Jonathan Coulton: I’m replicable, dammit!

NPR’s Planet Money team – one of the best reporting teams in radio, responsible for the seminal, field-shaping “Giant Pool of Money” episode of This American Life – turned their microphones on the future of the music industry late last week, interviewing Jonathan Coulton. Coulton is a new kind of rock star, a smart, funny, earnest and geeky songwriter who’s been a pioneer in using the internet to disseminate and promote his music.

Coulton isn’t signed to a record label, and while he’s currently producing a new studio album with John Flansburgh of the (legendarily geeky, major-label signed) They Might Be Giants, the music he’s best known for was recorded in a home studio on a Macintosh. He’s a prolific blogger and twitterer, and has a deep, intuitive understanding of geek culture, based in part on the fact that he spent nine years as a software developer, the day job to support his struggling music career. His big breaks have come, in part, through using geek culture as a springboard. His first “hit” was anthem to unrequited workplace love, Code Monkey, that was popularized in part through Slashdot. “Still Alive” was written for the closing credits of Portal, a mind-bending, thought-provoking video game that was a big underground hit.


Machinima music video of Coulton’s “Skullcrusher Mountain”, made using footage from World of Warcraft by Spiffworld

Alex Blumberg of Planet Money was interested in all of this, but he was especially interested in this simple but startling fact: Coulton took in roughly $500,000 in sales last year, and given that he’s got very low overhead, much of that money goes into his pocket. That makes him vastly more successful than most professional musicians, as Coulton has noted in the past. A few years back, he heard a story about the Dresden Dolls, a wonderfully creative band that played to large audiences and was signed to a major label (they’ve since broken up), but were only clearing enough profit to pay each of the two band members a “salary” of $1500 a month. Coulton observed on his blog, “They’re like, a real band with a label and everything. I make more than that, and I have no idea what I’m doing. How can this be?” (I wrote about this at some length in 2007.)

It’s very simple. The music industry, even in the days before digital distribution (legal and illegal) wasn’t a very good deal for most artists. Coulton’s managed to create a devoted fanbase that pay to see him at shows, buy downloads and CDs (even though his music is easy to find for free online), t-shirts and other swag. They help promote him by remixing his music (which is released under a Creative Commons license) and making music videos for his songs, which they post on YouTube. This is all a little bit remarkable. Given the internet savvy of the average Coulton fan, it’s certainly possible to pirate the entirity of the man’s repetoire. But fans show their love, in part, with money. I went to a Coulton show a couple of years back, and two of the folks I attended with – people who already had downloaded his entire oeuvre – purchased a $50 Coulton USB key, which included all the songs he’d released, plus separate audio tracks for remixers. (I bought one too, and gave it to Yochai Benkler as a tangible manifestation of the ideas he’s expressed in The Wealth of Networks.)

While Blumberg was clearly impressed by Coulton’s success and the creative ways he’s used the internet to forward his career, his guests, Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelley from NPR Music, were more skeptical. Jacob opined that Coulton had hit the “lottery of the Internet”. Kelley described Coulton as a snuggie: “We didn’t know we wanted it, and then all of a sudden we did.” Coulton’s model, they argued, wasn’t replicable – it worked well for him, but struggling artists would be ill advised to follow his path, as it would be unlikely to work for them.

Coulton has responded with an eloquent and passionate essay urging Ganz and Kelley to lighten up on the snark and engage a bit more deeply in the analysis. Obsessing over the quirkiness of Coulton’s material and characterizing his success as a fluke may miss a bigger point about how the music industry has changed in an age of digital distribution and social media. “There are plenty of artists making music and using unique and creative promotional techniques to sell it directly to fans (say it with me, won’t you?): Trent Reznor, Radiohead, Amanda Palmer, Paul and Storm, Marian Call, OK Go, MC Frontalot, MC Lars, the list goes on and on and gets larger every day,” Coulton expands. He happens to have had enough success with this alternative model that he makes for an interesting news story… but only if you take seriously the idea that his success is at least as much about figuring out how to intelligently use social media as it is about luck.

Something about Ganz and Kelley’s analysis of Coulton’s success reminded me of the journalists versus blogger debate of the past decade, where professional journalists would grudgingly acknowledge an important story broken by a blogger – the apparently partisan firing of US Attorneys, investigated by TPM Muckraker, for example – and then remind their audience that these stories were exceptional. Flukes. Generally speaking, they’d argue, we need professional journalists to break news. Bloggers are mostly parasitic, the argument continues, but they might help with opinion, occasional fact checking, or the lucky first photo when news breaks somewhere unexpected.

I hear that position expressed a whole lot less often these days. Large, reputable journalistic organizations are relying heavily on citizen media to diversify and broaden their coverage, especially in places where it’s hard to report from the ground (see my article for Daedalus, “International Reporting in the Age of Participatory Media“). The debates I hear now are less about making a place for citizen media in the newsroom, and more about figuring out how to do it well, especially as concerns issues of verifiability and creative curation. Citizen media is now part of the professional newsroom – how big or small a part is largely a function of the talent and skills of the people building these new newsrooms.

Here’s the thing – professional journalists create an important public good that most people acknowledge needs to be preserved in a digital age. We may disagree on how newspapers and broadcast media will sustain themselves in the future, but most people in the debate like journalism and journalists and want professional news to survive.

Who wants record labels to survive? Is anyone going to cry when the last A&R man is fired?

My prediction: in five years, the sorts of techniques Coulton and others are using to promote their music will be embraced, to one degree or another, by whatever record labels remain in business. Some will embrace the whole ethos Coulton espouses, offering variable pricing and encouraging their artists to have real, meaningful interactions with fans, while others will hire social media consultants and put a thin patina of interactivity on a broken old business model. Vastly more artists will be following in Coulton’s footsteps in their own ways, whether it’s encouraging remix, releasing under Creative Commons or maintaining personal relationships with fans. As with Coulton, these artists may not become household names, but they’ll be important to their fan bases, and some will make enough money to do this for a living, perhaps more than today.

How long does it take before a fluke becomes a model? (How long does it take for a pair of skeptical arts critics to eat their words?)

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One Response to Jonathan Coulton: I’m replicable, dammit!

  1. Adam W says:

    Ethan,

    Another great post! I’m not familiar with Coulton’s writing or music but looking forward to checking him out.

    Music is one of my life’s passions but most of the bands I listen to are on independent labels or create their own labels (like String Cheese Incident’s SCI Fidelity and Jerry Jeff Walker’s Tried & True Music).

    This type of creative outreach is super interesting. I came across something along these lines I think you and your readers will enjoy.

    Last week I attended NYU’s ITP Spring Show and came across a really cool project called End to End created by a student named Chris Allick (http://chrisallick.com/thesis/). End to End strives to connect artists to fans in new and interesting ways. For example, hiding MP3 players around NYC which people can plug their headphones directly into to listen to new music. There is also a virtual component where you can download an app leads you to a certain spot where you can stream or download a song. Here’s a brief interview I did with him: http://voice.oneminutenews.com/tagged/Adam-Winski

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