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An Internet Rock Star Tells All

Another day at the office. (Dale May)

Jonathan Coulton's songs almost never get played on the radio. He doesn't have a contract with a music label. Yet he's a one man counterargument to the idea that musicians can't make money making music.

In 2010, Coulton's music brought in about $500,000 in revenue. And since his overhead costs are very low, most of that money went straight to him.

Did he ever expect to make that kind of money as a musician?

"Of course not," he says. "This is absurd."

Jonathan Coulton's music is funny, melodic and pretty nerdy. One of his hits — I'll explain later what "hit" means in Coulton's case — is a song called Re Your Brains. It imagines a pleading email written by an ex-office mate who's now a zombie.

We're at an impasse here, maybe we should compromise:
If you open up the doors,
We'll all come inside and eat your brains.

So how did Jonathan Couton take this song, and another 97 like it, and — without the aid of a record label, or any outside support really — turn them into half a million in annual revenue?

The Internet, of course. On Coulton's bare-bones website, you can see lyrics to all his songs, read his blog, connect with other fans. And, of course, you can buy his songs for a dollar a piece.

So Coulton doesn't need a label to sell his music.

Traditionally, though, labels also marketed you, got your music on the radio, got you that first hit. Jonathan Coulton managed this without a label, too, taking a very different path to fame.

You've always needed a lucky break to make it in the music business. Coulton's was a semi-autobiographical song called Code Monkey, about a lovelorn computer programmer.

Code Monkey like Fritos
Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew.
Code Monkey very simple man
With big warm fuzzy secret heart:
Code Monkey like you.

Coulton put it up on his site and it soon got posted to a tech discussion board called Slashdot, one of the largest and most influential tech sites on the Internet.

"So here was this song about a sad tech geek, and it was an arrow shot directly to the heart of the tech geek community," Coulton says. "That was the equivalent of me being discovered by some impresario or getting to go on the Ed Sullivan show when nobody knew who I was. That was my breakthrough."

Twenty years ago, before the Internet and social media took off, could he have made a living as a musician?

"Twenty years ago, I moved to New York City to make a living as a musician, and instead I got a software job," Coulton says. "So the answer is no."

So is Coulton a beacon that other musicians can follow? Or is he an anomaly, a niche musician who, through a lucky fluke, found an equally niche audience.

Coulton says sure, he's niche. But there are a lot of niches out there for others to find, with more forming all the time. After all, he says, that's what the Internet is.

For more Planet Money on the music industry, listen to our interview with Damian Kulash of OK Go.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

There's no question the Internet has been disastrous for the recording industry. Revenues have plummeted in recent years. But there is a fierce debate over the question: Has the Internet been bad for musicians themselves?

Well, Planet Money's Alex Blumberg profiles one man for whom the answer is a resounding no.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I'm betting that many of you have never heard of this man. His songs almost never get played on the radio; he doesn't have a contract with a music label. And yet, he's a one-man counterargument to the notion that musicians can't make money doing music anymore.

Mr. JONATHAN COULTON (Singer-Songwriter): This is a spreadsheet of my income over the last four years, so 2007 through 2010.

BLUMBERG: And are you prepared to reveal those figures?

Mr. COULTON: You know, it's - I don't know. It's always embarrassing. It's embarrassing to talk about that.

BLUMBERG: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jonathan Coulton, a singer-songwriter in Brooklyn. And I'm not embarrassed to say what he made in 2010. He authorized me to tell you - almost exactly a half a million dollars in revenue. And since his overhead costs are very low, most of that money goes straight to him.

Mr. COULTON: Which is crazy. It's just insane.

BLUMBERG: Did you ever imagine yourself making this much money off of your music?

Mr. COULTON: Of course not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COULTON: This is absurd. It's absurd situation.

(Soundbite of song, "Re: Your Brains")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Heya Tom, it's Bob from the office down the hall. Good to see you, buddy. How have you been? Things have been okay, except that I'm a zombie now. I really wish you'd let us in.

BLUMBERG: Jonathan Coulton's music is funny, melodic and pretty nerdy. This is one of his hits. We'll explain what hit means in Coulton's case a little later. It's a song called "Regarding Your Brains," which imagines a pleading email written by an ex-office mate who's now a zombie.

So how did Jonathan Coulton take this song, and another 97 like it, and without the aid of a record label or any outside support, really, turn them into half a million dollars in revenue?

Mr. COULTON: All right, so we're going to jonathancoulton.com.

BLUMBERG: The Internet, of course. On Coulton's bare-bones website, you can see lyrics to all his songs, read his blog, connect with other fans - oh, yeah, and one other things.

Mr. COULTON: This is the chronological list of the songs that I have released. Next to each one, there's a button to buy it for a dollar.

BLUMBERG: So, Coulton doesn't need a read label to sell his music. But traditionally, the label helped you with another thing: fans. The label marketed you, got your music on the radio, got you that first hit. Jonathan Coulton managed this, too, without a label, taking a very different path to fame.

(Soundbite of song, "Code Monkey")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Code Monkey, get up, get coffee. Code Monkey go to job. Code Monkey have boring meeting with boring manager Rob.

BLUMBERG: You've always needed a lucky break to make it in the music business. This was Coulton's, a semi-autobiographical song called "Code Monkey," about a lovelorn computer programmer.

Coulton put it up on his site, where it soon got posted to a tech discussion board called Slashdot, one of the largest and most influential tech sites on the Internet.

Mr. COULTON: And so here was this song about a sad tech geek, and it went directly - it was shot - an arrow shot directly to the heart of the tech geek community.

(Soundbite of song, "Code Monkey")

Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Code Monkey like Fritos. Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew.

Mr. COULTON: I mean, that was the equivalent of, you know, me being discovered by some impresario and, you know, or getting to go on the Ed Sullivan show when nobody knew who I was, and people - you know, that was my breakthrough.

BLUMBERG: Do you think you would have been - if, you know, 20 years ago, before the Internet, before social media, would you have been able - would you be making a living as a musician?

Mr. COULTON: Well, 20 years ago, I moved to New York City to make a living as a musician and instead I got a software job. So the answer is no.

BLUMBERG: The question, of course, is this: Is Coulton a beacon that other musicians can follow or an anomaly, a niche musician who, through a lucky fluke, found an equally niche audience? Coulton says both.

He's niche, sure. But there are a lot of niches out there for others to find, with more forming all the time. After all, he says, that's what the Internet is.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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