Forgive the bragging, but I think today's post - at least, the part that I didn't write - is essential reading for amateur and professional musicians alike. Bear with me.
Jonathan Coulton is one of those strange types who gives his music away for free. He's met with no little success, not the least of which is escaping his former job as a computer programmer. I've been intending to write about him for ages but I was too lazy busy. To give him a criminally short summing-up, he writes folk-rock music with a geeky bent and specialises in two outmoded elements of song-writing: catchy melodies and witty lyrics. His website describes his music as: "Well crafted geek folk-pop. Hilarious but heartbreaking songs about mad scientists, robot armies and self-loathing giant squids." Just like Prince.
Before I go on to explain why I'm finally writing about him, here's a taste of the “JoCo” love juice. This track is charming, jolly and entirely good-natured – it's also extremely NOT SAFE FOR WORK:
Heh. I hope you didn't snort coffee over the screen.
A relative of mine heard this next song and asked, in all seriousness, whether Mr Coulton was quite all right. It freaked her out, whereas I think it's a scream. But then, I'm not all right.
Right, on to business - literally. Many music fans, be they consumers or musicians, are very sceptical of this whole “free music” idea. How on earth does that work, they cry? Someone, somewhere, must be getting their wallets pinched, surely? Like it or not, nefarious usage of technology has undermined the traditional entertainment paradigm; as I write, there's a copy of the new Wolverine film floating around the net a full month before its cinematic release. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. If some ne'er-do-well is going to get hold of your music without paying for it, no matter what you do to prevent it, why not adapt to the situation? Why not give your music away for nothing, build up a following and make money that way? 10% of something is better than 100% of nothing. Also, with respect, there are quite a few budding musicians who will never get a sniff of a three-album deal, but if they give away their music then they've got a good chance of getting heard, a slim chance of getting paid and they're fairly certain to have some fun. Creative Commons and netlabel music could increase the number of musicians who can make a living from their passion. It's worth a thought.
Coulton has given his music away in order to attract fans and garner publicity. It's worked. People download his music because it's free, find they like it and then either donate in gratitude or pay for some of his commercial music. Apart from giving away a lot of his tracks for free, he also sells CDs through CDBaby, Amazon and at his gigs. You can buy mp3s from his own online store, iTunes, Songslide and elsewhere. There are also t-shirts, mouse pads, mugs, the inevitable thongs and plenty more stuff to buy. However, his ringtones are free because, as he says, “It's never seemed right to me that you should have to pay someone three dollars for a tiny snippet of a song you probably already own. So screw it.” There's also a wiki and lively forums. He's put a lot of work into giving his fans a lot of stuff to wade through enjoy.
He's also responsible for Still Alive, the end title song to Portal, Valve's hit computer game. That last sentence made me sound as though I'm smoking a pipe and leaning on a mantelpiece. Perhaps I am.
So, does all this ingenuity add up to more than a hill of beans? I'll leave the answer to JoCo, who has done yet another outmoded thing by writing honestly about how his different revenue streams have enabled him to make poop jokes a living as a musician. On 16th March he released a song, Blue Sunny Day, about a suicidal vampire (prime Coulton territory) and said, "As always, you have a choice: stream it, download it for free, or buy it." A week later, 1544 people had viewed the free download link, the song had been bought 179 times and it had earned him $196. His reaction:
Worst case scenario (every unique view = one free download), the ratio of paying customers to freeloaders comes to about 13.4% if you count dollars instead of purchases. That’s actually pretty good in my opinion. And maybe I just have my rosy glasses on this morning, but I’d guess that some of the people who bought Blue Sunny Day were tipped over into buying other stuff.
So how does this work? I put out a new song and make $200? Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that, because I’m making a pretty good living considering my recent output is about 2 songs per year. Even not considering that - I’m not getting rich exactly, but I make more money now than I did when I wrote software.
He concludes that it is the accumulation of all the previously mentioned revenue streams, spread across his catalogue, that enables him to keep his head above water. In other words, his online and gigging activities have now gathered enough momentum that the cents have turned into quite a few dollars. Another important point - he's his own boss and can record what he likes, when he likes: there's no longing for a record contract, no owing record companies huge amounts of money for studio time, promotion and cocaine, and no reluctant cancellation of, say, a heartfelt bagpipe operetta because a studio executive says it won't sell.
If you're interested, JoCo goes into more detail about his incomings in a blog post entitled Payday. Endearingly, he's rather relaxed about how his business model works; all he knows is that it allows him to be a full-time musician, and that's the important thing.
Anyone can attach a Creative Commons licence to their music and release it online. Jonathan Coulton did just that and is now earning more money than he was as a computer programmer. There's also the small point that he's now a, y'know, gigging rock star who tours America and Britain, gets to scream, “How ya doin', generic Mid-West town?!?” and no doubt gets the odd request to sign pert, abundant breasts. The man is patently an idiot.
However, we wish him and his beard well. His appearance is quite disturbing, but I assure you he's harmless enough. ;)
Jonathan Coulton Primer Page (for JoCo newbies)
Jonathan Coulton songs (Some are $1 each, some are free - look for the smileys.)
Jonathan Coulton main website/blog (A live concert DVD is imminent.)