In a world filled with artists pushing the boundaries of what can be considered music and established musicians reinventing themselves as often as a normal man buys new socks, why is vaguely folky geek-rock singer-songwriter with little mainstream coverage Jonathan Coulton the future of music?
Well – let me tell you. It has little to do with songs.
As discussed previously, music is changing. Record labels are no longer culture controlling mega-corps that decide the listening tastes of entire generations. Sure, they are still powerful, but they’re are haemorrhaging money at an epic rate, and the majors, at least, may soon be a memory. Consumption is changing too – with the internet and iPods being the catalyst. Along with that, the whole file-sharing / DRM thing has pretty much screwed up the way music is paid for. In this world, artists must adapt or die. ‘
1. No Label
Jonathan Coulton has no label. This allows him full creative control of his music and it means he pays nothing to them. All money generated by Jonathan Coulton’s music goes to him. No obligations, no gods, no masters.
2. Total DIY
Without a record label backing an artist, how do they have the money to record? Well, today, you don’t need an expensive recording studio. In fact , you just need a computer, a microphone and a bit of software. OK, to record really well, maybe you need a bit more. But it’s well within the reach of the average punter – and musician.
3. Identified Audience
These days, you can find just about any kind of music. Something will suit your tastes. Be it Harry Potter based indie rock, or politically aware power electronics, if you can imagine the genre, there will probably be someone filling it with music. So, identifying your audience becomes pretty important. Sure – you can make the same old music as the rest of the mainstream, but you’d have to be the best at it to make a go of things. Instead JoCo has found his audience – they’re geeks, to be honest – and he knows this. His songs reflect this. Songs about the unrequited love of a super-villain, maths problems and zombie office-workers all appeal to the geek mindset – he is their poet laureate.
4. Sidestep File Sharing
From Jonathan Coulton’s site -
“Already Stole It? No problem. If you’d like to donate some cash, you can do so through Amazon or Paypal. Or, for something slightly more fun: purchase a robot, monkey or banana that will be displayed here with your message”
He knows some people are going to get his music off The Pirate Bay or wherever. Instead of hunting them down with rabid layers and ridiculous fines – he politely requests a contribution. Sensible.
5. Engage The Audience
Unlike some other artists, Coulton does not live in an ivory tower, addressing his adoring fanbase only when he sees fit. Instead he has an active blog, forum and twitter – allowing contact with the fans. Building a relationship means it’s more likely he will sell music or have you come to his show. It’s like helping out a friend.
6. Spreading The Word
JoCo releases his music under the Attribution-NonCommercial Creative Commons license. This means anyone can use his music if they don’t intend to use it to make money, and give him credit. This means there is now an active community making videos and mashing up his songs on YouTube. The most viewed video – a fan made video made entirely from World Of Warcraft video has over three million views. That’s how to avoid obscurity.
7. Tour Easily, Tour Often
How do you make money from music when people can get it for free? Tour and sell merch! JoCo, until recently, had a gruelling tour schedule. But he could do it easily as he can play everything he’s recorded on an acoustic guitar. No insanely complex stage set up. Guitar, box of merch, gone.
8. Partner With Media
I first heard of JoCo through Still Alive – the end theme to the game Portal. Portal was hailed as one of the best games ever and its catchy, sad, final song was penned by Coulton. By allying himself with an awesome video game, JoCo reached a mass audience through an unusual method and grew his fanbase through association.
9. Making Music An Event
Write songs, release album, release single, tour. Repeat. That’s the conventional method. Not so for JoCo. He attempted to write and release a new song every week for a year. This made his releases an event – people returned to his website every week and subscribed to his podcast. He gained notoriety for this, accumulated a huge back catalogue and became a better musician for it.
10. Being Really Nice
If you’re a dick and you’re even vaguely famous, the entire world will know about it. And no one wants to buy music from a dick they’ve not really heard of. Luckily Coulton is not a dick. Far from it. I met him once and he was charming, self deprecating and cool. After a gig he spent ages autographing stuff and hanging out with fans. You would feel bad if you didn’t buy a T Shirt from this man. That’s worth thousands in marketing money…