The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted livelihoods across the board, but for those in the entertainment and music industries, the ongoing crisis, which has shuttered live-music venues and canceled large crowds for the foreseeable future, has been particularly rough.
“When music is taken away from us, our livelihood is taken away from us,” Sarah Vitort, half of the modern-folk duo, Fox and Bones, recently told the Post-Record.
When the pandemic canceled their band’s national tour in March, Vitort and her partner, Scott Gilmore, moved into Vitort’s parents’ home in Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood.
By early April, Virtort and Gilmore, the founders of Portland’s Folk Festival, were itching to play live gigs again. Everyone was still at home, in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 shutdowns, so the duo decided to bring their music to the neighborhood in a safe way: by playing in their driveway and inviting neighbors to listen and watch from afar.
The driveway concerts took off over the summer, but Vitort worried about what she and Gilmore would do when the rainy season returned.
“We had no fallback plan,” she said. “So we started thinking, ‘What’s something we could offer in the comfort of our own homes?'”
The result is a new business model Vitort and Gilmore have named, “Our Custom Song.”
“A couple of years ago, Scott wrote a song for me, for Christmas,” Vitort explained. “It was totally a surprise. On Christmas morning, he played it for me in front of my family, and I was sobbing. It was such an amazing thing. And everytime I hear it, I remember that feeling.”
The duo’s new business venture hopes to recreate that feeling for others.
“We asked around, and it seemed like something people were interested in,” Vitort said.
Their first customers were a trio of adult siblings who wanted Vitort and Gilmore to create a custom song for their mother.
“This was a single mom with three kids, and they were fans of ours already,” Vitort said. “We went through the process and were struck by how fulfilling it was. Our new business idea ended up being really soul-filling.”
On a YouTube video, the family shows how their mother reacted to the custom song Vitort and Gilmore wrote and recorded at a professional studio.
“I was already bawling before they’d barely hit the go button on the music,” the mother says. “This is a killer. If anybody was ever thinking about doing anything that would really get their mom or dad or (grandparent) … Wow. I can’t convey how special this experience was.”
Customers have a variety of options at Our Custom Song: from the “Song-Gram,” a professional acoustic performance of an existing song, with a personalized dedication at the beginning of the performance that is linked to a YouTube video and delivered by email to a loved one; to the “Full Band Custom Song,” which includes a custom song written by Vitort and Gilmore, performed using a full band and recorded in a professional studio.
Customers hoping to further customize their gift can choose from a range of add-ons, including a music video, physical CD of their custom song, a commemorative canvas print of the song lyrics and even a live, acoustic or full-band performance.
The custom songs include interviews with Vitort and Gilmore to help the musicians get a sense of who their customer is and what they’re looking for in a song. With their first customers, Vitort and Gilmore heard stories about the siblings’ mother and were able to create song lyrics that spoke to the family’s history.
“We sent them a list of questions ahead of time and started by asking them to give us three words that best described their mom,” Vitort said. “They actually formed their answers really easily and those words led to stories. I thought, ‘This woman is the perfect song muse. She’s hilarious and her kids are telling us these amazing stories.'”
Vitort said her biggest fear was that she and Gilmore would hit a creative block after interviewing the siblings, but the opposite turned out to be the case.
“Scott actually heard the melody while we were on the call with them,” Vitort said.
After a few rounds of edits, the song was ready to record and give to the family.
Now, Vitort knows she and Gilmore have what it takes to create a very personalized experience for their customers.
She said the biggest barrier to producing songs will be the time it takes to book the Portland recording studio or, in the case of the full-band recordings, to arrange for the musicians to come into the studio.
She tells customers to expect the process to take two to three weeks for a custom song, with another week if they’re adding the full-band option. The less time-consuming “Song-Grams” typically will take about three days to produce, as they do not require a studio session.
Post-COVID, Vitort said she and Gilmore don’t want to go back to their previous hectic touring schedule.
“This could be the option that carries us through for the long-term,” she said of the new business venture.
To learn more, visit ourcustomsong.com.