Mike Doughty on the Logic Behind a $543.09 Song

Photo courtesy of Mike Doughty/Facebook

Mike Doughty might be irreverent, but as we learned earlier this year when we spoke to him about his memoir The Book of Drugs, he’s hardly ever joking. The former Soul Coughing frontman’s new project — recording personalized versions of his new song “Dogs/Demons” onto a tape recorder — is totally serious, if not ingenious. To get their hands on the piece of art, fans will need to cough up a cool $543.09 to order it on his website. They’ll then need to choose which chord they want the song recorded in — C, D or D-sharp — and pay an additional $267.18 if they’d like it to have a bridge. Mike will say the “date, time, location, the series number (e.g. “this is recording number 444″), and the full first, middle, and last name of the person who orders it,” he wrote. “The recorder will be signed, and numbered” by him. Is this the future of musicians making a living? Hardly. Still, we got in touch with Doughty to get the backstory about the $543.09 song.

First things first, is this a joke? It’s hard to imagine that someone would plop down nearly $500 for one song … or is it?

It’s an art prank, for sure, but it’s real. The song is never going to be on an album, never going to be played live. The only way to get it is to buy a voice-memo recorder onto which I’ve played the tune. It’ll be an absolutely unique performance.

So have you had any takers since launching the project?

Yes, I’m happy to say. I have a fantastic audience, who enjoy this kind of oddball stuff.

How did you come up with the price point? Was any research involved?

I asked some painters how much they’d charge for a very small painting. They said $1,500, which I thought was too much. I would’ve just charged $500, which I think is a fair price for something that will only happen once on the planet — but I wanted it to be a ridiculously specific number.

Listen to a sample of “Dogs/Demons” below:

Why do you absolutely require the buyer’s first name?

It’s just a weirdness particular to the piece. I don’t have a logical explanation.

Where did you come up with the idea for “Dogs/Demons,” and how does the Ray Johnson film How to Draw a Bunny tie in?

Ray Johnson used to do this thing where he’d rope buyers into this kind of bizarre negotiation: someone would buy a self-portrait, and he’d send it with a note that says, “I added a cigarette, so that’ll be an extra $5,000.” The buyer would balk, so he’d go, “Alright, tell you what — I took out the cigarette, but I added a skull — that’ll be just $2,500.” The back-and-forth would be a performance in and of itself.

I’m not doing anything so purposefully baffling as that, but the fact that, if you want the song’s bridge, it costs an extra $267.09 is an homage to Ray. There’s an option for a personal message that costs $35,335.53, which, like the rest of this, is true — but it’s mostly tongue-in-cheek.

Listen to the “Dog/Demons” bridge below:

With that in mind, do you consider this performance art?

I guess it’s something like performance art — but the result is this tiny document you get, so it’s not about a moment in time that’ll just vanish into the air, the way performance art mostly is.

Why have you refused to put the song online? For someone on record as saying Napster helped boost your career this seems counterintuitive.

I want “Dogs/Demons” to be this very weird, special object. It’s not just the recording –you’re holding the actual recording studio in the palm of your hand.

Now for the zinger: Given how tough the music industry has become, do you think this is what artists in the future will have to do to make any money?

Listen, the future is working out great for us artists that already have an audience. I’m not forced to do anything — I play shows, people come see them. I’m grateful, and happy. The trouble is for new artists, who don’t have a label to pay for a van and motel rooms when they’re absolute unknowns — seriously, something that seemingly minor is a huge loss. You can’t Kickstarter a bunch of national tours, over the course of two or three years –enough to gain an audience you can live on — if you have 200 fans in your hometown. If you have a choice, steal my album, buy the new artist’s. If you do buy my album, I ask you humbly to consider pirating it and giving it to a friend.

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