he usually comes up with on the spot. His songs aren’t parodies of the originals and bear no lyrical similarities. They’re primitive, stream-of-consciousness compositions, typically just Farley on the keyboard (his only instrument, though he says he can fake it well enough on guitar) and maybe some effects, and they last about a minute or two.
That’s all they need to be.
“Well, you can only take so much,” he explained. “Pretty much at a minute and a half, it’s time to get out. . . . Novelty songs shouldn’t be longer than that. The joke’s over.”
He’s written songs about famous people (“Pete Townshend Is a Super Star Music Dude”), household items (pillows, cookie jars), and bodily functions. (His “poop songs,” and there are nearly 200 of them, are especially popular.) Under the umbrella name Motern Media, Farley’s dozens of “bands” earned him $23,576.79 last year, which breaks down to 60 percent from sales (iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby) and 40 percent from streaming sources (Spotify, Rhapsody).
Through a publicist, representatives from Spotify declined to be interviewed for this story. But Farley’s success has gotten the attention of industry watchers such as Panos Panay, the founding managing director of Berklee College of Music’s new Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship.
“His tactics are definitely unorthodox for the music space, but not for the online advertising world,’’ Panos says. “I think he’s on to something. This is classic innovation, classic disruption. How many times has innovation sprung out of effectively borrowing ideas and applying them in a different context?”
It’s likely listeners still wouldn’t know about Farley at all if not for the support of comedians Brendon Walsh and Randy Liedtke, who host a podcast in Los Angeles called “The Bone Zone.”A few years ago, they stumbled upon Farley’s music on Spotify while searching for birthday songs. They struck the motherlode: Farley had churned out hundreds of them, each with a different person’s name. (“Hey Guadalupe/ Guess what, Guadalupe?/ It’s your birthday!/ I bet you already knew that/ Of course you knew that, Guadalupe . . . ”)
Later, when they did a podcast about being sick, they found another trove of songs on that topic. They recognized the voice and had the same reaction most people probably have: “Who is this guy?”
Exposure from the podcast led to a wave of blog posts and stories on his unique process, and his fame continues to expand. Listeners randomly contact him by hearing his phone number in one of his songs. During a 90-minute interview, Farley gets a few text messages from anonymous fans who seem surprised that the number actually works. From someone in area code 469 (somewhere in Texas): “I like your songs!” to which Farley writes back, “Thanks! I have other bands at www.moternmedia.com. Check them out!”
“Matt’s been locked in his basement for six years,” Walsh says. “Once we scratched the surface of what he’s doing, I think we both thought: ‘This guy has got to be famous. He shouldn’t have a day job. He works harder than anyone we know.’ ”
Farley has always been a genuine obsessive when it comes to making art. His folk-rock band Moes Haven (currently on hiatus) made 25 albums in a decade. Those DVDs in his basement? Most of them are multiple copies of the movies he’s made over the years with “friends and family who don’t know how to act.”
He also keeps meticulous track of his overhead and ideas. During an interview, he pulled out a notebook in which he has written his monthly earnings since he began keeping score in April 2008. That first month brought in $455.23. This year is already off to a good start: His check for January was $2,724,77.
The most compelling part of Farley’s story is the also the most mundane. He’s not a weirdo living in his parents’ basement. He’s clean cut, makes eye contact, and works at a group home for youths, some of whom tip him off to what’s popular on the radio.
For someone who makes hundreds of songs a month, Farley is surprisingly private about it. He prefers that his wife, Elizabeth, call or text before coming home from work. When she doesn’t, she gets an earful — and he gets embarrassed. Elizabeth has a sense of humor about it, at least.
“I think it’s funny to walk in and see what he’s doing because it’s always a new subject every day,” Elizabeth says. “One time I walked in on him singing about how great [the actor] Ryan O’Neal is. It’s funny to hear him sing a man’s name downstairs and how awesome he is. I wasn’t expecting that.”
The couple are expecting their first baby in April, and already Farley wonders what the new addition to the family will think of dad’s peculiar road to success.
“The moral of the story is, if I had known five years ago that I could get to this point, it would have been superb. I’m every division of my music company, and the whole music company is earning $20,000 a year,” Farley says with a laugh, both appalled and amused. “That’s terrible.”