Why Jonathan Coulton Is The Future Of Music


Why, indeed.

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. ‘

JoCo’ adapted.

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…

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  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    But some dicks make really good music. And lots of really nice guys make hideous or dull music. FLAWED BUSINESS MODEL.

  • Fiona Mayhem
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I agree – do you think tesco and nike got where they are by being really nice?

    Plus, that beard!

    However, this is a good summary of ways to sell some music. Do you think he will ever go mainstream?

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Is it just me, or is this the business model that most indy record labels have operated for the past 20 years or so? Self-publishing is nothing new, if you can’t get a deal, form a record company(hey, it even worked for me!), as for engaging the audience-that is exactly what is wrong with pop stars these days-they should be magical, unnaproachable creatures, that way you get far less dicks imagining they can do it too!

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    It’s not really about JoCo though, to be fair.

    From what I can gather from my inside man at a major label – their tactic for dealing with low album sales is flogging merch. Endless merch.

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Merch is king even for the unsigned-you make £12 neat profit off a shirt at a gig, compared to about 12 pence for a CD/Download!

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    FM – he doesn’t need to go mainstream – he’s doing fine as he is…

    Also – he’s the future of music – this is how I figure musicians will operate soon. Not everyone can do it yet, bu Mr Coulton is showing the way…

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    There are others though – probably best not to put it all at the doorstep of this bloke I’ve never heard of…

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I’m sure there are plenty. Paul & Storm for example. JoCo seems to be the most visable. He’s the poster boy!

  • Fiona Mayhem
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Except the only place I have ever seen him is on downtuned…

    I think this is the business model Nick of the Tann also employs, and I have heard of him…

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    DT is commited to bringing you new music that matters first! also, Vones has a crush on ‘JoCo’ as he adorably refers to him..

  • Fiona Mayhem
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Sorry, that reads much grumpier than i intended it to.

    I meant that is this the way forward to become a multi selling artist?

    I appreciate that this is possibly not what JoCo wants, but you know, will it create another Madonna or whoever?

    I am not saying this is a bad thing mind you..

  • Capnking
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    amen to this. I was humming code monkey on the train in this morning – the man is a legend, and cannot be killed by conventional means.

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    FM – It might! But perhaps in the future there will be no more Madonnas…

    Somebody bang on Nick of the T’s door – would love to hear what an actual proper musician thinks of this.

    Code Monkey is teh ace.

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I’m going to follow this model for my forthcoming album Farting And Following Through. I’ll make all my songs available free of charge, I’ll start up a blog and I’ll be really nice to people who talk to me over the internet.

    Once I’ve got my fanbase, I’ll go on tour and THEN I’ll get my revenge on these grasping, freeloading BASTARDS by locking the doors and subjecting ‘em to six hours of me shitting diarrhoea at them as they run and run and run around the concert venue screaming. Once they’re spattered with liquid turds, I’ll unleash rabid dogs into the room …



  • Fiona Mayhem
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    NC – this supposes hat you can be nice to ppeople that talk to you over the internet. The evidence to date does not make this hopeful…

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink


  • Fiona Mayhem
    Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink


  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Well that killed the conversation stone dead! Nappers and his dogs and farts. Tut.

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m not taking any responsibilty for that, Vones.

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    It’s all about finding an audience.
    If you don’t have any backing it’s an uphill battle.
    A look at JCs wikedpedia entry (which I think he wrote himself) shows you that he hasn’t exactly come from nowhere. He had the advantage of being able to place his song in a game, a potential audience of millions.
    Moby did the same with being able to place his stuff in adverts.

    I think the main obstacle for any independent is that people assume that if you are not affiliated with some form of industry organisation, you’re shit. That simply is not true although thee is a lot of shit, truckloads of it. But that’s not to say that there is a wealth of talent with the majors.

    There have been dozens of acts that seam to have appeared out of nowhere and have been later found out to be dirty frauds.

    If we’re taking “models” it’s simplez (sorry) and works for anyone selling anything.
    A) Clearly identify your product.
    B) Identify your audience
    C) Find some way of attaching A to B.

    I don’t think that the stuff I do is any better or worse than signed bands it’s just that they have an advantage over me and that is the publicity the record companies can generate for them.

    I’m part of a campaign that is giving away free downloads of mine and other artists tracks (including The Lemonheads weirdly).
    I’m pretty chuffed that I’ve managed to shift just over 400 downloads and I’m a nice guy, aint I?

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    well..you’re alright I suppose… :D
    Course you are NT! I’d suggest that you should also treat every gig like it’s Wembley, even if it’s a dank Camden attic with an audience of 3, there’s no underestimating the power of a smoke machine and some lasers!

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Fortunately I’m not in London anymore.
    I’m playing at a pub in Alton, Hampshire tonight. Just a little one, 20 mins or so. I’ll have cds to give away and stuff.
    I’ll give the smoke machine some thought though

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Actually Interceptor you have given me a good idea. I’m going to rock up there in my fanciest toggs. Jacket & shirt and my poncey Italian shoes!

  • Posted July 28, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Good for you NT-look like a pop star and people will believe it!

  • Posted July 29, 2009 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I did. Got rid of 13 cds….

  • Fiona Mayhem
    Posted July 29, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Hope you left the smoke machine at home though. It is not so good for the asthmatics in your audience.

  • Posted July 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh, that would explain the dead blue bodies at the end then…..

  • Posted July 29, 2009 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Perfect! Good work NT-you are now officially the most dangerous band in the world!

    *gets on phone to NME…*

  • Posted July 29, 2009 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    At least it’s not “Lawyers 4u”

  • Stephen Browne
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    What bullcrap. The future of true music always has and always will be the creation of decent frigging music. Anything is else is just peripheral funk which leaves a bad taste in the musician’s mouth.

    Music is not about fucking fame and fortune, as corny as that sounds. It is about playing the sounds which speak to yourself first, and then your audience. Ask the thousands of brilliant muso’s who didn’t “make it.” Sure we all gotta make some cash, and its nice if we make a lot. There’s a reason musicians are the most underpaid professionals around though. And its not because their ‘business model’ sucks.

  • geek
    Posted June 9, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    He sucks a whole bunch. His marketing wont take him anywhere if he keeps making shit like “I Feel Fantastic.”

  • DS
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    There are alot of musicians that do this so what makes him so special? He personally isnt the future of music, but he is apart of that future.

  • Dane Lewis
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Indeed he is the future of music but it is not only him many bands have many of these elements.

    The main thing killing music is RIAA and major labels, as technology has evolved it had gotten closer to that they provide. They used to be the only one to be advertise and distribute world wide now all you need is a commuter and the will to do so and the same goes for recording quality. As a result the massive amount of quality these labels destroy no longer outweighs their benefit and they have become a monster that you feed all you creativity an money to, nothing more.

    I know a guy who bought 10K in recording equipment and a 3K computer and spent 20 hours recording a single track, another friend did close to the same work with a Mack book and it’s preinstalled software.

  • Ya guy
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get it. But what I do know is that I don’t like it. Does he do the above because he can go mainstream but won’t, or because he can’t go mainstream?? Why do I care that he’s the future of music?

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