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Industry Insider: Jonathan Coulton

August 1, 2009
Jonathan Coulton has used a Web-savvy approach to build his music career from part-time to full-time.

Jonathan Coulton has used a Web-savvy approach to build his music career from part-time to full-time.

Today, every musician has the ability to reach a global audience. New fans can be won at the speed of the Internet no matter where they live. But with so much music out there, how do you stand out?

New York musician Jonathan Coulton has cracked the code, and as a result quit his day job as a programmer to work on his music career full-time. He now makes his entire living off of his music thanks in part to his talent, his work ethic, allowing his music to be downloaded freely and his large and enthusiastic fan base.

From releasing a song a week for an entire year back in 2005 to his recently released live show DVD/CD Best. Concert. Ever., Coulton's success has always focused on connecting with his fans. In this interview, he shares advice, tools and techniques that he uses to do this, all of which are within the reach of any musician.

What advice would you give to musical artists who are looking to build a fan base using the Internet?

Start a blog. Places like Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com, and Wordpress.com make it easy. Also, make your music free, but create a store and give your fans a way to easily buy it, too. Put yourself in various places on the Internet where you think your fans might be. This means getting your music in networks like last.fm, Facebook, MySpace, ReverbNation or any one of the million different places where people come to discover new music.

What do you say to the musician who's just started blogging?

The only way to start a blog is to pretend the audience is there, even if you think it's zero. The truth is, your friends will come and read it. And then it'll be your friends and some guy who lives in Cleveland who you never met. Just keep talking and putting stuff out there. My thing has always been to talk about what I'm doing as a musician and why I'm doing it. “Hey, I quit my day job, wonder if this will work,” and, “Hey, I posted a new song and nobody liked it. Oh, well.” All this stuff is interesting to the people who care about you, whether they're your friends or your rapidly growing fan base. If you're consistent, word of mouth will grow your audience.

One of your projects was forcing yourself to release a song a week through your Website (jonathancoulton.com) as a free download. How long did it take before that took off?

Very early. I had a small audience for my blog when I started, but I ended up getting a lot of attention early on thanks to my cover of “Baby Got Back” that I released in week 5, which gave me massive amounts of exposure overnight. I was getting calls from radio stations and getting some really big blog links. My Website kept going down [due to the increase in traffic]. It was really exciting. Had I done that song in week 30, I think it would have been a much more difficult first six months.

And you were able to make money in this process?

The money increased as the traffic increased. When “Baby Got Back” hit, I didn't have a store set up on my site and I was kicking myself for that. I Immediately set one up and became obsessed about my stats. The percentage of people who would listen for free versus buying was very low, and at first it was disheartening. But as my song catalog grew, there was more music that people could buy. And the more exposure I got, the more people came to the site. About six months into my “Thing a Week” [blog], I was able to contribute to my family — pay the mortgage, the babysitter — just as I had done with my software job. Although my music is free for people to download and listen to, it's still copyrighted. I just use a Creative Commons license. I know it's completely counterintuitive to say that when people get your music for free it helps you, but I honestly believe it. To paraphrase Tim O'Reilly, piracy is not your enemy, obscurity is.

But why do you think people buy your music when they can get it for free?

I think it comes down to convenience and peace of mind. Maybe they prefer iTunes so that it automatically flows to their iPods. Maybe they got some songs for free from a friend but want the whole album now. Maybe they just want to support the artist — something that works for me because it's clear that money spent at my Website goes to me and not a record label. The truth is, artists are already competing with free — your music can be obtained for free, I guarantee it. So it's important to realize every music purchase represents a choice to spend money. I've always been clear that while I'm happy to let you download for free, I'd rather you actually gave me money. And a lot of people make that choice.

Can you describe your typical day and what you did outside of making music to grow your audience?

At the height of it, I would spend five hours a day on the non-music stuff. I would head to the coffee shop, sit at the laptop, answer e-mails, read and post blog comments, and work on my site. It was intense and not glamorous. But I treated it as my job. But I was also so thrilled to be receiving comments on my music. So I would spend my day responding.

When you tour, you head out to the UK or the West Coast rather than New York and the surrounding areas. Why is that?

When I play out, I go where my fans are. And that's because of a site called Eventful.com that created a system where anyone can sign up and demand you to play their city. As a musician, Eventful tells you where your fans are and how many will be at the show before you even decide to play there. They also allow you to send messages directly to your fans. It's one of those ideas that makes you wonder how we did it the other way for so long. It's the only way I have been able to tour — by finding the places where I actually could make money.

How does your income-stream break down? Can you give us percentages — what you get from selling your music versus touring?

The largest single chunk, about 40 percent of my income, is from digital downloads. This is through my online store at my Website and CDBaby; digital distribution through iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, eMusic, et cetera. Another 20 percent comes from touring and ticket sales. Another 20 percent is merchandise, which is CDs and T-shirts. The rest is ancillary stuff such as playing private parties, BMI royalties from TV placements, donations and licensing.

Your song “Code Monkey” ended up becoming the theme song to a TV series on G4. How did that come about?

They found the song on the Internet and felt it was the right theme, so they contacted me. I ended up licensing it to them and we worked out a deal to give them the source tracks so they could cut up and remix the song in ways that they were asking for where I didn't have to do any work.

You've also had some success with breaking into the videogame world. Can you tell us how you ended up writing a song for Valve Software's game, Portal?

I was playing a show in Seattle and a fan from Valve Software came up to me after the show and asked if I was interested in writing music for videogames. I met with one of the writers for the game and together we hit on the idea of having me write a song for the closing credits based on a character in the game. I wrote it as a work-for-hire since it was a commission. The song became such a big part of what people liked about that game that the Rock Band people decided to put the song in their game. All this wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for my fans. They've helped me in many ways.

And that's one of the reasons why you included them in your new DVD/CD?

Yes, absolutely. I asked fans to help me record the concert. It's a live show I did in San Francisco and is the culmination of what I've been doing the last couple of years. I hired a professional company for the main footage — 5-camera, HD — and it's a very different experience from the cheap-and-easy Internet approach. We cut all the footage the fans shot and put it in there. Yes, it's an idea totally stolen from the Beastie Boys, but I loved the idea and my fans responded with excellent footage.


Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician, The D.I.Y. Music Manual, and founders of the open and free musician resource, IndieGuide.com (www.IndieGuide.com).

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