Meet the lyricist’s new best friend: LyricMerch.

Established in late 2017 as a subsidiary of LyricFind, the Toronto-based global leader in online lyric licensing, LyricMerch offers a solution when someone’s looking for the right words to express themselves on a T-shirt, tote bag, coffee mug, or some other, more unique product.

LyricMerch, Drake, Mug

A sample mug, with lyrics by Drake.

“We’re opening up a new market here,” says Darryl Ballantyne, co-founder and CEO, touting the fact that both companies have agreements with more than 4,000 music publishers to reproduce lyrics from their respective catalogues, cumulatively totalling more than 1 million songs.

In an era where music publishing income is shrinking due to the continued prevalence of streaming services that have decimated physical and digital music sales, it’s a welcome opportunity for music publishers and songwriters to land some potentially lucrative compensation.

For example, the sale of a single $30 T-shirt with a lyrical snippet from a particular song can land a music publisher royalty of $4 to $5, with the songwriter’s share amounting to 50%, depending on the terms of their publishing agreement.

The secret to the success of LyricMerch is the growth and cost-effectiveness of on-demand printing. “We had the idea in the past, but that’s what changed everything,” Ballantyne explains, noting that the idea was revisited when chief revenue officer Will Mills came on-board with LyricFind three years ago.

“With a traditional merchandise license, it would be the publisher licensing the manufacturer to create 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000 units of the same product,” says Ballantyne. “They’d have one or two designs that would be approved by the publisher,  get a lump sum payment, and that was that – they could then produce ‘X’ numbers of product.

“It opened up an opportunity to have – instead of 10,000 on one design – one each of 10,000 different designs.” –  Darryl Ballantyne of LyricMerch

“There wasn’t a way we would add value into that process.  It already worked fine. The publishers were happy to license it themselves, and when you look at a scale of a couple of songs, you don’t need a large-scale rights management solution, or the accounting systems to be the same, so it worked very well.”

Ballantyne says on-demand printing gave clients more options. “As on-demand printing became a viable option, the combination of that, our lyric database, and licensing management system opened up an opportunity to have – instead of 10,000 on one design – one each of 10,000 different designs.

“That’s where the breadth of licensing, and the license management platform, and on-demand printing really created a benefit. It really opened up an opportunity for us to help generate and capture that revenue for songwriters.”

Although LyricMerch is basically handling only North America so far, until it establishes itself in Europe and Australia in 2020, Ballantyne says the sky’s the limit in terms of a global market value for LyricMerch. “We’re still in the early stages of this, and we’ve got a long way to go for it to really be generating as much revenue for songwriters as  we would like,” he says, estimating the market to have “an eight- or nine-figure“ sales potential.

The only drawback – if you perceive it as one – is that LyricMerch doesn’t include images of the stars who’ve made the song famous. “Generally, we don’t have the name and likeness rights, or the rights to use the artist name,” says Ballantyne. “We stick to the lyrics, the song name, and the songwriter’s name and we basically keep the design generic.”

Best sellers include the Drake mega-hit “God’s Plan,” and lyrics by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Ballantyne says you can even get lyrics printed on your shower curtain. “It’s fun, entertaining, and ensures that everyone who loves singing in the shower gets the lyrics right,” he laughs.

Four years after La vie en mauve, singer-songwriter Simon Kearney goes tabula rasa, broadens his musical horizons, and embraces pop ’n’ roll. Say what? He’ll explain everything…

We first became acquainted with him as more of a rocker, slinging his six strings expertly through complex, virtuoso solos. “Now, it’s the instrument I like the least,” he says. “All the songs on Maison ouverte started with a bass line. I’d start with a drum loop and then come up with a bass riff. I tried using the guitar last, because I couldn’t help falling back into old habits with it, since I’ve always composed that way up to now. Whether I like it or not, I had old patterns. I really wanted to break them… I also wanted to do simpler stuff. If I played you the riff for “Hey Man,” you’d think it makes no sense!”

Stepping out of his comfort zone was Kearney’ leitmotif right from the inception, and all through this creative cycle. On this second album, which he himself considers to be his first, Kearney even raps during bridges (“Bad Girl Mama,” “Mes pants”) and forays into funk. It comes as no surprise, then, that his guitar playing is more reminiscent of Prince than Fred Fortin. His creative stance has completely changed.

“When I look at rap in the United States, I think we’re on more of a glam trajectory,” says Kearney. “It’s all about grillz, purple drinks, and showing off. We don’t have that here in Québec. We like being more solemn and minimalist in our musical approach, because of folk music and all that. I think we’re starting to lean towards glam a little more, and I wanted to exploit that on Maison ouverte. That’s also why I had a bit of a hard time writing lyrics, because I only listened to Anglo music.”

Almost paradoxically, his lyrics ended up being as Québécois as it gets, grammatically and thematically. Take for example “Câline,” where he sings with a powerful head voice we’ve never heard before. Or “Mes pants,” a song which – under the guise of being corny, yet subtle – delivers a vibrant message to his peers.

“I’ve noticed I always try to have different ways of reading the lyrics when I write them,” he says. “People can then choose for themselves what they take away from it, a bit like Richard Desjardins. If you don’t pay close attention, you might think it’s a Kaïn song, but if you pay close attention, you might notice what he’s saying is really big… The chorus in “Mes pants” is silly and simple, but it’s about being in control, and being oneself, and it’s really about the people of Québec. It’s like when I say, ‘It’s not always pretty when I speak my language,’ I’m addressing our weird inferiority complex…”

For the wheat to grow

Kearney’s career began precociously, and now has two very distinct but very complementary phases. On the one hand, there are his own concerts as a headliner and frontman. On the other hand? All the gigs he books as a session musician. On tour with Jérôme 50 and Pascal Picard, and he also played guitar on a few tracks of Hubert Lenoir’s Darlène. He uses teamwork and sharing as fuel, and feeds his ideas to others without keeping score Quite the contrary. “[That duality] is fine with me, because they’re projects in which I get really involved, personally,” says Kearney. “It’s like with Jérôme, it was implicit that if I was going to play guitar for him, I wouldn’t be held back to play strictly and exactly what he asked… In the end, I’m composing the guitar riffs with him. It’s my guitar style, and I think if he chose someone else, his project would be different.”

Such a double life allows Kearney to diversify his revenue streams. As a matter of fact, the songwriter in him is brutally honest about the financial pitfalls of his trade in songs like “Pop ’n’ roll” and “Mon chien est mort” (literally, “my dog is dead,” but also a Québécois colloquialism meaning “all hope is lost”). He sings about losing talent contests, and dreams that, at the end of the day, don’t pay his rent.

“Copyrights help a lot, but I didn’t want to make any compromises when it comes to my music,” he says. “I call it pop ’n’ roll and I fully assume there’s a pop element to it, I really don’t mind. Whether you like it or not, adding a touch of pop music makes the radio a lot more interested. I manage to make a few bucks with that.”

Many artists deal with mental health issues in their daily lives. But not that many discuss their issues openly and directly in their work, which is one of the reasons why Rae Spoon’s latest album, Mental Health, is so powerful.

Mental Health is the Victoria-based, gender non-binary singer-songwriter’s 10th album, and it frankly discusses their struggles with the lingering effects of childhood trauma, the siren call of suicide, and the inability to sleep, or pay for crucial medications. And yet despite some heart-wrenching lyrics, Spoon’s sweet melodies and lilting voice counterbalance the darkness with poppy optimism.

Perhaps that’s because Spoon finds relief in creativity, and in social connection. “Living with complicated issues is a lifelong process, and surviving another day can be a big victory for people with mental illness and other challenges,” they explain. “There have been a lot of losses in my communities – folks who didn’t make it through. In the last few years it’s felt very close to me. But I like how if you tell a story, you hear a lot of stories back. And I’m hoping if I start a discussion about it, other people will also have discussions, ‘cause it’s really important.”

“For me, songs are a way to leave space for other people in the conversation.”

Spoon’s sound has shifted over the years, from folk-country to electronic pop. That’s partly reflective of where they’ve been living. “I grew up in Alberta, so country was all around, but I wasn’t into it,” they say. “But I moved to Vancouver and heard the Be Good Tanyas, and started to wonder what parts of my background I could explore and be part of as a trans gender person. And then I moved to Germany and Montréal, and I met people who played computers like instruments, which was new to me. I was excited about an environment where teenagers were more likely to learn to DJ and make electronic music than play electric guitar.

“But I’ve always liked a traditional song. I like using everything. I have folk elements, and I enjoy bringing them together with rock and electronics.”

On Mental Health, Spoon enlisted The Pack A.D.’s drummer Maya Miller and singer-guitarist Becky Black to pump up the rock. The collaboration came about after they played B.C.’s Artswells Festival with Carole Pope. “We learned three or four of each other’s songs and played together,” they say. “That was fun, and it informed my thinking about this record. It felt very creative to work with them. If I write a vocal riff and a singer changes it, or if a guitar player adds to something in the studio, that’s great for me.”

One song, “Blaring,” was written and sung with Northcote, a.k.a. Matthew Goud. “He sang at one of my shows and I really liked the vibe. The song just came out, long before I wrote the others,” says Spoon. “We used a line I’ve wanted to use for years: ‘I will love you until I don’t.’ It always came off as harsh, but adding ‘…or I still do’ changed that. We both worked on it, and I realized it fit the context of Mental Health.”

Spoon also writes books, and was the subject of a 2014 National Film Board documentary called My Prairie Home that discussed their painful past. But though their story is difficult to share, Spoon feels less exposed and vulnerable when there’s music involved.

“People are very hesitant to talk about themselves – we talk about issues in general,” Spoon says. “For me, songs are a way to leave space for other people in the conversation, so although I feel vulnerable, there’s something cool about having the music there. Writing personal stories in a book would be more difficult. One thing I like about songs is that you can get up and play them for anybody, and people have their own experience. You don’t need to be specific for listeners to connect with it.”