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Jonathan Coulton Answers Your Questions

Jonathan Coulton

Last week, we asked for your questions for singer/songwriter/Internet celeb Jonathan Coulton. Thanks to all of you (including John Hodgman, or at least “John Hodgman“) for the questions, and thanks especially to Jonathan for his answers.

Q: You’ve been getting a lot of mainstream media play over the last year. How has that been different from the attention you’ve gotten from podcasters and other people in the Web 2.0 world? What are the ways each respective media space has contributed to your career? Also, touring is a big part of your life now. What were some of the biggest adjustments you needed to make to being on the road? And how do you balance the adjustment with trying to produce new music?

A: Yes, there’s definitely been a huge increase in mainstream media attention this last year, for which I’m very grateful. The interesting thing is that my business model is sort of at odds with that, or at least, it’s not plugged into it directly. A good example was the May 2007 piece in the Times, “Sex, Drugs, and Updating Your Blog.” Big important newspaper, lots of readers, very complimentary piece, but it didn’t generate the huge spike in Web traffic that I expected to see. Contrast that with the link on the Penny Arcade blog over a year ago, which immediately generated a huge number of new visitors. They’re very different things. Chances are, a lot of people reading this now are not going to know what Penny Arcade is, but they have a huge and devoted following of people who love geeky things and know how to download an MP3. The Times is a much larger, but less focused, death ray. Which is not to say that MSM exposure doesn’t do anything at all, just that it’s harder to track its effects with Google Analytics. I think the best way to talk about the distinction is to say that Internet buzz has a very direct correlation to traffic and therefore sales, whereas mainstream media love tends to have more long-term benefits.

As for touring: yes, it’s been hard to find a balance. I’m doing a lot more traveling and live playing than I ever expected to do. This last year has been about trying that out, seeing if it works, and seeing if I like it. I’ve discovered that I really do love playing for an audience of fans. It’s a fantastic feeling that is dangerously addictive. I think it was an important thing for me to explore, but it’s definitely taken away from time that otherwise would have been spent writing new music. These days, I’m trying to carve back some of that time so that there’s still room to create.

Q: When you were doing a song a week, you were turning out good music surprisingly frequently. What did the experience of forcing yourself to create a large volume of work teach you about creativity? Are there limits to it? Do you feel that you could continue writing a song a week forever? Do you find that it’s in the financial best interests of a songwriter to be prolific?

A: There are certainly limits, and you can hear them in “Thing a Week” (quite glaringly, if you’re me). Each week’s song came from a different mix of inspiration and hard work. When I listen to the whole collection now, I can tell which ones wrote themselves because the idea was exciting to me, and which ones were painstakingly constructed out of panic, desperation, and a bag of tricks. I don’t think I could do this forever. In fact, I was pretty tapped out by the end of the year. But I did learn something important, which is that to make something good, you don’t always need to wait for inspiration. Even the ones that were hacked together under protest are still kind of interesting to me, and some of them even became my favorites.

As to the financial question, I do think that limiting your output is a mistake, no matter who you are. In my experience, you don’t know which songs (or even versions of songs) people are going to like, and chances are there are at least a couple of fans for every song, even the ones you think are crappy. And not to get into a whole discussion about the future of the music business, but the album is dead. There’s still a place for concept records, and CDs will be around for a few more years, but people really like to buy individual songs. And it costs so little to put an MP3 on a Web site, so why would you ever keep something to yourself? I don’t buy that having too much material decreases its value — I think that you can really benefit from just putting everything out there and letting people decide what they like.

Q: Did you get a bump from being on Ze Frank‘s show? Have his efforts, along with YouTube and podcasts, become a replacement mini version for the old variety TV (Ed Sullivan, The Smothers Brothers, etc.) venues?

A: I think that’s a great way to think about it — the Internet as a massive, chaotic variety show in which every viewer gets to book their own guests. I definitely got a big bump from the stuff I did with Ze Frank, as well as from this Portal thing, and from all the videos and interviews and podcasts, etc. Television is still a very powerful medium, but even if you can’t get booked on Conan, there are still so many places you can go to get exposure to new fans. And the nice thing is that it’s an engine that runs by itself — a piece of content doesn’t just get broadcast and then go away. It’s up there forever so that new people can find it, link to it, and spread the word even further.

Q: Do you think having music available for free will make releasing some of it on a traditional album more difficult? Also, why aren’t more of your songs available on Yahoo Music Engine or iTunes?

A: It’s always hard to figure out the actual numbers on this, but I definitely get the feeling that having a more open attitude with MP3s has contributed to my ability to actually make a living. More and more, people don’t like to buy things that they haven’t heard first, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. This is why they have listening stations in record stores (er, I mean, when they used to have record stores). And because I depend so heavily on word of mouth marketing, it’s extremely important that it’s as easy as possible to hear my stuff. Again, it comes down to the extremely low cost that comes with digital content — it’s okay if only a small percentage of listeners buy, as long as the number of listeners is very high. That can only happen if you let people listen.

Q: How much attention have you paid to fan creations based on your work? Have you seen any of these creations — music videos, mostly? What did you think of them?

A: I pay a lot of attention, and I’m so grateful for each and every one of them. Some of them speak to me more than others, but each one is amazing to me simply because it exists at all. I wrote a post on my blog recently during a particularly misty moment in which I was considering the sheer number of people who have been plonked in front of my music because they watched a YouTube video that someone else made. There are literally millions of views across all the fan-made music videos. Not only is it a huge help in getting my music out there, but it’s so flattering and wonderful to think that something I created inspired creativity in someone else.

Q: Will you ever expand your solo acoustic live show to include a full band? If so, I would drop everything I’m doing now to play guitar for you.

A: I’d love to play with a band someday, though at the moment I’m not sure it’s a financially viable option. To my delight and amazement, the average audience size keeps getting bigger. But paying musicians and shipping equipment is expensive, as any working band will tell you. Fill me a stadium, and you’ve got a deal.

Q: Do you own an iPod (or MP3 player)? What’s on it? What ten little-known songs would you recommend?

A: I do own an iPod, and I keep it pretty clean. As I get older, I find myself listening to less and less new music. (These kids with their rock and roll — too loud!) So my Top 10 playlist doesn’t have as much turnover as it used to, and a lot of the songs on it are not going to surprise anyone. I still love the Beatles and Billy Joel, and their children, XTC and Ben Folds. I’m a big fan of those really songwriter-y artists, that kind of carefully constructed pop that’s catchy and fun and smart, but not too cerebral. For that you can’t go wrong with Jason Faulkner, Jim Boggia (who is my friend so I always forget to mention him in these lists, but he rules), OK Go, Fountains of Wayne, and They Might be Giants. And there’s also a vein of folky stuff in there, from Simon and Garfunkel to Loudon Wainwright III. And I would gladly pay someone $1000 if I could sing a sad song as well as Shawn Colvin. But the latest thing that’s been in really heavy rotation is this album by Tally Hall, a bunch of just-barely grownups whom I hate for their extremely well-produced (and self-produced) debut record. Those bastards.

Q: Have you considered any collaborations? With whom? Has anyone approached you about working together?

A: Honestly, I’m not a great collaborator — or rather, it’s more accurate to say that it’s something I fear. I tend to freeze up in brainstorming sessions, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to songwriting. And, like all of us, I’m plagued with self-doubt. But I’m not morally opposed to it or anything. I think it’s really a question of finding the right connection — someone I like enough to want to work with, but who for whatever reason doesn’t scare me too much to be creative.

Q: Do you purposely set out to write songs on “wacky” topics, or is that really what pops into your head when sit down to write a song? Also, what instrument do you use to write songs?

A: For the most part, I don’t think to myself, “Let’s see, what wacky thing can I write about now?” That really is the stuff that comes to me — the zombie song in particular arrived from nowhere as a pretty well fleshed-out character study. I heard the chorus in my head, and I knew right away that the guy was a zombie who didn’t see what the big deal was. The office stuff was grafted on later to make it more interesting, but the core of it just came to me like that.

I find that when I do write about weird things, it makes it easier to get to something honest — if I tried to write a love song for someone I actually loved, I think my own emotions would get in the way. But if I’m writing about a character who loves someone who REPRESENTS someone I love, I can sneak around to the side door and secretly express my actual feelings. Hopefully, the result is something that works on the level of wacky-song, but also worms its way into your heart after a few listens.

Q: What guitars do you use? I personally prefer Taylor.

A: I’m a fan of Martins myself. I currently own a 000C-16RGTE, and that’s mostly what you’ll hear on the recordings.

Q: When you wrote “Still Alive” for Portal did you have any idea how well the synergy would be with the game? I don’t think that there has every been ending credits in any media that has matched the love that people have for the end of Portal. Have you been asked to work on any other video game music since the release of Portal?

A: One of the reasons I agreed to do it was that I understood the character so well — it was one of those things where I looked at what they had created and it made absolute sense to me. We didn’t know all the details of how we were going to finish the game, but I really could sort of feel how it was supposed to end up. Of course I’m thrilled with the reception, and it’s been much larger and more positive than I could have imagined. There’s nothing else in the works at the moment, but I’m definitely open to doing more things like that if it’s the right project.

Q: How does music solve world problems?

A: I don’t think it does.

Q: When you compose, do you start with the lyrics, the melody or the Filet-O-Fish sandwich?

A: They usually come at the same time, or at least they sort of bootstrap each other through the process. I’ll get a little germ of something to start with, usually a phrase with some melody that suggests a chord progression. I’ll flesh out where I think it should go musically on the guitar, taking breaks from the instrument to sort of sing nonsense until the lyrics start to gel. Then it’s a question of pushing each side of the song ahead bit by bit — add a lyric, write the music for it, write some more music, find a lyric for it. I find that’s a much more natural way to write. Also I love Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

Q: What is your secret to staying motivated?

A: It’s not always easy. I wish that I had a secret. “Thing a Week” definitely helped to remind me of a few things I already knew — for instance, that the hardest part is starting. Once I actually decided to sit down and work, I was fine. It helped to have a deadline that wasn’t just self-imposed. I knew that every Friday some unknown number of people would be expecting a new song from me. Once you tell someone you’re going to do something, it’s harder to back down.

Q: How do you think your rising popularity will translate to actual professional successes?

A: It depends on what you mean by “professional success.” The way I see it, I already have professional success, in that I am able to make a living as a musician. I don’t know if this is what you’re getting at, but it sounds like you might be asking about when I’ll become a mainstream artist with a record contract, a bunch of music videos, etc. I used to hope for that too, but it’s not as important to me as it used to be. And it may never happen, for all I know — I’m not against that sort of thing on principle or anything, but my main goal is to be paid to be a full-time musician. In that sense, mission accomplished! Certainly, having all this Portal buzz contributes to that end, but it’s just one of the many things I’ve done that gets me exposure to new fans and contributes to the bottom line.

Q: Will you ever go back to the moon? It was my favorite podcast and I miss it.

A: You’re referring, of course, to the “PopSci Podcast from the Moon.” Thank you — I enjoyed that myself. It was a nice excuse to play with sound effects, make up crazy stuff, and talk to a lot of really smart people about cool science things. Unfortunately, I just ran out of time for it. My schedule is such that it’s very difficult to predict whether or not I’m going to have time in a given week to do anything at all, let alone prepare for and conduct an interview in which I sound smart and well-informed. I hope that the day will come when I can do more of that kind of thing. It’s nice to take a break from music and be a “science guy” for a little while.

Q: How much of “Still Alive” was provided to you by Valve, the game company? Did you get to play the game Portal before its release?

A: I did get to play a nearly finished version of the game before I wrote the song, that was very important in terms of figuring out the character. We talked a lot about who GLaDOS was and how she would be feeling at the end of the game, and then I just took a crack at it and wrote the song. I ran the lyrics by them along the way, and we had a little back and forth, added a few lines, changed some things around. But they gave me a lot of leeway, and the first pass was pretty close to what we ended up with.

Q: Based on your experience with “Thing a Week” and the pay-what-you-want model for downloads, do you see this as the future for artists in the music industry?

A: I think there’s still a lot of room for things to change, but we’re definitely seeing pieces of what the solution will be. While everyone likes to say that consumers think music should be free, I don’t think that’s true. The Radiohead thing had less to do with business models and more to do with marketing, and granted, they are a super famous band so it’s hard to compare. But their experience and mine both seem to indicate that there are plenty of people who want to support artists they love — it’s ridiculous to think otherwise. If you’re a fan, you’re going to buy music, concert tickets and T-shirts.

I don’t know if pay-what-you-want is the answer, but I do know that the overhead it takes to record, distribute and market music is going to continue shrinking. It’s going to get easier and easier for artists and fans to find each other, and our culture as a whole has already
begun to benefit from it.

Q: When will Valve release a video game that is also a full musical comedy?

A: Yes please. That would be a great deal of fun to do, whether or not it was any fun to play. I’ll put you in touch with Gabe and you can insist that he make it happen.

Q: Did John Hodgman actually find you as a feral man-child in the Connecticut wilds?

A: No. Yes. Which is funnier?