Q&A: Jonathan Coulton on Music, Crowdsourcing, and Fan Engagement

Much of musician Jonathan Coulton’s success is inextricably linked to the Internet. In September 2005, he launched “Thing a Week,” a project for which he recorded 52 songs over the course of a year, releasing them under a Creative Commons license. He’s well known in the gaming community for “Still Alive,” the song at the end of the 2007 video game Portal and in the SF/fantasy fandom community for “Redshirt: The Theme to the Novel Redshirts” by John Scalzi, which the author commissioned. Queens Public Library’s Brian Morrell spoke with Coulton about ways the Internet has changed creative enterprise and collaboration and how libraries’ physical space can assist that creativity.

LJ: You recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign with comic book writer Greg Pak to create a graphic novel based on some of your songs, including “Code Monkey.” How did that project come about?
JC: Greg and I went to college together, but he was a few years ahead of me, so we hadn’t really kept in touch. One day on Twitter, Greg mentioned that the characters in my songs would make a great supervillain team and I said, “Yeah, you should write that up!” but then the wheels starting spinning and we thought we should really do that, so we launched the Kickstarter for it.

LJ: You set a goal of $39,000 and ended up getting $340,270 by the end. Were you surprised by this response?
JC: Very surprised. The goal of $39,000 was set knowing that that amount was what we would need to do a run and not lose our shirts, so we would have been happy with just that. Early on, we were thinking about stretch goals at maybe $45,000 or $50,000, but it blew past that the first day the Kickstarter was available, which was amazing. When we started we didn’t even dream that it would get as high as it did, but the good thing about it is that the more money the project gets the more we are able to do. It’s an exciting way to start a project.

LJ: It’s clear from that kind of response that you have a very dedicated fan base. In fact, your official website feels more like an unofficial fan site than like a musician’s official website. Did you plan on having a lot of fan input or did it happen organically?
JC: That website has evolved. Before I was doing this professionally, like many people during the late 90s and early 2000s, I had a blog for no one and it evolved from that. It’s funny, every couple of months I say to myself, “I should revamp that website” so that it looks like a professional musicians’ website, but when I start digging into that I realize I don’t like professional musicians’ websites. You can tell the purpose of them is to advertise and convince you to buy, but with mine, I feel like there is something charming about the way it is, which is kind of a mess. Stuff is there but you kind of have to dig; there’s a wiki that fans contribute to, there’s a store that has everything I’ve ever done, various bios with all sorts of out-of-date information. It’s like the Internet itself; it’s a living, breathing collection of errors and broken links.

LJ: You were at the forefront of using the Internet to get your music out there, but a lot has changed as to what tools are available. If you were starting your music career today, would you approach it any differently?
JC: I think I would do the same sort of thing. One nice side effect of the time I was doing it was that the Internet was not that crowded. If you had a podcast, you were one of a handful of people who had a podcast. It was easier to rise above the noise. There weren’t as many viral phenomena happening then as there are today. I feel like now there are big viral things that happen, memes that crop up, and I hear about them on the periphery but don’t even have time to get into them since there’s too many. Things have changed in a way that makes it harder to get noticed so people try different things because it’s so noisy out there. Another nice side effect of starting when I did is that if you were an independent artist, you were on your own for everything. My site is built on WordPress and it’s on a URL that I own and that’s where I have my store. I’ve made myself available in other stores as they’ve come around, like iTunes, Amazon MP3, and Google Play. They are all important, but the fact that I have a home base that belongs to me and didn’t spend a lot of time configuring the perfect MySpace fan page means that the stuff I built is still there.

LJ: Do you think that a good social media presence is as important as putting out good music?
JC: I think they are both important. You can’t get anywhere with just one. You can have a great social media presence, but if your music is garbage then nothing is going to happen for you. Similarly, if you make great music and nobody ever hears about it, then you are not going to get anywhere either. In the latter case, if you make great music and one of your friends passes it along, it can find its way. I think of social media as a way of enhancing and enabling whatever organic word of mouth that is already happening. I think that people have pretty good bullshit detectors and can tell when you aren’t sincere. People can tell that when Brawny Towels is tweeting, they know what they are about, so there aren’t a lot of organic fans of Brawny Towels. You recognize that they are trying to get you to buy stuff as opposed to any number of Twitter presences that may come across as much more real and human.

LJ: Are there any fellow musicians who you think are doing social media right?
JC: I follow Ben Folds and he is pretty quiet. There isn’t a lot of promotional stuff or links, come see this or go buy that. He’s just like “Here’s a funny video, here’s a picture of me at a show.” You can tell that he isn’t pushing it, that he’s just using it for his own personal pleasure and that’s a very nice thing. Also, They Might Be Giants has a Twitter account that I convinced them to start. They were just on Facebook before and I said, “You guys, you’ve got to get on the Twitter.” I think John Flansburgh runs the account but he does a really nice mix of news about the band and a lot of fan engagement, like getting people to submit pictures to put in their video. But there is also some of his funny, personal observations, which always helps. It’s important to have a personality and a point of view and a sense of humor.

LJ: You’ve encouraged fan engagement as well, allowing your songs to be used by people for noncommercial purposes, so a way your music has been shared is through things like fan-made music videos. Was this how you always envisioned sharing your work with others?
JC: Once I discovered Creative Commons and began to think of that as a possibility, it made so much sense to me. It really gets at the heart of how we as a culture enjoy and consume things. You don’t just passively watch or listen, we engage with it by creating things around it, whether it is fan fiction or stop-motion videos with Legos. There are millions of kids out there with phone cameras and editing tools and it’s just amazing the sheer number of people who are creating things from other things. It is hard to ignore. It seems insane now to take a position where you think what you make is completely yours and no one may trifle with it. It may not have been the case as much ten years ago, but today it’s absurd to think otherwise.

LJ: Libraries have become a place where people can create. Some libraries have spaces where there are things like 3D printers or recording studios which they can use and collaborate with others. Would you ever consider using the library as a place to create and collaborate with fans or other musicians?
JC: I’ve never thought of that but I think it’s a great idea. It’s a really beautiful way to think about the purpose of a library as it changes over time. It used to be all about these books, these physical objects, that were literally unchangeable because they were done. I think that in terms of art and anything that is created, it makes a lot more sense to have places where people can go and create and consume together. I love the idea of collaborating with other people, whether it’s fans or other musicians since it is exciting for everyone.

Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (sklose@mediasourceinc.com, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.