Thing a Week 35: Soft Rocked By Me I find this one a bit…

May 23rd, 2011



Thing a Week 35: Soft Rocked By Me

I find this one a bit unsettling. The guy in this song is a total ass – his philosophy is whatever the opposite of carpe diem is. I thought the idea of someone “soft rocking” you was kind of funny when I started this, but now I think it’s just creepy and sad. I’m disgusted with the whole thing.

No bass – no time!

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: No bass, no time, no matter! It’s funny, you obsess over every little thing, and then one day you don’t put bass in and it doesn’t really make all that much difference, the world doesn’t end (literally).

The loathing I felt for this character I created certainly comes from my own tendency to avoid seizing the day at any costs - I really don’t like to strive, or make waves. Here’s a story: I had a girlfriend at some grade school age where having a girlfriend means you tell each other that you LIKE each other and then you never speak again (doing it wrong). Her family moved out of town and we got together for one last (first?) hanging out together time at her house after school, and it was chaste and awkward. After she moved she wrote a letter to me saying that she had a new boyfriend and he was awesome! I found out later at some high school reunion that she made it up because she was mad that I didn’t try to kiss her. I’ve always been too busy “respecting” (I think I might mean “fearing”) girls to ever try to make out with them. I’m pretty sure it was this very memory that made me hate this character so much. The passive voice joke though, that’s a winner.

This song has had much more of a life in live shows than it ever did during Thing a Week, and for that I must thank Paul and Storm. It was their idea to cram a semi-improvised medley in the middle, and it’s always an enormously successful set piece when we perform it together. It’s also a great excuse to sing soft rock songs in three part harmony, which is all I ever wanted to do anyway.

I haven’t talked about Paul and Storm much during this reblog thing, but that’s because this was the year I met and got to know them. They contacted me sometime after Baby Got Back and we started doing shows together, and we’ve been friends and frequent collaborators ever since. I learned a great deal from them about many things, especially touring - from the best envelopes to use when you’re sending posters to the cheapest way to book a hotel (Paul is a master of the Priceline bidding mojo). I continue to rely on them for advice for all sorts of things, and to be a little jealous of their energy and never ending string of good ideas. If it was the internet that helped my career get off the ground, it was Paul and Storm who helped me figure out how to bring it out into the real world in front of real audiences. They are consummate showmen, and if you say otherwise I will write a very long blog post explaining my opinion about it. Count on it!

Seriously, don’t wake the dragon (because he is very tired).

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.

On Snuggies and Business Models

May 23rd, 2011

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…

Piggy the Cat

May 17th, 2011

This weekend my cat died. He was a couple months away from being 20, so it wasn’t a complete surprise, he’d been in decline for some time. Saturday morning I came downstairs and could tell immediately something wasn’t right. Cats don’t have really expressive faces, but I swear he had a look in his eyes, kind of crazy and out of it. He ate some, and then lay down at my feet, and basically couldn’t get up again. I sat with him a while, pretty certain this was the end, but not that anxious to proceed. Finally I had to admit this was the time, and I called the vet and took him in, and as my daughter says “the doctor put the medicine on him.”

Off you go Pig. Wherever you are I hope they have a lot of suitcases to pee in…

Thing a Week 34: Famous Blue Raincoat This is a cover of a…

May 17th, 2011



Thing a Week 34: Famous Blue Raincoat

This is a cover of a Leonard Cohen song. If some of you kiddies haven’t heard it, you should, and in fact you’re about to. I’m sort of obsessed with it – to me it’s a nearly perfect example of how stories can be told in songs. You never know exactly what happened, but you get glimpses through all these tiny verbal gestures. The title itself says so much without being at all specific. I like to try to fill in the gaps – there’s something about a friend, a wife, and a betrayal, but also something more complicated and private. It’s especially creepy to hear Leonard Cohen sing it, because he is nothing if not totally creepy.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: It’s raining here in Brooklyn, and my very old cat died this weekend, so Leonard Cohen is just about right.

I still feel the same about the greatness of this song, and it will always be in some corner of my brain, waiting expectantly like an unfinished puzzle. These days I think more about how it might have come to Leonard - what he was thinking about when he was writing this, and how much of it might be personal. He hasn’t explained it much. Wikipedia quotes him as saying the raincoat actually belonged to him:

I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. Elizabeth thought I looked like a spider in it. That was probably why she wouldn’t go to Greece with me. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days. It was stolen from Marianne’s loft in New York sometime during the early seventies. I wasn’t wearing it very much toward the end.

So that clears it up.

I’ve been writing more in this direction for the new album, trying to explain less and evoke more. Trying not to worry too hard about what any song is ABOUT until late in the process. I think there are a couple that will be mysteries to most people, or rather, they’ll assume a different shape for every listener. But they’re all about something. Indeed, I’m starting to think they all might be about the SAME THING.

The scary part, and often the most essential part, is letting pieces of yourself creep into the story. Sometimes there’s a narrow, fuzzy line between the writer of a song and his characters. It can get confusing, because often characters have to do and say and think awful things in order to be interesting. If you write a character that way, is it you thinking that awful thing? Are you really the person saying that, do you secretly feel that way? Well, yes and no. The bits and pieces that grow into a song come from personal experience, they have to. But then you can use them as a guide, strike out in a certain direction, just hang them out there in the wind and see what sticks to them. It’s you, yes, but it’s also your friends and your parents and this character from that book, and that guy’s smile seems to reveal something, and those people look like they have a story to tell, and hey look, ice cream.

I listen to Famous Blue Raincoat and the first thing I want to do is figure out who Leonard Cohen was writing about - who was his friend who did that bad thing! Who was his ladyfriend who had that affair! But then, it’s his raincoat isn’t it? So as directly, painfully personal as this song feels, you just can’t say for sure which parts of it are him. Is he the rake? The cuckold? The woman?

It goes like this: Leonard Cohen was feeling kind of sad one day (maybe his very old cat died) and then he remembered something someone said once when they were making fun of him for wearing the same raincoat all the time. The phrase they used was sarcastic, and maybe a little nasty. It suggested to him a character and a relationship - he’s known people like this, the guy you love and hate, you can’t believe he wears that raincoat all the time, but of course he looks great in it and knows it. He’s dashing and fun and dangerous and kind of a mess, and all the ladies love him. You love him too, but you find him threatening. And as you all grow older, he starts to fray around the edges. Somehow it makes him even more glorious and more pathetic at the same time. As the rest of you settle comfortably into adulthood, he starts to flame out - he makes terrible mistakes, he apologizes, he gets help, he makes more mistakes, have you heard his latest plan to fix everything? You begin to understand that all that stuff that makes him so wonderful to be around comes from a very dark place, and these days he’s just barely keeping it together. One day he goes too far. He disappears for a while. Years later you write him a letter…

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.

Thing a Week 33: Tom Cruise Crazy Poor Tom Cruise. Sure, he’s…

May 7th, 2011



Thing a Week 33: Tom Cruise Crazy

Poor Tom Cruise. Sure, he’s got plenty of money and fame and power, but the dude is seriously effed up. I’m a fan, I think he’s a pretty pretty fellow and he makes a fine action film. And I’ve really enjoyed watching him freak out in public of late. But there’s something about these superfamous types that I find very sad – the Michael Jacksons, the Madonnas, and now I can’t think of a third one. Which just goes to show, it’s a very exclusive club – there are only a few of these people who get so absorbed by popular culture that they lose the ability to exist on our plane.

Note to Tom Cruise/Scientologist Heavies: please don’t sue me or have me killed.

PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: Victory! This one really had staying power, it’s become an important part of the repertoire even though at the time it wasn’t a huge viral hit or anything. It’s fun to play and fun to sing, and it’s one of those songs that works for almost any audience.

The chord progression and melody of the chorus were floating around in my head for months before it got written, every week it was one of the ideas I would circle back to and try to make work before I would write anything new. This week I either had some success with that technique, or more likely just couldn’t think of anything else and had to push it through. Tom’s Oprah appearance was in May of 2005, and that was the beginning of a string of stuff with him and Katie Holmes and a thing with Brooke Shields about anti-depressants and just general wackadoodle business. It was on my mind, and it’s possible I was also thinking about fame in relation to my own newly chosen career.

I really do feel bad for Tom Cruise. I’m a little more well acquainted with how it feels to be famous (kinda sorta) than I was, and I have to say, it does feel pretty weird sometimes. I always love making a connection with people through the music or through a performance, that’s not what I’m talking about. The strange part is the other stuff, the stuff that’s not connected with the things I make and do - and I get very little of this, but it amounts to “Look, there’s that guy.”

There’s an aspect of fame that is mostly about scarcity. You might want to have your picture taken next to the Eiffel Tower for the same reason you might want to have your picture taken next to Tom Cruise: because it marks the moment that you were there in that unique place. This is less a factor for me, because I’m not famous enough to be famous just for being famous. But when it does happen, I can feel it breaking my connection with myself for a second. The interaction between object of fame and admirer of fame has very little humanity in it - in both directions, I know, I’ve made an ass of myself many times in front of famous people. It just makes everyone crazy for a little while. While the non famous (or less famous) person is trying to mark the moment, or say something important, or in some way take advantage of this rare opportunity, the famous (or more famous) person is trying to act the way they’re supposed to act, trying to live up to what they’re supposed to be, trying to live up to the moment that is so important for this other person. And meanwhile they might be tired, sad, unshowered, in the middle of an argument, constipated, whatever. It’s not a real interaction between people, it’s some other kind of bizarre transaction, and our hearts are not built for it.

I never feel famous inside my head, and so when people treat me like a famous person, it creates a little tear in the fabric of reality. That tear is easily repaired by spending time as just me, hanging out with friends or family who know me as Jonathan. But I can imagine that if enough of those tears happened over a short enough span of time, you might not easily be able to come back from it. And what happens when even your private time gets corrupted? When you can’t go to the grocery store without people trying to take pictures of you and sell them to magazines? When you start to suspect even your friends are treating you differently, maybe even start to wonder if they are even your friends? And what if there’s a pseudo scientific system/religion/cult that blames all of your disconnectedness and failing relationships on the spirits of ancient aliens who are living inside your body? Does that make any less sense than the fact that complete strangers are hiding in bushes outside your home with cameras, going through your garbage, speculating on your sexuality, and wondering if you are really in love with your wife or just pretending to be? That would be weird, right?

I recognize this is a first world problem. And I’m not complaining - I love my job, SO MUCH, and I’m not trying to make you feel bad about having your picture taken with me. I am grateful for (and henceforth forever in desperate need of) your attention. I do my best to always stay grounded, appropriately thankful, and as real as I can be given the circumstances. But it’s not always easy even at my meager level of fame, and I simply cannot imagine how it must be for Tom and people like him (I call him Tom, we’re pals because we’re both famous).

You can find more info on this song, a store where you can listen to everything, and also other stuff at jonathancoulton.com.