We recently had the chance to talk with internet rock star and former code monkey Jonathan Coulton. We asked him a number of your questions and a few of our own about music, technology, and copyright issues. Read below to see what he had to say.A rundown of the tech you use during a show?
Can you give some details about the technology you use on stage when playing live without a band?
Jonathan: It depends on what I'm doing. I guess, when I'm not with a band, mostly I am comfortable playing on the acoustic guitar, which is a piece of wood with some wires attached to it. And a microphone, which vibrates and creates an electrical impulse that goes through wires. I have also been known to perform with gadgets. The thing is, I have a gadget problem. I'm looking around my office, right now, and I see, from where I am currently standing I can see eight or nine items that I purchased, because I saw a video of somebody doing something cool with it.
They have touchpads and buttons. Some of them are synthesizers and weird effect boxes, and weird grid instruments. I have a Tenori-On. I have performed a couple of songs with that. I did a version of Code Monkey, where I used a grid device called a "monome". And various pieces of software, and you know, crazy foot pedals. I would say that I'm sort of a frustrated musical technologist. I wish that I were better at using these devices, because they're very cool. What happens is I buy them in anticipation of learning how to play them really well. And I never really get to the "really well" part.
Samzenpus: You use RSS to announce a lot of your shows. Do you find that to be more effective than fliers or traditional advertising?
Jonathan: It's funny, the best way to communicate with people has really changed, over the years. Surprisingly, I find these days that the most guaranteed response, the best way to get people's attention, is with an email list, which surprises me. I'm an RSS guy. I am devoted to reading feeds throughout the day. So for me, the idea of essentially subscribing to someone from whom I want to hear news in the future, makes perfect sense. Like, if you want to know when my shows are, subscribe to my RSS feed, and it will be pushed to you when that information is available.
But I think that the basic problem on the Internet today is that we're all overwhelmed with stuff. I have this problem too. Keeping up with all of my feeds is a full time job, so stuff falls through cracks.
The same with Twitter. For a while, Twitter was a really effective and direct way of communicating with people. But as time has gone on, everybody follows more people. So you might not be able to keep up with that entire feed. If you haven't checked it in a day, and you look and you've got 250 unread tweets, you might be like, "You know what, I'm going to skip that route." Which results in everybody promoting things multiple times on Twitter, and that whole thing is a mess. But really, email is still a thing that sits in your inbox and waits for you to pay attention to it.
If you assume that you've got a number of people who actually want to get that information, then when you put that little flag in their inbox, they will wait until they have time, and then they will read it. That's still seems to be the most effective way of getting information out to people.
What is your approximate breakdown of revenue annually (i.e. % from digital downloads, CDs, live shows, royalties)? How has it changed over the years?
Jonathan: I would say, in a standard year when I'm doing the amount of touring that I am comfortable doing, between 20 and 30 dates, I will make probably equal money from touring and from downloads.
Which is to say that people do purchase downloads from me. Still. Today. I will say that that number has been in steady decline. I think, in part because of the rise of streaming music, instead of purchasing music. Also because there's no ignoring the fact that I haven't had any new material in a couple of years. There's only so long that a back catalog can stay relevant and active in people's lives.
To be honest, I haven't looked in a while, and I tend to not pay all that much attention to the specific numbers of the various components that make up what I do. Because it's like, what are you going to do? You put the stuff up for sale, and people are going to buy it, or not. I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince people one way or the other.
For me, I'm lucky enough that I have a bunch of different income streams that add up to making a pretty decent living as a musician. So I'm not going to complain about this piece of it shrinking, or that piece of it shrinking. The world is what it is.
more karaoke tracks?
by Nick Number
Over the past five years I've taken on the mantle of karaoke nerd (I will also answer to diva), and I've really enjoyed performing the karaoke tracks which I bought from your website and persuaded various KJs to import. "First of May" tends to get me some funny looks, and despite the disclaimer, I've yet to be punched in the nose after singing it. Do you have plans to release any new karaoke tracks? Is there any chance that "Still Alive" will get one, or does Valve own those rights?
What about more sheet music?
Jonathan: The karaoke tracks are popular sellers. The thing about it that I love is thinking about all these completely unaware karaoke audiences around the country, you know, expecting to hear "Achy Breaky Heart". Instead, it's a song about a sad, giant squid. It's a lovely..So, you know, it really tickles me to think of those things floating around out there at karaoke nights.
In answer to your other question, yes. "Still Alive" is a song that is owned by Valve. Because it was a work-for-hire song, I have limited things that I can do with it. Although, I am allowed to record and release new versions of that song. So presumably, I could, because I did a new version of that song on my last album, I could take that and make a karaoke track out of it. Honestly, I just haven't gotten to it.
There are guitar tabs, in the Wiki on my website. That tends to solve the problem for most people. As far as sheet music, you know, that's a relatively complex task, taking a pop song arrangement, shrinking it down to some sort of piano version that makes sense, and is the right difficulty level, and all that stuff. That's just another thing that I think is, in terms of the hours it would take to do, or for me to hire somebody else to do it. Because I certainly wouldn't do it myself; It's sort of a question of return on investment. I don't know how many people would really buy it. I would love for it to exist. It's just a question of finding the time and the resources to create it.
Hi Jon. Have you been approached for Portal 3? Also, thanks for releasing all those tracks for Ultrastar DX. My son was absolutely terrified of the Creepy Doll song and my kids love to sing RE:Your Brains (They're 6 and 5).
Jonathan: I have not heard anything about Portal 3. When we were in the thick of doing Portal 2, there were a few people I talk to who were kind of like, "Ugh. People are already bugging us about Portal 3, and Portal 2 is not even out yet. And we're so sick of Portal."
It's that thing where you're up to your neck on some project, and the last thing you want to do is think about doing it ever again. So I don't know. I have no inside news on Portal 3, and that is the honest truth. But the caveat is that they don't tell me anything until they absolutely have to. So, who knows?
Thoughts on thing a week?
What are your retrospective thoughts on you're thing a week project? I'm particularly interested in if you thought it was a success (and what that might mean), and if you would suggest something similar to other artists. Loved your music ever since i heard about you through Slashdot 6 or 7 years ago! Thanks for all the laughs and entertainment!
Jonathan: Yes, boy, I'm really proud of "Thing a Week", and very happy with the way it behaved in my life. I did it really because I didn't know what else to do.
Not only was it a pretty effective way of getting attention, and kicking off what was then a brand new professional career as a musician. But I really learned a lot about song-writing, and recording, and the creative process, in general. It was such a hard year. The first two songs were easy. And then, everything after that was increasingly harder. It's the kind of thing, you hear this all the time from writers and creators of all stripes, that it never really gets easier.
The process is what it is to you, personally. There are few ways to make it better. You have to sit down and do it. That's the sad truth of it. It rarely falls out of the sky into your lap. Everything you make is the result of sitting down with your tools and making them go until a thing is done. You forget that that is true, but it is unquestionably the only way to get things done. So yes, I'm really proud of it. I'm really glad to have done it. And I certainly recommend that kind of process to anyone who is a frustrated, creative person.
I would say the components of it would be doing creative work on a regular basis, and also publishing on a regular basis, without regard to making everything perfect. That was a key component for me. Writing a song and releasing it, maybe even before it was done. Or before it was as good as I thought I could make it. Because as hard as it is to start something, it's even harder to finish something. So you trick yourself into doing both of those things, by setting a deadline... it's also that you have to make a lot of bad things in order to make one good thing. You can't filter that stuff on the way in. You can only filter it after it's out the door. Honestly, you've got to finish each song, and then decide what the good ones are.
Popularity of your songs
As a consumer listening to songs I find only a small percentage of work of any single artist strikes that perfect mix that makes me want to put a song on a "favorites" playlist. As you look back at your library of songs, is there a group that you think really are just meh and how many do you still really, really enjoy performing? As a followup - if the songs you perform the most get stale for you as a performer do you look to your catalog to keep things fresh or do you prefer to write new material?
Jonathan: Geez, my favorites rotate around. As you say, I get tired of certain songs, and songs fall out of favor. I forget about certain songs, and then am reminded how much I like them. My favorites, the ones that really stand the test of time, for me, are the ones that are not that funny, at all. I really like the sad ones, and the straight-ahead ones. The giant squid song is one of my favorites because it's weirdly personal for me, in a way that I'm not sure I fully understand. But I find it emotionally, really compelling.
"Shop Vac" is a good example of a song that I didn't realize how dark and weird it is, until a couple of years after I wrote it. I was like, "Oh, my... Did this guy kill his family?" I love "You Ruined Everything", which is a song about becoming a parent. Recently, I was on the JoCo Cruise Crazy fan cruise that we do every year. There was a woman who bugged me on Twitter, every couple of days before the cruise. She said, "Please play `Pizza Day'. Please play `Pizza Day'. Please play `Pizza Day'." Which is a song from "Thing a Week" that I kind of rushed through, and immediately forgot about, and have never played in concert since.
Because of her incessant harangue, I did play it on the cruise. I was reminded, it's a nice song. So stuff like that will happen, where songs that I haven't played in years, somebody will ask for them. I'll play them and say, "Oh, yes, that's a pretty good song, actually."
Samzenpus: For people who don't know, could you just give a little synopsis of the whole "Glee" issue?
Jonathan: Yes. I was alerted by someone on Twitter that there was a video review of some music from an upcoming episode, that was leaked by someone. And the music was the song, "Baby Got Back", in the exact style that I did it. Which is to say, they used the melody that I wrote. They used, almost precisely, the background vocals that I had arranged. They even used some of the lyric changes that I had made. For instance, "Dial 1-900-Johnny C" instead of "1-900-Mix-A-Lot".
As the air date of that episode approached, I got my lawyers involved. I also saw the song for sale on iTunes. We were trying to figure out, "What is the situation here?" It's a complicated intellectual property issue, because my song was kind of a cover song. But I had added new material to it, by writing a melody for a rap song, where there is no melody.
Without going into the details, because there are a lot of boring aspects to that. It was unclear how solid of a case we really had. Even though, when you listen to them, side by side, or even on top of each other, they line up exactly. There was also some indication that they might have used some of my tracks, because I had used this sound effect of a duck quaking, at some point in the song. I can hear that duck quack in their recording.
Where it ended up is, ultimately, I and my legal team decided that, while we could go further with it, the question I had to ask myself was, "Do I really want to be in a protracted legal battle with Fox?"...They had made it clear from the get-go, that they thought they were doing me a favor. And no way was I going to get any money. They were not open to really anything; they didn't give an inch, from the moment we started complaining to them.
As a sort of protest, I released my original track with a new name. I called it "Baby Got Back in the Style of Glee", which I think made them mad. Then people started buying that track, and rating it very highly. It shot past their version in the iTunes charts. And I gave away all the proceeds from that track, splitting it between the It Gets Better organization, and VH1 Save the Music.
You know, that to me felt like a bigger victory than I was likely to get in the legal process. So I said, "Well, let's call that `done'."
Samzenpus: As I'm sure you're aware, "The Good Wife" made an episode about it. Did they contact you?
Jonathan: It was another moment where I didn't hear about it until it was on television, and somebody Tweeted about it. I flipped over, and there was Matthew Lillard playing me, essentially. Suddenly my life was ripped from the headlines. It was a very strange experience.
They did not contact me ahead of time, but I thought it was really well done. I appreciated that they let the good guys win in their version. I love Matthew Lillard. I was flattered to be portrayed by him. They got in touch. I spoke with a couple of people there, and they said, "We want you to know we're really big fans, and we think what happened to you was terrible. We're sorry that we didn't contact you ahead of time. But honestly, our legal team was afraid of the Fox lawyers." To which I said, "I hear you, brothers."
Samzenpus: For those who don't know, could you explain how you license your music?
Jonathan: I use a creative commons license. It is "attribution, non- commercial", which is to say that, even though these songs still retain their copyright, creative commons is this caveat to standard copyright. Specifically, it gives anyone the right to share those songs, freely, and use them in non-commercial ways, provided they give me attribution. It's basically a way of declaring, ahead of time, what kinds of use you are okay with. For me, I love that people are able to do remixes, and make videos.
Samzenpus: It's led to some amazing videos, and many with World of Warcraft toons.
Jonathan: Yes, that's a great example. It's Cory Doctorow who talks about this idea of creative commons as being a way to turn your art into these dandelion seeds that float on the wind, and hopefully take purchase in some soil that you never would have found otherwise.
Those World of Warcraft videos are a perfect example. Because I didn't even know it was a thing, but it's a thing. There are communities of people who are really into making and watching music videos made using materials from World of Warcraft. Some of those videos, there's one particular user named "Spiff", some of his videos have been viewed literally millions of times. You can't buy that kind of exposure. Or I should say I can't buy that kind of exposure. Some people could, but not me.
What is your ideal Copyright system?
Hi Jonathan! These days it's quite popular to both bash the copyright system and sue those thieving filesharers to oblivion. I'd like to ask you what you, as an independent musician, think would be a good balance between the creator rights and the public interests? Would it be a RIAA wet dream where all the content is locked up behind paywalls and getting a copy from an unauthorized source, like say a library, would constitute a crime with a minimum of 6 months in jail? Do you believe more in the Pirate Parties vision of abolishing the monopoly on creating copies, but retaining the protection against economic abuse? Or are you more in favor of going full nuclear by abolishing the entire copyright system all together? Thank you for all the great songs you have produced over the years!
Jonathan: A lot of people in the music industry will tell you that. Creative commons is a clear and open declaration of the kind of thing that happens anyway, in a kind of don't ask, don't tell way. Take songs as an example. There are plenty of songs that get used in various ways, that are probably violations of copyright. But the holders of the IP of that song don't really mind. So they don't say anything.
They don't condone that kind of stuff, because they want to reserve their right in a future situation where they don't like it. But if something happens, and they're kind of okay with it, they'll be like, "eh, let's just let it go and not say anything." The way we use and consume media has changed a great deal in the last 10, 20 years. So to say that you can't use a song in a home movie of yours, which is, unquestionably, a violation of copyright, to say that you can't do that is kind of absurd at this point. The thing I like about creative commons is that it is a clear statement of what is already happening. It's a clear statement of how we all use and think about digital media.
How To Be JoCo?
So I'm here in my cube wondering how to reach escape velocity. I could maybe do a thing a quarter or maybe a thing a month though, and have a decent set within a year. What are the best first steps and what was your greatest challenge in leaving the day job?
Jonathan: I would say in general, for people who want to be professional, creative people, the same is true that has always been true. Which is that you need to make stuff, a lot. You need to get better and better, always, at making stuff. You need to publish that stuff, on a regular basis, whatever that means to you. It doesn't need to be a big deal, but you need to get it in front of other people. You need to try to find the groups of people who will like your stuff, and hope that they like it.
You notice, I haven't talked about money at all, yet. Because, if everything goes well, the money comes later. To describe my strategy generally, it was, get the stuff out there; attract some attention, and see what we can build this in to.
There are so many different ways to get your stuff out there. Try everything, and keep the stuff that works. It's not an easy line of work. The days when you could sit around dreamily in your room, coming up with poems, and then, a bunch of business people would turn that into money for you, that doesn't really exist any more.
It takes work. And not just the creative work. You have to be a bit of an entrepreneur, these days. If you're not into spreadsheets, at least a little bit. Then for goodness sake, don't go into the entertainment business.