Friday, April 18, 2008

Money for Nothing -- the Coulton Conundrum

The story of Jonathan Coulton and his success as a singer-songwriter has been well-documented. He's been featured in the New York Times, inteviewed in Wireless Magazine, profiled on NPR, and been on several podcasts, blogs and other forms of e-media. And yet most of the struggling musicians I talk to have never heard of him.

And that's too bad, because they could learn a lot from Coulton. Much has been made about Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails giving away music as a way to increase interest and therefore sales. The question remains, though, if they could reasonably expect the same massive response if they had not already been well-known acts before their experiments.

Jonathan Coulton started out as a complete unknown, and built his fanbase through an innovative and unusual fashion. He wrote and recorded a song each week for a year and posted it on his website. While you could purchase Coulton's songs, many of them you could also download for free.

Coulton's compositions were protected by a Creative Commons license, which meant others could use them freely for non-commercial purposes as long as he was credited. And people did.

Before the year was over Coulton's music started showing up all over the Internet. Because people could use his material without a lot of complicated licensing, almost 2,000 fan-made music videos were posted on YouTube alone.

Here's one of the many videos made for one of my favorite Coulton tunes "Ikea."

The songs Coulton posted eventually were collected into albums, which are available for sale through normal indie music channels such as Coulton toured, and continually played to larger and larger audiences. And his fanbase continues to grow to this day.

His song "Code Monkey" has become an IT anthem.

Recently, he was commissioned to write the closing song for the video game "Portals," which opened up an even wider audience to Coulton's music.

While I'm not suggesting every rising artist should copy Coulton's "Thing a Week" model, there are some takeaways from his career that I think every independent musician should know about.

  1. Offer quality content -- If Jonathan Coulton didn't write good songs, he would still be working that day job.
  2. Use the tools you have to connect directly with your fans -- The Internet offers many inexpensive ways to reach niche markets. Websites, blogs, podcasts and emails are all good places to start.
  3. Keep control of your material, but not too much control -- If you purchase a Coulton song, the artist gets the cash. There's no record company to take the lion's share. And because Coulton allows non-commercial use of his material, his fans have spread it farther and faster than any record label-funded publicity campaign possibly could.

I first heard "Ikea" on a podcast and immediately liked it. When I heard Coulton's version of "Baby Got Back," I started actively looking for his music. I checked out some of his other tunes from his website, and now own some of his albums.

The major record labels consider every shared song a lost sale. For Jonathan Coulton, every shared song set up the potential of another sale. Independent artists need to take note.

And the rest of us just need to listen. These songs are great!

- Ralph


  1. Really excellent post, thank you!

  2. My pleasure. One would think Coulton would be better known by now, but his fame still seems to rest primarily in the online world.

    - Ralph

  3. Anonymous11:12 AM

    BTW, the game for which Jonathan Coulton made a song is "Portal" and not "Portals." Singular, not plural.

    Great article!