Friday, March 26, 2010

Portals and Cake

I've written before about independent artist Jonathan Coulton and his very successful non-major label music career. One of the tenets of Coulton's work (and a key to his success) is the idea that music freely shared reaps dividends for the artist. By making his music available for free distribution, Coulton became a household name -- at least online.

That heightened profile eventually lead to him providing a song for the video game Portal, which did provide a nice source of income. The song, "Still Alive" became something of an underground hit. So much so, that was made available on Rock Band, generating even more income.

There's several versions of the song available on YouTube, all of which help keep Coulton's name in the limelight, and help fill concert halls. The version of the video game (below) currently has over 5.3 million views.

Jonathan Coulton's own version on YouTube has been viewed 1.3 million times.

And now the Gifford Children's Choir of Racine, Wisconsin has performed their own version and posted it on YouTube. It's had over 160,000 views so far, which has been a great boost for the choir, as well as renewed interest in Coulton's song, and the video game Portal.

So what has Coulton's "share and share alike" policy gotten him? There have been almost 7 million total views of these three videos. By contrast, this week's number one song on Billboard ("Hey Soul Sister" by Train) has sold 2 million copies since its release. And while views don't equal sales, Coulton gets 100% of the royalties from each sale of his song. Train gets perhaps 12%.

Assuming "Still Alive" and "Hey Soul Sister" both net $0.99 a sale, Train's made about $237,000 for their song. Jonathan Coulton needs to sell just 240,000 downloads to equal that. And with 7 million views and counting, what's the likelihood he's already past that number?

- Ralph


  1. Anonymous2:17 AM

    Only problem is Coulton does own the copyright to "Still Alive", Valve does. So buy this hero's version on Lala or itunes if it is available. He may have to pay Valve royalties on his own piece but he surely makes something. -Director, Gifford Children's Choir

  2. Good point. Based on your comment, I dug a little further, and according to his blog, Coulton wrote the song on commission. I'd be surprised if part of the agreement didn't include his own use of the song -- after all there's been no take-down notice served on his version on YouTube.

    So Coulton did make some money, but if there are downloads, it will be Valve that gets the cash. It's not to say there's not a win for Coulton, though. I think he's come to a lot of people's attention because of the song, which gives him a larger platform for his own work (which he does own).

    Thanks for setting the record straight!