How Jonathan Coulton Made $500,000 Last Year As A D.I.Y. Musician

image from www.google.com (UPDATED) Last year d.y.i. musician Jonathan Coulton grossed about $500,000 from his music career; and because he's a mostly solo artist with low overhead, he got to keep most of it.

Coutlon never expected to make this kind of money as a musician. "This is absurd," he told Planet Money.  But is Jonathan Coulton's success a fluke or can other musicians replicate it?

First Coulton cut out the middle man – no record label. The using the web, he went direct to his fans.  His "fluke" or lucky break came with a quirky semi-autobiographical song called Code Monkey, about a lovelorn computer programmer. He put it up on his own site and users of tech discussion board Slashdot started to talk about it.

"So here was this song about a sad tech geek, and it was an arrow shot directly to the heart of the tech geek community," says Coulton. "That was the equivalent of me being discovered by some impresario or getting to go on the Ed Sullivan show when nobody knew who I was. That was my breakthrough."

Coulton parlayed that first "hit" into profitable live shows, more releases and merchandise sales – always going direct to his fans wherever possible.

Music loving techies is a niche – although one large enough to support several other d.i.y. successes like Zoe Keating.  But there a plenty of niches and on the internet, reminds Coulton, more are forming all the time.

UPDATE: Coulton has agreed to answer questions from Hypebot readers.  What do you want to know?

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  1. I love John’s story and it’s very inspiring to all DIY people.
    There seems to be a new wave of musicians who don’t see DIY as a quick fix until the deal comes but as a better business option.
    Coulton’s fluke hides his a whole lot of hard work on his part, plus he has no technical barrier which can be a problem for some people.
    I’m tweeting this….
    – Chris

  2. Theses types of posts amaze me. They tell nothing of how long the person has been a musician, where they live, have they ever invested in marketing, how often they play live, etc, etc. To better help and encourage fellow musicians it would be more practical to give more information so that we can better utilize it for ourselves. This post is SO general and makes it seem like the artist did just one thing and he hit the lottery where in reality this is not the case.

  3. “Niche” is the key word. Also, maximizing income streams, all of which Coulton has done exceptionally well. He is a prime example of how Creative Commons can enhance an artists brand and maximize exposure while creating more income opportunities.

  4. I would like to hear more specifics from the artist himself about how exactly he got there. Went to his website, Doesn’t look very fancy at all. Infact its probably the ugliest ive seen when it comes to musicians. But apparently it works. So whats the key to his success?

  5. How is this number affected by his work with Valve Software? They love to spend money, and I can see a huge portion of that 500k coming from a licensing deal for Valve’s Portal 2.

  6. So this isn’t really that different than any new artist that has a breakthrough hit, just minus the big record company machine. I’m looking for my niche hit, but it’s still a lot of luck.

  7. I once had a major label deal (MCA Records) – and had (country) hits. I can tell you that I know of very, very few artists who made anywhere close to this kind of money, except the single digit percentage of superstars that were by far the minority.
    Is Coulton a minority? I’m sure he is – but I’d much rather take my chances going direct to the public than go through the endless, game-playing major label hoops.
    Rock on, John Coulton. May your tribe increase!

  8. I think it’s possible, just hard to imagine how without more details. I think the future does exist in niche-marketing. Seems like people are either brilliantly targeting the right people or are accidentally stumbling into the right place…

  9. I think the post basically spells out how he got successful. Yes, when you read these stories, you want the nuts and bolts so hopefully you can apply to yourself, but had he not gotten that “appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show”, all the touring, hard work, investment, etc that you want to know about, would most likely not have made him half a mil last year. So, he made it, because he made a song that appeals to geeks and a website that caters to geeks did a story on it.
    You getting the list of every venue he played does not mean you can duplicate his touring success. I am sure those venues do not come with a built in audience or guarantee you 500 tickets sold per show, if you’d be so kind as to grace their stages with your presence.
    Plus you obviously missed the part where Hypebot is soliciting questions for the man and you can actually get answers to what you want to know directly from the horse’s mouth.

  10. I’d love to know if JoCo is thinking about touring down here in Australia…and if so, does he need a local bass player? My hand’s up as a volunteer!
    I don’t really have any questions other than that…just compliments and flattery.

  11. Questions for Jonathan:
    1. Please break income percentage (roughly) into categories. ie: direct digital sales, iTunes sales, live shows, merch, licensing.
    2. At what point did you decide to get a booking agent? (talent agent??)
    3. I noticed you don’t have a giant “Sign up for my email list!” button on your site, and no twitter, facebook, or other prominent social link buttons. Why is this and what are you thoughts on the value of social interaction with fans?

  12. Coulton’s success story is proof that “cutting out the middle man” (AKA the record labels) is a move that can effectively change the course of one’s career for the better. Musicians don’t NEED record labels anymore – they can sell (and market) their music on their own, online – which is where the fans are. Many “digital retailers” all over the web provide this service. One such place is Getonic (www.getonic.com), where anyone can upload their music (or any other digital product for that matter) for free and sell it over the internet via PayPal or text messages. Getonic provides another creative way to sell: it enables fans to promote and sell their favorite artist’s music – and share the royalties. I personally love this idea and believe they’re on the right track!

  13. I had never heard of this guy, so I was kinda suspicious of his figures, but I checked him out on YouTube and he evidently has a sizeable fan base, with 500,000 to 1,500,000 views for many of his songs. If he has, say, 40,000 fans who are willing to buy records or concert tickets, an annual gross income of $500,000 is quite plausible. The real question is how he got such a large (for an indie artist) fan base. On a brief listen I didn’t think there was anything wonderful about his songs, but I suppose there’s no accounting for taste.

  14. …and the video for Code Monkey has over 5,000,000 views, which is comparable to many a substantial mainstream hit. Of course YouTube views don’t translate directly into record sales figures, but clearly to take this guy as representative of what indie artists can expect to achieve would be very optimistic.

  15. Without the “fluke” hit of “Code Monkey”, what would you be doing to maintain a real business as a musician? i.e. How do you survive without an unexpected “hit”? Lord knows your music isn’t Top 40 material (thank God), would you have been playing clubs with songs like “I Hate California” and “DNA”, or building your fan base some other way?

  16. I’m curious as to whether he got paid once for music in Portals 1 & 2 or whether he gets royalties from each sale of the game.
    Or perhaps the success of the first song gave him more bargaining power on negotiating for the second Portal placement?
    On a side note, I pointed this out in another comment: this site is frustratingly difficult to comment on from an iPhone. The message field is bigger than the screen and typing takes a full second to show up. I don’t know if it’s just a Typepad thing but I’m sure I’m not the only person who has gotten fed up and just decided not to comment.

  17. Misleading headline. Who cares what he grossed, he has to live on what he netted. Not worried about his bonafides, though, as he was reportedly pulling down 200k two years ago.I would like to see financials on successful groups (bands that can eat something besides Ramen noodles) touring without label support.

  18. Hi Jonathan. My question is what have you found makes a song truly engaging for people?
    Is that something you’ve been able to hone as a reliable skill, or is it largely intuition and luck?

  19. I think this is great! I am a struggling music teacher and would be happy to make $5000 over the summer. However, I like other commenters would like MORE SPECIFICS in the body of the article. Thanks.

  20. Hi JoCo, you inspiring mutha****** you!
    My question is…what has been your main method for driving traffic to your music? Had Code Monkey never been picked up on Slashdot, what methods would you use to get people to hear your stuff? Where does your main stream of traffic come from?
    Thanks man,
    Tom Sears

  21. All I can tell you is, his concerts always sell out, and quickly. (I know because I’ve tried to get tickets–you’ve got to be quick. I did manage to get tickets to one concert by buying from someone who turned out not to need two of their four tickets.) While he might be getting a lot of money from Valve, I’m willing to bet he’s making plenty from concerts and selling his music.

  22. Jonathan, I’m delighted by your success and I love your songs. You are a bloody genius with words especially and, as a writer, I’m envious as hell.
    I’m glad there’s hope for the rest of us who are trying to make it in the arts on our own. I’m taking a similar path by self-publishing and managing my own work, and I’m slowly starting to see increased sales.
    My question is somewhat related to a previous one: I’d like to know more about your use of social media–which outlet(s) garner you the most sales (or views). Thanks.

  23. My Question…
    Aside from the spikes in traffic from events like Code Monkey being picked up on Slashdot, what are the main sources of traffic to your website and your music?

  24. Hi Jonathan,
    Congratulations on your success! It really is unbelievable.
    What did you do to stay focused while doing Thing a Week? How many hours a day did you spend on practicing, arranging music and writing lyrics during that time? Can you give a breakdown of your schedule for each of these activities? Thanks!

  25. You’re missing something by looking only at the numbers: those are largely fan-created videos. Videos from his official YouTube account don’t even show up in the first page of search results. Likewise, by wordcount a large part of his website is written by fans (in the comments, Q&A, the wiki). So not only are they buying mp3s, they’re spending hours interacting with his work in a way that is normally reserved for top tier artists.
    Others have commented that his website looks unimpressive, like any old blog. They’re missing that that’s part of the story of his success.

  26. OOooh Oooh, one more question! A quick breakdown of the different areas his income comes from would be great. ie % from live shows, % from downloads, merch etc etc

  27. Chancius
    I encourage you to pop on over to Music Think Tank and check out My Series “In Defense of 1,000 True Fans” there are 10 stories or artists who are making full time livings 100% off of their music in 10 very different ways. You will get many ideas on how they did it and I even broke the last one down step – by – step DIY Style.
    Jonathan is still on my list of artists to write about – I will be taking another crack at contacting him so he can tell his story. IN the meantime you can see some of his most valued tips in the Indie Maximum 100 list here:
    Hope this sheds some light for you.
    Yours, Ariel

  28. The reality here is that there is no “magic-bullet” and if you’re not in the game these situations are never going to happen to you. I’ve read a lot of these comments and the general vibe is that everyone wants to know how a cat like this gets it done. Well, first he wrote the song… second he put it out there for you cats to hear it. Third, like all songs that you probably consider classics, it developed a life of it’s own.
    That’s what music does. It takes on a life of it’s own. It resonates with those who it’s meant to. This cat should be congratulated for stepping out and letting his songs be heard. Good on you Jonathan.
    And for musicians who are looking to find some step by steps on how to make your music make an impact, check out Bob Baker, Ariel Hyatt or even Chris Knab to name a few… Experts in their areas of the music business and marketing. Or for those of you who want it handed to you on a platter I’d suggest http://www.massmusicmarketing.com to get the goods on making your music business work for you. From the horses mouth.
    Bottom line, just get out there and work at it. It’s not gonna just happen for you ๐Ÿ˜‰

  29. Is your Code Monkey song the theme song to the TV show Code Monkeys? That might explain some of the buzz if it is. And if it is, how did you manage getting it as the theme song?

  30. He also got covered in the NY Times in 2008, might’ve helped. The article was about his DIY digital marketing 24/7.

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