Jonathan Coulton: “Internet Rock Star”
They Might Be Giant opener has a successful business model
By Melanie Haupt,
3:47PM, Thu. Feb. 2, 2012
In 2005, Jonathan Coulton quit his computer programming job and for a year afterward posted a geek-culture-specific pop song per week on his website. That netted him about a half-million dollars in 2010. Who says you need a label? He opens a sold-out show for They Might Be Giants on Friday at La Zona Rosa.
Austin Chronicle: I'm interested in your label-free success – intrigued by NPR’s description of you as an “Internet rock star.” Tell me about making this model successful?
Jonathan Coulton: I wish I had a clear answer for that. In many ways I feel like I got lucky, like the right thing at the right time. I left my day job writing software in 2005 and started this project called “Thing a Week,” where I released a new song every Friday for a year. I put them all out for free in the hopes that it would attract attention and that people would hear the music and, I don’t know, pay for it later. I didn’t have a great plan, per se. I just wanted to start writing and publishing. I just took the shortest path to doing that.
Somewhere along the way a couple of the songs got noticed by the Internet and had viral moments. I released all those songs on CD and started being able to tour and attract audiences. Since then, it’s just been the standard story of growing the fanbase with help along the way from important connections and opportunities. Writing the song for [video game] Portal was obviously a huge thing, but on top of that there's been a lot of help from the fans themselves by spreading the word.
AC: How did you get involved with They Might Be Giants?
JC: I think I was initially introduced to them through my friend John Hodgman, who had worked with them in his capacity as Deranged Millionaire when they did the venue songs thing. He performed with them a couple of times and they made some videos with him. Occasionally he would perform with them or go see a show and he would drag me along backstage with him because he knew I’m a big fan. I ended up hanging around creepily backstage at a few shows.
At some point I discovered that I had a show in Chicago the same night that They Might Be Giants had a show in Chicago and felt my entire audience slipping from my grasp. Then I found out that it was a Flood show, them playing their seminal album Flood in its entirety. The opening act that I was traveling with came up with the idea of doing our own Flood show, an acoustic version of that album in its entirety.
At that point I emailed John Flansburgh of TMBG to make sure that they wouldn’t be offended or angry and he gave the thumbs up and we did it and it was great. Some time later, they asked me to open for them, which I did, and at the end of that run John Flansburgh suggested that we work together on my next album.
AC: Which is Artificial Heart?
JC: Artificial Heart, which came out at the end of last year, yes.
AC: I read that you feel like this album is darker than your previous work. Why do you think that is? You said you don’t feel sad or dark, so it’s Flansburgh’s influence, right?
JC: [Laughs] I’m older now than I was when I was writing Thing a Week. I’m not just older; as Indiana Jones says, it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. You have two kids and go through a big career change and you live through your late 30s and turn 40 … a lot has changed. I wouldn’t describe myself as unhappy, but I would say that I think a lot about unhappy people. I’m the kind of person who tries very hard to make decisions based on what will make me happy and not be distracted by things like wealth and vanity and power and gadgetry. I fail on the gadgetry front a lot.
So, happiness is a key thing for me and when you’re becoming a middle-aged person, you sort of look around you and assess, how are your peers doing? How are they feeling? What are the decisions that they have made? Do you envy those decisions? Did you make any bad decisions of your own? Are you where you expected you would be? Every decade birthday is a time for reevaluation. I had just been thinking a lot about the themes and in the process of writing, they came out and appeared on the album.
AC: Have you found that having children makes your rose-colored glasses not so rosy anymore?
JC: Having children changes your perspective in many ways. One of the things I find so refreshing and simultaneously terrible about becoming a parent is that there is no time for messing around anymore. That’s where the rubber meets the road and you have to make some really hard choices about priorities and your time and going back to the happiness quotient I was talking about before, a lot of trade-offs have to happen because you just run out of time and energy. They suck it all out of you like little vampires, adorable little vampires that you love a lot. I think that’s a transition that’s hard to make and it’s complicated and when you come out on the other side of it you’re changed in a big way.
AC: Is that what you’re talking about in terms of mileage?
JC: That’s absolutely what I mean. [Chuckles] A lot has happened in the last decade.
AC: So, what was going on in the five years between Thing a Week and last year’s album?
JC: At the end of Thing a Week, I didn’t have as much direction as I’d had. Thing a Week gave me a lot of purpose on the songwriting front. I had to do something every week whether I wanted to or not. And without that motivation, songwriting really slowed down. I was writing, but very slowly. I think I wrote 10 songs over those years.
AC: So, what else were you doing?
JC: [Laughs] You sound like my wife! It’s a tough question. I was working on other aspects of my career. Thing a Week was me writing a bunch of stuff and putting it out there. After that, it was about learning how to tour, learning how to play the songs. It was about learning how to deal with t-shirts and other merchandise and learning how to run a record business because suddenly that’s what I was doing. The best way that I would describe it is that I was touring and learning how to run a record business.
AC: So you were professionalizing.
JC: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
AC: It’s so cool that you got to work with really exciting people on this album like John Roderick of the Long Winters and Suzanne Vega and Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara.
JC: Yeah, it’s crazy. What are they doing with me, that’s my question.
AC: Right, what the hell is up with that? How did you get them pulled into your web?
JC: John and I met when we were both performing out here in NYC and we hit it off and became friends and kept in touch. It was a no-brainer to ask him to be a part of it. John Flansburgh has been friends with Suzanne Vega for a long time and had the idea of writing a song with her in mind. And with Sara Quin, we wanted to do a new version of the song “Still Alive” from Portal, but we didn’t want to do the computer voice the way it was originally done, yet me singing it wouldn’t be quite right, either. So we wanted a female voice that was strong in a very human way to counteract that computer voice. And hers is one of those voices that is full of character and is a very recognizable voice.
AC: Have you played Austin before?
JC: I have, but the only times I've played in Austin was when I was there for South by Southwest Interactive, which I've done a couple of times. It’s always been great. It’s a good town for me. It’s one of those cities that for whatever reason they’re particularly attuned to what it is I do.
AC: Well, we're heavily populated by code monkeys.
JC: Right, it’s the nerds! If there’s a tech industry or a large population of PhDs, that’s usually a good city for me.