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Jonathan Coulton, a Day in the Life 68

The New York Times is running a look behind the scenes with singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton, creator the somewhat popular "Thing a week" songs on his blog. Coulton describes a bit of how he got started and what daily life is like maintaining relations with his fans. "Along the way, he discovered a fact that many small-scale recording artists are coming to terms with these days: his fans do not want merely to buy his music. They want to be his friend. And that means they want to interact with him all day long online. They pore over his blog entries, commenting with sympathy and support every time he recounts the difficulty of writing a song. They send e-mail messages, dozens a day, ranging from simple mash notes of the "you rock!" variety to starkly emotional letters, including one by a man who described singing one of Coulton's love songs to his 6-month-old infant during her heart surgery. Coulton responds to every letter, though as the e-mail volume has grown to as many as 100 messages a day, his replies have grown more and more terse, to the point where he's now feeling guilty about being rude."
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Jonathan Coulton, a Day in the Life

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  • There was a two-part interview with Coulton which was actually fairly interesting. Part 1 []. Part 2 [].
  • by Anonymous Coward
    No one in the history of time has ever received that many emails a day.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No one in the history of time has ever received that many emails a day.

      No normal human could respond sincerely to 100 angsty emails a day. Mr. Coulton has superpowers, his secret identity is Respondo. In addition to the ability and desire to write thoughtful responses to 100 emails daily, Respondo is also known to have the powers of BCC:-seeing, and complete mastery of reply-all-fu. Respondo has been having trouble with his love life due to his archrival, Dr. V1agra, who always rises to the challenge. R

    • The thing is that if he's responding he's likely adding new solid fans everyday. Sure he might not be getting thousands everyday but maybe one third are new fans who emailed him and they'll likely stick around. Once he hits the 200 a day I'm sure he'll be rethinking his strategy.
  • 100 a day? (Score:5, Funny)

    by magarity ( 164372 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @01:52PM (#19117475)
    Coulton responds to every letter, though as the e-mail volume has grown to as many as 100 messages a day, his replies have grown more and more terse, to the point where he's now feeling guilty about being rude."
    And now you've gone and slashdotted the poor fellow. Here come his 15 minutes and there goes all his prexisting fan base.
    • by Sabaki ( 531686 )
      Well, he hasn't responded to every message before now, but he's still an amazingly talented and cool guy.

      He's already had at least fifteen minutes, and I think we longstanding fans will be sticking by him.

    • All on one page, no ads:
      Alternatively, you could have linked the one page []" view directly under that, have a nicely formatted article, and let the NYT have at least one page-view for its advertisers, which seems a reasonable trade.
      • Perhaps you didn't read my subject line. I was inviting, yea encouraging, everyone to "stick it" to "the man".
        • I did indeed read the subject line and debated whether a reply was appropriate. I decided that some folks might share my "give a little, take a little" philosophy to web-surfing and a link wouldn't hurt. Soul-sucking registration aside, does the NYT really represent "the man" in your mind? :)
          • No, I don't believe in "the man", I was joking. I will also grant that this is not a very egregious example of spreading out an article over several pages - it is a long article and the ads aren't all that intrusive. Still, I dislike articles that spread beyond two links. It makes it too much work to quickly scan, especially for articles I assume are going to be uninteresting for the most part. Like this one.
            • Still, I dislike articles that spread beyond two links.

              We're in full agreement here. Some of the tech review sites are infuriating in this regard, with a pretty picture and a few lines of text per page, and an article spanning sometimes upwards of 20 pages! I wonder, however, how long it's going to take these sites to really get tired of people just hitting the "print" link to avoid the ads. I'm certainly guilty of doing it and you are too, by the sound of it. Who will speak out when they come for the print links?!

  • Coulton Rocks :D (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Magneon ( 1067470 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @01:56PM (#19117543)
    I must say, I did email Mr. Coulton after purchasing a number of his songs one day. I just fealt like explaining my quirky selection and justifying my buy. The next day (I sent the email late at night) I received a nice and well thought out email in response.

    We really should support artists like Jonathan. He's talented, his songs are interesting (bills, bills, bills or creepy doll for instance) and funny (such as code monkey), and best of all when you buy them, he gets every cent. (well, most of it. Paypal takes 2.5% :P but that's a far cry from the premiums that record labels extort from their artists). Also, you can listen to all of his songs before you buy them. The whole thing. Not to mention quite a few of his songs are free downloads.

    Check out [] today! :)

    /advertisement ;)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by wandazulu ( 265281 )
      I emailed him as well after buying Code Money on iTMS and while it wasn't the next day, also got a terse but funny response to my email that essentially read "You rock!"

      I had never done that before and was wondering why; I appreciate the music and all, but figured that buying it was my way of indicating to him my appreciation. At least, that's how it's perceived to the "big" artists; your chances of getting a "hey, thanks!" email from Bowie or the Rolling Stones is nil. But smaller bands, smaller solos, the
  • Refreshing. FTA:

    Indeed, running a Web store has allowed Coulton and other artists to experiment with intriguing innovations in flexible pricing. Remarkably, Coulton offers most of his music free on his site; when fans buy his songs, it is because they want to give him money.

    I had never heard of him but I am definitely going to take a listen. What's remarkable to me is that people find the idea that people will pay for value ... remarkable. The whole article is peppered with great examples of how Coult

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by sobachatina ( 635055 )
      I agree that his mindset is refreshing. I think there are a lot of musicians that have this mindset and that it is not necessarily unique. What is unique is that he is actually GOOD. Too much of what you can find released under the Creative Commons is (in my opinion of course) trash. His songs are entertaining and geeky and have brilliant lyrics. What really impresses me is that JoCo is willing to live as a middle-class citizen and work for his money doing concerts, contracted work, etc. Most talented (o
      • Re:Excellent article (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Critical Facilities ( 850111 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:52PM (#19118633)

        I think there are a lot of musicians that have this mindset and that it is not necessarily unique
        I'd second that. As a musician/composer myself, I have found that the advent of the internet (combined with my growing a little older and hopefully more mature) has changed my goals as an artist. In 1989, all I wanted to do was get my band signed to record deal so we could open for Guns N' Roses on their next world tour. Now? I'd just like to license enough songs to filmmakers/producers or sell tracks to people who dig cool/interesting/unique music and make a decent middle class living (as I do now in my day job).

        I used to think I wanted to make millions of dollars with my music. Now, while I wouldn't turn down the millions, I'd feel like I hit the lottery if I could just provide a decent living for my family by exclusively selling/licensing music. It's no longer wildly optimistic for this to happen with the internet. It makes it possible for an unknown to become known. It also makes it possible for people to contact others in the industry that they would not otherwise have been able to get in touch with. I've made a number of good contacts in television and independent movie forums that would've been next to impossible 10-15 years ago, all because I took my old piece of crap Compaq and made it a server to host my own website [].

        Hey, it hasn't happened yet, I still need the "straight job" to help pay the bills, but it builds every day. Hopefully, I'll garner enough interest to be able to quit and concentrate on making music and being a father. With guys like John Coulton leading the way, there's hope for guys like me.
    • This seems to illustrate viability of a new kind of business to come. Providing highly personal entertainer-to-audience interactivity going beyond old models. Bypassing the dinosaur men-in-the-middle models. I could see some enterprising startup providing a mechanism for artists to do this without having to be IT specialists themselves. Kind of a WordPress for musicians maybe. But maybe with power tools for managing customer interactions, non-written content delivery, etc.
      • by Nachtfalke ( 160 )
        And you could call it....MySpace.
        • Well, if MySpace were to add some means of metering and charging for media distribution. Except that then makes them another man-in-middle like a record compnay, and we're back to the old model of a big guy between the artist and the audience.
      • This seems to illustrate viability of a new kind of business to come. Providing highly personal entertainer-to-audience interactivity going beyond old models.

        Wasn't the web supposed to enable people to be their own publishers? Oh it works. Hmm.
    • This is the reality we live in now, as artists. I do a little bit of singer/songwriter type stuff, and though I've never received a red cent for it (and never asked, as I'm pretty much just a hobbyist), but when I do get mail or whatever, I respond. It's good PR, it keeps people in the loop, and you know what? People like people, not just brands masquerading as people.

      On a more tangential note, the internet is spelling the end of the traditional fanclub. Now you have widely available software that's capab
  • Sick feedback loop (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I guess if you think every little thought passing through your head is worth publishing to the world it might get a little weird when the world responds in an equally sycophantic manner.

  • Losing His Segment (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mfh ( 56 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @01:59PM (#19117599) Homepage Journal
    John has to know that with popularity will come the pressures of fanmail. Do not answer all of it. Pick three a day, MAX, that are worthy of response, and archive/backup the rest (mainly for legal reasons).

    You have to delegate your time when you're a public figure. Don't waste it by talking to people who idolize you. At the very best it will make them STILL LOVE YOU. At the very worst, it could break the illusion of your stardom and cause them to lose interest (and you lose your fan) -- or even cause them to get a wrong vibe from you that could lead to some serious personal safety ramifications.

    Sometimes stars need to be up in the sky. At night.
    • by Rob T Firefly ( 844560 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:48PM (#19118529) Homepage Journal
      Speaking from personal experience in both directions, I'd have to disagree.

      I'm certainly no Jonathan Coulton in terms of unusual Internet celebrity, but I do semi-regularly receive what might be termed "fan mail" from people in certain circles, I've been approached at conventions by people who dig my work, I have been recognized on the street, and I once got to autograph a particular body part. I'm also famous enough that a stranger started a Wikipedia article on me, though not famous enough to escape said article being deleted for non-notability. Taking all that with the massive grain of salt you should take with any Internet celebrity's assertions of their own Internet celebrity status, read on..

      Since I really am grateful to hear from people who like something or other I've done, it just wouldn't feel right to leave these things unanswered. You think I rock? Thanks for thinking so! You think I suck? Thanks for letting me know why! Any input from outside is valuable in some way, especially on the Internet where there's such a massive glut of material and a post about the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything can get lost among a set of photos of one's cats. Feedback is the main payback for most of what I do (thanks, Slashdot mods!) and what drives much of the Internet's independenty-produced free content.

      You talk about "breaking the illusion" of one's stardom.. personally, I love breaking whatever illusions come about from my peculiar brand of noteriety. A good friend of mine named Mark Lyons once said "the higher a pedestal someone has you up on, the easier it is to knock you down from it." I don't crave pedestals at all, and I'd much rather promote an honest image of myself to the world rather than letting people paint some People Magazine bullshit with my face on it. I really don't have any interest in the amount of work and deception it would take me to live up to some glamourized image loosely based on me, and take every opportunity to throw whatever monkeywrenches I can into that sort of goings-on. Have illusions about me, good or bad? I would like to smash them!

      I'm never going to control whether people like or dislike me or my work, but so long as people base their judgments of me on something that actually has to do with me, they've come by their opinion honestly. And what's more, I've made some of my best friends this way. And this isn't the MySpace/Livejournal/Web2.0 definition of "friendship" which basically means "I clicked on your name once" but the real-world definition about the privilege of having great people involved in one's life.

      Looking at this from the other perspective, I've had the pleasure of corresponding with people I've been a fan of for whatever reason. I don't expect personal replies back because of the realities of the situation, but that makes the few that do stand out so much more from the rest, and simply strengthens my support of whatever made me write them in the first place. I've even made some good friends this way as well.
  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:00PM (#19117605) Journal
    First there is the doubt about iTMS being a video distributor and now an artist is finding out that the Internet will actually let you interact with your fans. Wonder why the **AA never thought of that? Who knows, this 'intarweb thingy' might just catch on yet.

    In other news, politicians are finding out that the Internet will allow their fans _AND_ foes to interact with them... whether they participate or not.

    The Internet is changing the world, faster than we may realize. It's good to see that at least artists are figuring it out. I can only hope that the **AA start to catch on soon.
  • Coulton also collaborated with Ze Frank [] on one of his last shows, singing a number of Ze's songs while Ze provides facial expressionary commentary.
  • by HarvardFrankenstein ( 635329 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:11PM (#19117797) Homepage
    Jonathan demonstrates that rare quality of just being a hell of a guy. I've made a habit of manning his merchandise table at all of his shows at Milkboy in Ardmore, PA, and he always takes the time to chill with me and whoever I've brought along for a little while after the show. I'm really glad to see him getting the fame he deserves. Music needs more nice fellas.
    • Ditto. Turns out that even though I discovered him through Spiff's Re: Your Brains video, my ex and I used to live about three blocks away from him in Brooklyn, and we've done the merch thing for him in New York a few times. He really is an outstanding guy and the shows are brilliant. After trying to convert all my friends (in a few cases, successfully), i'm glad to see him getting the attention he deserves, too. Now we just need more songs! ;)
  • Answering that many emails a day is a labor of love and decency. You often can't get people you work with to answer more than a few emails a day and they're paid to do that. Think about that...
  • A thing a week (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Turn-X Alphonse ( 789240 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:20PM (#19117929) Journal
    JoCo got lucky with A thing a week and it really helped the fanbase, each week people would go back to get a new song, while they aren't all great they are all worth listening to at least once. So as his skills grew and he tried different styles the followers also changed and grew in musical tastes he tried.

    I wish the guy much luck but I wish he'd do a Thing a week again if only to see how he continues to evolve with easily defined timelines.
  • by Ryosen ( 234440 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:20PM (#19117933)
    Coulton is a very talented performer, very supportive of his fans, and a nice person over-all. He is an excellent example of how you don't need to submit yourself to the slavery of the big record companies by showing that the independent musician route is, indeed, a viable alternative. His support for Creative Commons licensing has only helped to further demonstrate the power of less restrictions.

    If each Slashdot member were to purchase just one of his songs from his website (they're 99 cents), it would send a clear message to all musicians out there that you don't need the RIAA.

    Jonathan deserves all of the good press he gets and I can't think of a better independent musician to lead the way.
  • by TobyRush ( 957946 ) on Monday May 14, 2007 @02:23PM (#19117975) Homepage
    Coulton's success isn't just a "right place at the right time" sort of thing, either... his music is actually very good. The lyrics are witty and original, the progressions are more than just I-IV-V-I, and his tracks are extremely well-produced. My favorites include "Bacteria" (which uses a KFC training tape as the source material), "That Spells DNA," "Ikea," "Shop Vac," "Creepy Doll," "Under the Pines," many of which are geeky and most of which are funny. But he very often churns out more serious stuff: "When You Go," "Drinking With You," a cover of Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat," and "I'm Your Moon," a song sung by Charon to Pluto reassuring the newly-christened dwarf planet that it's still the most important thing in Charon's life. (Okay, that one is geeky, too, but just you try listening to it without getting a little lump in your throat.)

    The article doesn't mention (I guess it's a little off-topic) that Coulton also serves as Popular Science's "Contributing Troubadour" and is good friends with John Hodgman.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by sobachatina ( 635055 )
      I'm glad you posted this. I thought there was something wrong with me for getting choked up about "I'm Your Moon". At least if there is something wrong with me I'm not the only one.

      I would add to your list of favorites:
      Skullcrusher Mountain- a mad scientist sings to his captive.
      The Future Soon- A junior high kid imagines his future as a cyborg
      I Crush Everything- A giant squid that hates himself because he destroys the things he loves
      Re: Your Brains- Imagine your most annoying coworker coming back as a

    • I thought the lack of mention of Hodgman was odd, as well. I first heard Coulton as the troubadour on the audiobook recording of The Areas of My Expertise, and I think I must be far from the only one, considering the relative popularity of that book.
  • Responding to all your fans when the write is a rare talent. I know a few authors, published and Internet, who do exactly that -- and admire them all. After all, every performer needs an audience as much as every audience needs a performer!
  • So let me get this straight...

    The guy is having trouble keeping up with the influx of mail and responds to everyone, so you slashdot his mailbox?

  • He's already having trouble keeping up, and he gets slashdotted.
  • I have to say that the best of Coulton's songs has to be First of May. I first heard Ikea and was interested. Once I heard First of May, I was sold. That is by far the best song in his catalog:
    "...bring your favorite lady, or at least your favorite lay."
    For the uninitiated: Mp3 and more information here [].
  • ...slowly building new fans online, playing live occasionally, making a solid living but never a crazy-rich one.

    1. I'm old enough to remember when that's exactly what punk rock was and most not-pop music genres still are.

    2. I happen to interact with a number of musicians and a few actors who had what most people would describe as "celebrity" scale careers. There are a few that can _only_ talk about themselves with everything they do pretty much is about them. They can be no fun if you don't pay attention
  • "[Coulton]'s replies have grown more and more terse


    "to the point where he's now feeling guilty about being rude."

  • I've never heard of him before, but now I'll have to check it out.
    This is the "model" I've wanted to take, using the Internet for distribution and exposure, and certainly I'd give some songs under the Creative Commons - not all songs are hit material, even from the very best musicians.
    If nothing else, this is one thing the music consumer is benefiting from in the digital age: he/she can now pick and choose the specific songs he/she wants to pay for, and not get stuck with the traditional "album filler"
  • I remember a time when an up-and-coming author named Terry Pratchett [] would frequently respond to posts on, and even posted his email address there. (I believe I had a question about the speed of light on Discworld.) But that was before "the September that never ended", as well as before repeated major international bestsellers. Nowadays, even with the post-spam/post-web reduction in Usenet's popularity, I doubt if Pterry even tries to keep up with that newsgroup, and I suspect that his

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