How I Did It

May 18th, 2007

This is a very long post.

Since the big NY Times Magazine article a lot of just-starting indie musicians have been writing to ask about how I made all of this happen. The honest answer is that I don’t really know, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t start with much of a plan – I can only tell you in retrospect how and why I think it happened.

I’d say the first piece of it was years ago when I started writing and playing music for John Hodgman’s Little Gray Book Lectures, a reading series (plus extra craziness) that happened once a month in Brooklyn. It was John’s show, and he was certainly the one who created and drew the audience, but it put me regularly in front of a group of people who enjoyed and responded to the stuff I was doing. I think after it got going there were generally 100-150 people at each show. It also made me stretch a bit creatively, having to write songs about unusual subjects. I set up a website so that I could put each song up there the day after I performed it – I wasn’t really thinking of making money, and I didn’t even really pay much attention to how many people were downloading and listening.

The next thing I did was to make a CD and put it on CDBaby, signing up for their digital distribution so that all those songs went out to all the online music stores. I didn’t sell very much stuff as far as I remember, maybe a couple CD’s a month, but at this point it really wasn’t so much about making a living. Mostly it was a nice ego boost to have an actual CD, and to see my name come up in the iTunes store.

A man named Andrew Zolli saw me play “The Future Soon” at Little Gray Books, and then asked me to come perform at a conference in Maine called Pop!Tech. I was skeptical that anyone outside of the context of a Little Gray Books show wanted to hear a song about a robot army destroying the Earth (and tearing out someone’s eyes), but the Pop!Tech audience was VERY receptive. They asked me to do a couple more songs over the course of the long weekend, and I became pretty convinced that I had found my voice and my audience. Not to mention, this was a very tech-friendly crowd, so it led to a lot of blog postings and emailing of links – I scrambled to get as many mp3s on my site as possible so that I could ride this tiny wave of internet buzz, literally editing html on a computer in the green room before I went onstage. I saw a very exciting jump in traffic, and a little light bulb went off in the back of my brain. I began to think about blogs in a different way after I saw a few of them write about and link to me, and it made me want to set up my own site as a blog (just in case I ever had anything to say).

Pop!Tech is where is where the idea for me becoming Popular Science Magazine‘s Contributing Troubadour was born (I would later enhance my geek cred by writing a soundtrack for an issue of the magazine about the future of the body). It’s also where I first heard of Creative Commons. Lawrence Lessig spoke that year, and it was the most thrilling idea I had ever heard. I felt like my head was going to explode. Sometime after seeing him speak and reading his book “Free Culture,” I decided to make all my music Creative Commons. There were primarily two reasons: first, I thought it was such a beautiful way to envision the landscape of culture and creativity, all these ideas floating around, getting used and re-used, and I wanted to contribute to the soup. Second, I thought it was a great way to encourage the music to circulate – not just because it’s legal to pass copies along to your friends, but also for the more cynical and self-serving reason that it was sort of a hip and trendy thing to do, and something that people and press and bloggers would talk about. Even today it still makes for a good story, because to most people it seems counter-intuitive that freeing the music will actually benefit the artist. I wasn’t entirely sold on that idea myself, but I was given courage by people like Brad Sucks, Wilco, Cory Doctorow, Jane Siberry, and many others who seemed to be leveraging the power of free (or semi-free) stuff in creative and productive ways. (Just a note here: Creative Commons doesn’t necessarily mean free as in free beer – you can still sell your Creative Commons licensed music, it just gives people more options for how they can use it once they have it.)

Sometime around then the song “Ikea” was played on Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code podcast. I had heard about podcasting, and while I understood technically what a podcast was, I didn’t find the idea that interesting. But Adam did this amazing thing – just before he played “Ikea” he played the tones that set iTrip FM transmitters to 93.5 (or some other frequency maybe), the idea being that if you were listening to the podcast using an iTrip in your car and someone in the car next to you was listening to that station, their radio would suddenly be hijacked and start playing my song. Another light bulb went off – suddenly I understood the potential of podcasting. Not so much that FM transmitters were going to start hijacking radio frequencies all over the world or anything. It was really more of a metaphor, the idea that even a very small broadcast can be powerful because of the other broadcasts it touches. Podcasting, like blogging, is very incestuous: bloggers read a lot of blogs and podcasters listen to a lot of podcasts. I started getting airplay and interviews on some other podcasts – Dave Slusher’s Evil Genius Chronicles, Wizards of Technology (R.I.P. Bill), Indiefeed, and more and more as time went on.

Then John Hodgman published a book called “The Areas of My Expertise,” and soon after he would become a Daily Show correspondent, an actor in some Apple ads, and generally a famous person. But before all those things happened, back when he was merely an author of a hilarious book, John asked me to accompany him on his book tour so that we could bring a little bit of the Little Gray Books business to his readings – he would read, I would sing songs and be his troubadour. I’m certain that this helped me a great deal. Once again I found myself in front of audiences who weren’t necessarily there to see me, but who were pretty likely to enjoy the stuff I was doing. And as he got more and more famous, audiences got bigger, and continued to be forced to listen to me.

So at this point there was something happening, some kind of word-of-mouth thing. My music was bouncing around all these various networks: blogs, podcasts, P2P file sharing, Last.fm (and other online music, web 2.0, social network-y type things) John’s audience. And of course, every audience had at least a few people who were broadcasters of some sort, on account of the netterwebs. So it was a small but growing chain reaction, and while it didn’t generate enough money to live on, it certainly gave me hope that it could be built into something that did. Remember, all this was before I quit my day job writing software, and I think that’s an important thing to note – you can get a lot done even while you have a job. Career transitions are tricky things, and the more you can get established in the new one before you leave the old one, the easier it will be.

But then I did quit the day job. I’ve talked about this a lot in interviews, and yes, it felt very scary and in a lot of ways it felt like a mistake. And I wasn’t sure how or even if I was going to be able to make a living this way, but for whatever reason I felt like there wasn’t ever going to be an easier time to do it. Luckily my wife was onboard with the plan (or rather, non-plan), even though she was at least as doubtful as I was about it being a good idea. But we knew that at least for a while we could stay alive with just her income – worst case scenario, I could always get another job.

To keep myself busy, and to pretend that my new life was an actual career, I decided to start Thing a Week. I wasn’t sure it was going to last a year so that wasn’t the goal at the outset – they weren’t even supposed to be complete songs. But early on I set the bar high and couldn’t go back. I released each song for free on my site, set the whole thing up as a podcast feed, and submitted the feed to iTunes. In the beginning I wasn’t selling the music at all, I didn’t even think to set up a store. I wasn’t sure too many people were going to pay attention anyway, and I also didn’t know if the songs would even be good enough to sell.

Then at week 5 I ran out of ideas. I had nothing I wanted to write about, so I turned to an old idea for a cover that my wife had suggested long ago, “Baby Got Back.” It felt a little cheap to be doing a cover so early in the process, especially one as gimmicky as this was, but I didn’t have much of a choice. For whatever reason, this song hit very big – it got blogged by a couple of big sites (and by a lot of small ones), and all of a sudden there were hundreds of thousands of people coming to my site. The spike was huge, but temporary, and of course I didn’t have any way for anybody to buy the song – I think I even wrote an angst-ridden post at the time about how I was getting all this traffic but it wasn’t leading to many sales of my other stuff. But when the spike went away, the nominal traffic levels were a little higher than they had been before. And that happened a few more times to varying degrees during Thing a Week: I would release something that I thought was sort of OK, it would get picked up by the right places, and suddenly the site would explode with new eyeballs. After the spike faded, the overall traffic would settle at some slightly higher level. And once I had the store set up (through a site called Payloadz.com, taking payments with Paypal and Google Checkout), traffic did start to correlate with sales, even though that week’s song was always on my main page for free. All the Thing a Week songs are still free through iTunes.

And as I watched the numbers grow every week, I was delighted to see that people were also taking advantage of the Creative Commons license to feed creative work back to me. Len from the Jawbone Radio podcast started doing an image to go with every song, and people like Spiff and Kerrin started creating music videos and posting them online. Not only were these things a huge ego boost, but they inserted my music into even more networks that I never would have gotten to on my own.

Somewhere in the middle of Thing a Week I hooked up with Paul and Storm, who actually played live for audiences sometimes. I did not do a lot of live shows during this whole period, mostly because it used to be I couldn’t draw a crowd, and it’s really soul-sucking to play a show to the four friends who feel obligated to be there. I opened for Paul and Storm a couple of times and was surprised to find an audience of actual fans showing up to see me, which suddenly made performing a lot of fun. I started to play more shows in NY, DC, Philly, opening for them as well as my friend Jim Boggia and whoever else I found myself getting hooked up with, once again drawing new fans from other people’s audiences. I learned a lot about how to plan and execute a live show from Paul and Storm, all the details of booking and travel and merchandise.

They also introduced me to their booking agent (who is now my booking agent), who initially gave me the standard advice about playing in ever-widening concentric circles, building an audience by playing and playing and playing. It sounded like a lot of work to me. By this time I had somehow come across Eventful.com, registered as an artist, and started to tell people through my site to go there and demand a show. When I found out at the last minute that I was going to be doing something with John Hodgman in Seattle one weekend in September 2006, I used Eventful and my own site to alert all my Seattle fans that I would do a show if someone would find an available venue for me. Within 24 hours I had several options, so I picked one and set up the show. An audience of 75 people materialized out of nowhere to come hear me play. My booking agent called me after that to say “Forget what I said about ever-widening concentric circles, it looks like there’s a way to skip that step.” And now he and I use the numbers at Eventful (along with his own expertise at this sort of thing) to plan where I’m going to play.

In September 2006 Thing a Week ended, then right before Christmas the Thing a Week Box Set went on sale. Around then I was interviewed on NPR Weekend Edition which led to another huge surge in traffic. I continue to receive and rely on the support of bloggers, podcasters and fans, and I’m playing shows for ever more thrillingly large audiences in cities I’ve never been to before. And then there was that NY Times Magazine story, which seemed to tie it all together in ways that even I hadn’t been able to express.

And so here we are. I wish I could say it went exactly as planned, but the truth is there was no plan. I just knew that many of the people who heard my music liked it, and I imagined that it must be somehow possible to make a living as an independent artist, letting the internet to take care of a lot of the work for you. It was an optimistic assumption, and one based largely on laziness and wishful thinking, but it turns out to be true. I owe a great deal to the many other independent artists from whom I have stolen a lot of these ideas. And I owe even more to the massive interlocking networks of friends, fans and broadcasters of all shapes and sizes who have circulated the music to so many people. Not to mention, I’ve had a good bit of luck along the way.

So when people ask me for advice I’m not exactly sure what to tell them, since from my perspective it seems to be something that just happened. But what I take away from this experience is the idea that you can build a fan base by getting your music into the hands and ears of people who are likely to pass it along, which is pretty much how the music business has always worked anyway. What’s different these these days is that these networks you need to build that audience are all a lot more cheap and efficient than they used to be. So if you’re just starting out with something like this, I’d avise you to steal all the good ideas you can find and then make up a few of your own – try everything, see what works.

If art has an audience, and if that art is allowed to go wherever it wants to, it will eventually find its way to where it’s supposed to be. That’s the theory anyway, and I think it will only become more true as the world gets smaller and we all get more and more connected.

73 Responses to “How I Did It”

  1. Jessica says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Congrats on the great coverage in the NYT; I’m sure it has created many new fans like myself!

    I hope you and all of your new indie-artist friends will check out http://www.ourstage.com (disclaimer: I work for them). It is a new website designed to help indie-artists in music and film find their fans. Submit your work and see what happens. Good luck!

  2. Lori says:

    Now all you need is to get yourself booked on the Colbert Report and get that Colbert “bump”. Everybody will know you then. But you have to let Colbert sing a song with you.

  3. I continue to learn from the best.

  4. Kevin says:

    At last! The story behind the man behind the code monkey behind the soft-rocker behind all of John Hodgman’s success.

    Way to go, JC!!

    Finally, the truth can be told.

    –kevin

    PS. My daughter is still amazed everytime she sees a photo of you: amazed that those dulcet tones come from all of that hair.

  5. Piggy The Cat says:

    Im your biggest…..I mean smallest fan!

  6. [...] Then you’ll like Jonathon’s own personal account: How I Did It. [...]

  7. Opus Fluke says:

    It has to be said that “Re: Your Brains” was what got me hooked. I listen to it quite frequently not just because it still makes me laugh but also because it possesses quality, from the idea through to production. Just today over at the foums for “The Zombie Hunters” web comic someone posted a link to the video done by a fan using WoW and another member wanted to know where to get the MP3 and it was with great pleasure I posted the link to Thing of The Week 26 and your site. Creative Commons allows wit and creativity to win out over focus groups and banality every time.
    And when I finally get some money together you can expect a whole lot of cash heading your way. “…Brains” kept me sane while running the gauntlet of Christmas shopping in a mall here in Scotland…

  8. Curt Siffert says:

    Yeah, I’m definitely one of the people that would have written and asked the exact same questions, I’m very happy to have read this entry. I’ve been toying with the same sorts of things over at my site (see my name), posting piano improvisations and fully-written songs, and struggling to find readers and listeners. I guess I’m just in the very early stages, though – this story shows again how everyone’s journey is different and you just kind of have to stumble through and capitalize on the little bits of success that come to you. I kind of see it as a detective following clues. Thanks!

  9. Lauren says:

    It’s amazing what word of mouth and a brilliant but unknown song writer can do hen combined.

    All I can think of is how every time I play Code Monkey, my roomate drops weverything and starts singing along. I’m not allowed to play it during finals :)

  10. [...] Linking off to Jonathan Coulton’s blog post reply about the NY Times Magazine article discussing musicians, culture, fame, and how the internet changes the relationship between artist and audience. Coulton is featured as one of a new wave of musicians embodying who represent this trend. His post about making it up as he goes along and taking advantage of the situations he finds himself in is really inspiring. [...]

  11. Pete says:

    In looking for resources for indie musicians, I found this in a message board on rpmchallenge.com and found it useful. It’s The Indie Band Survival Guide http://www.beatnikturtle.com/index.php?id=theguide and it’s free.

  12. Rosslyn says:

    Don’t forget “A Short Course in Life Enhancement.” :-) Then again, maybe you have! :-) But it’s one of my good little NYC memories.

  13. [...] digging you into a financial hole? Why not go the Jonathan Coulton route and do it yourself? True, Coulton’s own version of his story makes it clear that what you need to survive as a DIY pop star is drive, determination, and well-placed [...]

  14. Thanks alot JC. You’ve done what a lot of people aspire to do. Congrats to you.

  15. [...] podcasting to help independent artists spread their work. He recently wrote about his experience on his blog, which was quite [...]

  16. [...] Jonathan Coulton » Blog Archive » How I Did It [...]

  17. Impressed says:

    ..I would sing songs and be his troubadour.. :) mp3flavour.com

  18. Russ Aimz says:

    I, like many others, read your article in the NY times. Can’t thank you enough for taking a chance and quitting your day job to pursue your music. If not for that, you wouldn’t be inspiring so many other musicians and others as you are right now. Not that it would have been your initial intention to inspire us, yet it has turned out that way. So thankyou Jonathan and thanks for just being a nice guy and thanks for letting me steal tons of your ideas. Also thanks for providing ways for us to give back to you as well;) Give and Take is balance, is great!

  19. CoderBlues says:

    Wow! This is a great article. I am one of those people that asked for advice, and ScarFace directed me to this article. This answered all my questions. Well done. One note though: While you may be putting a large emphasis on novelty’s role in your success, keep in mind that you needed the creativity and talent to produce that novelty.

  20. Shorty says:

    I love this post. You show the rest of us aspiring musicians that what we dream of is possible. ^_^

    Off to listen to The Future Soon now. *waves*