Jonathan Coulton On His Business Model & How Now Is Best Time Ever To Be A Musician
On Friday the Planet Money podcast posted an episode about me and my business model, focusing on the question of whether my scene is the future of music business or just a fluke.
Alex Blumberg came to JoCo HQ a couple of weeks ago to interview me about how things work for me, how I got here, where the money comes from, etc. He then brought in Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelley from NPR music blog The Record, to do a little analysis. Their assessment was that while it was obvious this business model worked very well for me, it was probably not something that could be easily replicated. Frannie made an analogy to illustrate her point: I am kind of like a Snuggie. I’m a blanket with sleeves that we didn’t know we all wanted.
A few people were offended on my behalf by this comparison. I’m certain that Frannie’s choice of the Snuggie rather than say, a Mini Cooper or an iPhone, was meant to underline the geeky novelty song aspect of my appeal, to which I say: snarkity snark snark! I confess it stings a little. I’m aware that many people think of me as “merely” a guy who writes novelty songs, which is annoying for a couple of reasons. First, writing novelty songs is actually a real thing that you can do, and many talented people have had fine careers doing it, so let’s not go around denigrating it, shall we? Second, it’s a rather lazy and facile way of labeling me that fails to fully describe what I do.
That said, leaving aside the pejorative nature of the comparison, I think it’s accurate in some respects, in that a Snuggie is a new thing that somebody invented and marketed and sold to enormous success. Do you know who else is a Snuggie? Nirvana, Ben Folds, Madonna, and the Grateful Dead. You have to do something new and unique and valuable in order to get anyone’s attention in this business, in fact that’s sort of the point. Just because I did it with “nerds on the Internet” instead of “teenagers in Seattle” or “hippies at ren faires” or “13-year-old girls on YouTube” is incidental, and beside the point. Similarly, Jacob Ganz says in the podcast that I “won the internet lottery,” which is like saying the Beatles won the British Invasion lottery. It’s accurate but unhelpful, because it fails to draw a meaningful distinction between me and anyone else who has had success in this business. It has always been about winning the lottery, and it has always been about being a Snuggie.
The thing that I think most got in the way of what could have been a much more interesting discussion was some confusion about what a business model is. “Writing a song that gets discovered on Slashdot” is not a business model, any more than “putting sleeves on a blanket” is a business model. It is a thing that happened to me, that part is true, but it’s not really much of a strategy. I make songs that are good and then I sell them (and concert tickets, and Tshirts) to the people who want them – that’s my business model, and it’s patently obvious that it’s replicable because I stole it from every other recording artist in the world.
Here are some things I do differently from some other artists: I own all my music 100%, which means I have complete control over how I sell it (or not). I can give it away, I can bundle it on a USB key or in a zip file, I can allow people to make and post music videos, and I don’t have to deal with lawyers or labels to do any of that. I also get all the profits. During Thing a Week I released every single weekly song that I wrote for free, whether they were good or not, without worrying about whether people would buy them (though I hoped they would). I am extremely public about my creative process, hopes and fears, victories and failures. I communicate directly with fans as often as I can without letting it become my full-time job. I’ve never made a music video. I have extremely low overhead. Most of my sales are digital, which means there are almost no distribution costs. I have never spent any money on marketing and rely completely on blogs, podcasts and social networks to spread the word. I tour solo with an acoustic guitar (used to anyway), and I only play in cities where I have already ascertained there is going to be an audience. I record by myself at home (again, used to!) using equipment that is not very expensive, and that I don’t know how to use very well.
My business model is designed especially for me, by me, and it constantly changes and evolves – I’m now working on an album, with a band and a producer, I’m spending money at a real studio, and I will probably spend money on more traditional marketing and radio promotion before I’m through. Nobody, not even me, should try to do exactly what I’ve done, because there are parts of it that won’t make sense for who you are or what you’re interested in. If you’re a band with a lot of people and equipment, you’re going to need a different touring strategy. If you don’t write nerdy songs, you will have to figure out what your version of Slashdot is. If you are Steely Dan, you will not want to record onto a Mac Mini through an SM58. If you hate writing, please don’t set up a blog. Know only this: to do this you need to work extremely hard, make music that is great, and find people to buy it from you. The end.
So is it replicable? Of course it is! For goodness sake, even the Snuggie is replicable. In fact, the Snuggie itself is a replicant of the Slanket, how’s that for a mindblower? (See also the Cudlee, and the German product Doojo, which has gloves.) I can’t believe I have to point this out, but there are plenty of artists making music and using unique and creative promotional techniques to sell it directly to fans (say it with me, won’t you?): Trent Reznor, Radiohead, Amanda Palmer, Paul and Storm, Marian Call, OK Go, MC Frontalot, MC Lars, the list goes on and on and gets larger every day. We are successful to varying degrees and we have different ways of doing things, some of us came from labels, went to labels, or eschewed labels entirely, but we are all participating in the same basic re-jiggering of the spreadsheet. I obviously don’t know the details of everyone’s business, but I’m guessing that we have this one thing in common: we’ve all decided that it’s fine with us if we reach fewer people as long as we reach them more directly. The revolution in the music industry (which has already happened by the way) is one of efficiency, and it means that success is now possible on a much smaller scale. Nobody has to sell out Madison Square Garden anymore to make a living.
And that is the point. That is what’s inarguably different today because of the internet. We now have an entirely new set of contexts and they come with a whole new set of tools that give us cheap and easy access to all of them – niche has gone mainstream. It is no longer necessary to organize your business or your art around geography, or storage space, or capital, or what’s cool in your town, or any other physical constraint. And this is not to say that anyone can become a moderately successful rockstar just by starting a blog – success is still going to be a rare and miraculous thing, as it has always been. There are just a lot more ways to get there than there used to be, and people are finding new ones every day.
I don’t know why the “funny geeky songs” thing seems to distract people so much from this reality during these discussions, but it does. I’ve had a lot of conversations with industry analysts and insiders, and this kind of hand waving and designation of “fluke” is a sadly familiar phenomenon. And it’s a shame, because before we decide if the internet is “good or bad,” there are some really important questions we should try to answer first. I don’t know the answer to any of these, but I sure am curious to find out. How much money is actually being made in this space that never gets tracked as part of the music industry? What percentage of full time professional artists are making a living, and how does that compare to the old record biz? From an economist’s perspective, is filesharing/piracy hurting artists, or just labels (or is it hurting anyone)? How can the people who used to work at labels continue to have careers bringing valuable services to artists now that the landscape has changed? What are the efficiency breakthroughs that we have yet to discover, who’s going to figure out how to profit from this shakeup? How can we rethink antiquated intellectual property laws in a way that continues to “promote the progress of science and useful arts?” And finally, how can I keep my arms warm without putting on a sweater, which is apparently such a huge burden to so many people?
I honestly don’t fault Frannie and Jacob for having negative opinions about me or different opinions about any of these issues. And I’m not trying to ignite a flame war or tear anybody down. I’m simply amazed and disappointed that none of these questions ever came up in a conversation about the internet and the music business, on a podcast, here in the year 2011. It just feels like a huge missed opportunity, and it makes me sad.
Actually, I take it back, they did address that last one didn’t they?
I should know better than to write this sort of post, because it will inevitably come across as a peevish and whiney response to being called a Snuggie. It probably is that to some extent, and I’m already sorry about it. I am really trying to transcend that though, because I think this stuff is so important. I wouldn’t have authorized Alex to reveal the horribly embarrassing revenue number that I can’t even comfortably mention here if I didn’t think that it would, to some extent, move this conversation past the point where people equate “Code Monkey” with “Hamster Dance” and call it a day. I’m disappointed that it did not. And it’s not about my personal ego. OK, maybe it is a little, but I truly believe that the sooner we all acknowledge the internet is not actually killing art, the sooner we can get back to making things that are awesome.
Now is a better time to be a musician, or a fan of music, than any other time in all of human history. Discuss… – Jonathan Coulton
- You'll find Jonathan Coulton online and on twiiter.
- More: How Jonathan Coulton Made $500,000 Last Year As A D.I.Y. Musician