A Talk with JoCo, Part 5 (The Future)
|A Talk with JoCo|
|1. Early Life - 2. Undocumented Songs - 3. Thing a Week - 4. The Present - 5. The Future|
Bry: Bry here, and you're about to listen to the fifth and final part of A Talk with JoCo, the not-at-all-pretentiously-titled interview with Jonathan Coulton, Internet superstar and affable monster, conducted by Jinx and me on Monday, June 23, 2008. In tonight's episode, Jonathan discusses the future and I give you some decent audio quality for a change. Also, a couple of acknowledgments at the end I hope you'll stay tuned for.
Bry: Okay, we're here again with Jonathan Coulton, gentleman songster and internet superstar and we're going to talk about what's ahead for himself and for the industry. (Slight doctoring there in the audio, I admit -- I can't stand to hear myself stutter and stumble. And there was a lot of stuttering and stumbling going on. This was not a planned introduction, since we weren't planning on taking a break after the previous part. Sorry about that. -- Bry)
Bry: Okay, so back in 2003 you saw (Lawrence) Lessig at Pop!Tech and started hearing about Creative Commons -- are you hearing anything else interesting -- any other developments in technology or anything else that's relevant to you?
It's mostly a continuation of trends that have been happening for a couple of years. Of course, the perceived value of recorded music continues to drop, and, you know, everybody says it's approaching zero, which I think is probably true. And at the same time in the industry, everybody is trying to figure out what to do -- these 360 deals are the newest thing. But, you know more and more I think that artists are going to be able to do stuff on their own terms with their own people and control a lot more of their own stuff which is... I don't see that as bad. I know a lot of people think that where we're heading is a bad thing, although it's certainly bad for some people... and I feel bad for all the people who are going to lose their jobs because they're in a dying industry, but I think the net gain for the world is pretty high.
And you know, I don't think there has been too much revolutionary stuff in the last couple of years, that's new, you know -- I mean podcasting has been around for awhile and Internet radio and mp3s and creative commons licensing, you know -- I think it's just more and more people are aware of it and more and more musicians are participating in the nonstandard way of doing things. You know, as Trent Reznor comes off his label deal and doesn't go on another one -- you know, you're just going to see a lot more of that -- and Radiohead... it's going to be more and more mainstream, I think.
Bry: What do you think is going to be next for you, in your career?
I wish I knew. I wish I knew. I'm enjoying myself a great deal right now. I wish I was writing more, but I have confidence that will come eventually and... having Scarface around is actually giving me a lot more time, which I'm treating as free time and wasteable time right now, because that's actually essential to my ...to my process? It's true, like I really need to waste time in order for things to occur to me, and I can feel that happening again, so... (truck noises)
I might be... the live thing is great fun. I'd like to keep doing that. The nice thing about bigger and bigger audiences is that it's more and more efficient. I'm looking forward to the day when I can fly to San Francisco, do one show, and fly back and, that's a profitable trip. I mean it is a profitable trip now, but the more people that are there, the fewer of those I have to do. Not that I'm going to retreat from the world, but I'm about at my maximum travel time right now without going crazy. And, you know, it's fun but I don't know that I can do this for the rest of my life, you know?
Jinx: If a big label approached you today, or if the right label approached you today, would you consider signing a label deal?
Yeah, if it was the right deal. I've had a couple of things like that, but it never made too much sense to me, based on the numbers, because it always... What it always comes down to is giving up a percentage of what I currently make to pay for their effort to increase my bottom line to the extent that it pays for or even surpasses that amount of money that I'm giving up. And so far you know -- I just don't see it. This live DVD is costing me a lot of money to make -- I hope that it will make its money back someday -- but the fact is I don't need anybody to front the money to make it and no reason for me to really share a percentage of that with anyone unless they can offer something other than capital.
Bry: What do you think they would have to offer you?
Well, there's still plenty of value in being connected to the mainstream distribution strategies. You know, a lot of people still buy their music at Wal-Mart, and Best Buy. And you know, certainly things like the iTunes video digital distribution is not open to small fish like me. And that system is entrenched with all sorts of....
Child's voice: Mommy, where are we going?
(Waving at woman with small child exiting establishment next to the interview benches) Hey, hi! (Hellos exchanged all around among JoCo, woman, and child)
Woman: The recital was a wonderful success.
It was! Yes! Yes, it was a very good show.
Woman: You guys have to get some more playing!
I know, I know, eventually we will. We're taking a break. We're pursuing solo projects! (Woman waves & continues on.) See you later! Sorry.... friend of mine in the neighborhood... What was I saying?
Bry: You were saying the labels would...
Yeah, the system is... there's all sorts of... Who even knows how it works? I don't. It's a small group of people that do things a certain way. But you know, you get something in the pipeline and it goes out to the world. And that's a legitimate thing. So having access to that is still worthwhile -- Not for very much longer, I think -- in some amount of time... you can see the importance of that lessening and lessening as time goes on.
Jinx: How about a band? If the right band materialized or if you formed the right sort of group thing, would you move in that direction?
Yeah, I've been giving that a lot of thought actually. One reason that it would be nice to have the touring become even more profitable than it is now is that I could afford to pay musicians to come along with me. I mean, right now if I had a band I would not be making money. And so.., yeah, I'd very much like to play with a band, I think that would be great fun. And of course, you know, I've played with musicians here and there but there's something....
That person who just dropped by is the wife of a guitar player who's a friend of mine who I play poker with and lives in the neighborhood.... He and I and my sister-in-law and another friend of ours have been recently getting together in a rehearsal studio and playing like 80's cover songs together. I've been playing bass and it's just the most fun thing I've ever done. I'd forgotten how much fun it is to learn music and play music with other musicians. So yeah, I've been thinking a lot about having a band, I think that would be great fun. I hope to do that some day.
Bry: You've had some interesting twists on your concert experience -- You know, the Second Life show, and the show you tried to stream , and obviously the DVD show and the London show -- anything else like that that's kind of on the horizon?
Yeah, well, I've thought about... I'm curious about the services and they might be too expensive for me, but -- there are these services where people will bring recording equipment to your show, record the show, and make the show available for purchase immediately afterwards? I think that's awesome, like, I would love to do that. I do have a backlog of recordings of live shows recorded in various degrees of quality. But, as I say, that is one thing that Scarface is working on right now -- cutting those up and making them into mp3s, and so on. (cell phone conversation in the background)
I admire the They Might Be Giants model, where they have a massive collection of live music for sale online and every show is ten bucks and you get a big zip file with all the songs in it. You know, I think that's great, and it fits with the whole model of uh.... publish first and filter later. You don't need to pick and choose which stuff you put online -- you just put everything online and people buy what they're going to buy.
And I also love the idea that that makes it, it makes it... it becomes very Grateful Dead. People are like "Ohhh...the Code Monkey from Somerville, 2006 -- that was a good Code Monkey" and "Ohhh! Here's Kristen Shirts' first appearance!" or whatever -- like, I love that archival mentality and I love the idea of ... you know, that's the very heart of fandom, so it's the most flattering thing.
Jinx: Creative fandom....
Yeah, I know! I love it, and I'm very grateful.
Jinx: How about the TV or advertising jingle or that type of thing; I mean we've all listened to the JoCo theme song and it just seems like it's the right groove. Would you do that if that showed up?
If the right opportunity came along... what it really comes down to is... I don't mind selling out. I wouldn't write a commercial for cigarettes... or guns... [laughter]
Bry: That'd be a great gun company that would approach you...
(laughs) -- it'd be a strange combination...
Umm... but, you know, if a product came along that I could sort of get behind, and more importantly I think, if it were a situation where they were looking for a Jonathan Coulton experience. I mean, that was the great thing about Portal, is that really what they wanted was a Jonathan Coulton song, that hadn't been written yet, which -- that's easy for me to do, and quite enjoyable.
You know, I would not be interested in doing something that was not, ... uh ...
Jinx: in the vein...?
Yeah, or I wouldn't be interested in doing something somebody else could do, because I think there are plenty of people who can do that better. I'm the only one who can write a Jonathan Coulton song, and so that's what I would like to be complimented for.
Bry: We'll see how Song Fu goes, actually...
Well, actually, yeah, we'll see! Maybe Paul and Storm can do one too, who knows?
Bry: Is there another Thing a Week somewhere on your horizon, maybe long-long term?
Yeah, maybe something like that. I don't know if it will be weekly. I've toyed with that idea. I do sort of miss it, you know, I do miss the, just the voluminous output, which was very satisfying. It was nice having all that new stuff all the time. So yeah, it would be great to do something like that. Right now it would be sort of heartbreaking because there's not any time to do it.
Bry: What do you think would be your motivation to do it, if you did?
Just to amp up the creative output, I think. You know, we're all going to get bored of these songs eventually, it'd be nice to have some new blood in there.
Bry: Yeah, I mean...are there any songs that you're getting a little bit bored of playing live?
Yeah, there's things that go in and out of the rotation. You know, Tom Cruise Crazy... I was sort of soft on that for awhile and I left it out of sets for awhile, but it's kind of back. Right now Baby Got Back is experiencing a decline, I've skipped that a couple of times. I don't know, there's nothing that I'm really sick of. It's more like, when I'm planning a setlist I can't do everything cause it's just too long for a show, so I have to prioritize and pick and choose and stuff -- it's a balance between what I can do and what I feel like doing.
Jinx: What goes into deciding what goes onto your setlists?
Well, It's actually... it's become pretty static in some ways. The setlists are very similar, you know I open with the same stuff and close with the same stuff. The Paul & Storm chunk is in the middle, and those are the same -- you know, there's a pool of songs that I pick from for that. And you know I generally try to do a ...kind of like I open fast and fun, get sad, bring out Paul and Storm, get sad, finish up ... kind of arc. So I have a bunch of different ways that I can get there and I've toyed with the idea of doing a like a completely randomized setlist.... (laughter) like, spinning a wheel or something like that? But I think that could be a disaster?
Bry: Maybe just for one song in the middle of it, you've got a....?
Yeah but ... you know, the problem with doing that is it's like, "Oh! Okay, we're starting with When You Go," then "Oh! Next one is Make You Cry, terrific!" and then "Oh, I Crush Everything, okay, sorry everybody!"
Jinx: Are you aware of the fact that the fans on the forum are discussing your setlist, and making nominations for things that they wish you'd play?
No! What are they saying?
Bry: Well, there've been... Encubed has gone through the wiki, show by show, and counted up how many times you've played every song, in 2008 at least.
Bry: That's the kind of devotion you're having now....
That's good statistics, I'd like to see that!
Bry: And there's a thread about which songs would you like to see, which ones might you rotate out, and so on.
Will you point me to those threads? I'd like to read those threads.
Bry: You'll get an email about them. But meanwhile, are you looking to increase your fans? I mean, what do you think is your best angle for doing that?
I have no idea. You know, I've never had a plan, and so really it's just -- I'm just riding the wave, as far as it'll take me. You know what I've been doing now is playing live a lot and that's been really what I've been focused on. And to judge by the numbers of people that come to shows, it's bigger every time I play in a place. I think the last time I played in New York there were like a hundred and something people in Brooklyn and like 400 people at the place on Saturday night, and that's great. So, you know.... I think that there's some amount of growth that can come from that. I also think that ... I'm excited about this DVD coming out because I think that's going to reach a whole new round of people, and it also brings the live show out to people who haven't been able to see me live yet. Because really when I think about it, that's the project that I've been working on for the last few years -- the live show. That DVD feels like a culmination of that.
Bry: Do you feel like there's any untapped area of potential Jonathan Coulton fans?
Umm. I think that if there is, it's in the non-geek realm. That's where the growth comes from. If you write software? You've already heard Code Monkey -- chances are. So I think there's a lot of room for growth in the area -- you know, you were describing fans who aren't really about the geek angle, who just like the songs -- I think there's more room for exposure there, because certainly it's all been internet-based, or most of it has. So you know, as I get this more mainstream press in newspapers and magazines and stuff, that brings a whole other circle of people.
Bry: What kind of description do you like to see of yourself in the mainstream press? People could describe you all kinds of ways, you know -- as all geek, or play the "quit your job to become a musician" angle, I mean -- What do you think would be most effective?
Yeah, that's been a great angle, people love that story.
Bry: It's a great story...
It is! -- Believe me! I'm living it, it's awesome. The geek thing is another angle, I don't know -- I'm really not too particular about it. I mean, I haven't read an article yet about me that I've been like "Oh! No! That's bad!" It hasn't happened yet. It's just great to be mentioned or described at all. As I say, nobody's written the anti-Jonathan Coulton piece yet. That one I probably won't like very much, but -- hasn't come up yet.
Bry: You don't know how this interview's going to be spun yet....
Well, that's true -- you could remix it, I suppose....
Bry: But, speaking of fame, you've talked before about how you don't want to get too famous so it'd get in the way of your personal life ... You can still sit outside on the street outside of a tea lounge and get recognized by friends and not by fans...
Yeah, you know, it's a tough thing. Having said that, I'm not sure I would say no to something that'd make me super famous. But it is something that I'm aware of. When I say that, I mean more that the famous part is not the goal for me. Really the goal for me is to have a stable income that I can support my family with from now until when I'm dead and beyond, without having to sacrifice too much on the front of doing what I like to do.
And right now I'm in that place, and I feel very fortunate to be there. I don't know how long I can do it. I'm not sure I'm still going to be doing exactly this when I'm fifty, which is in less than fifteen years, which is crazy.... So I don't know, I kind of feel like something will have to change if I'm going to keep doing this and not have to go back and try to get a software job when I'm fifty, and all my skills are outdated. So one way to do that is to become super famous and super wealthy right now and put the money in the bank. Another way to do that is to branch out into other stuff, and you know, maybe... maybe I'm not a touring musician in ten years, maybe I'm, you know, writing musicals for Broadway. Or maybe there's a television show that I'm contributing songs to, or something. But I don't know, I don't have to make those decisions yet. (cell phone caller sounds)
Bry: How sustainable do you feel your current level of fame is?
I don't know.... surprisingly sustainable! I keep waiting for it to run out of gas, but it hasn't yet. I think part of that is based on...new people are still coming in. You know, once every fan has every CD, obviously there's less money to be made. So you either need to keep growing the fan base or keep adding new products. But you know, I think it's doable.. at least for awhile, as long as I can stand to lead this kind of lifestyle.
Bry: How close are you to that goal of having 1000 True Fans?
Oh, I think I'm there -- I mean I don't know what the number is, but whatever it is, I think I have a sustainable fan base. (Discussion question: What should be the real standard of a True Fan? There are plenty of forum members, for instance, who bluntly aren't in a position to pay $100 a year, yet they're no less devoted than the fan who shells out $50 for a box set she never listens to. --Bry)
Bry: If you did the Tom Lehrer thing and quit everything now, do you think....?
See, no, I think if I just disappeared from the world right now? No, I don't think it would last very long. I think there would be some residual thing as people bought music and discovered it, it'll always sort of bounce around out there, but you know there's not .... I don't get radio airplay, and I haven't been licensed for a movie soundtrack of a classic movie... there's not an ad campaign using one of my songs; so like there's no sort of long term residual money plan.... yet.
Jinx: Speaking of that, how has Hodgman's fame affected you -- and maybe your career and maybe your friendship?
Well, I think it certainly helped my career; you know as I say, touring with him on his first book tour before he was on the Daily Show was very different from touring with him after he was on the Daily Show, and it's been great to be exposed to all sorts of new people that way, and of course our audiences overlap quite a bit, whether they know it or not. So it's been very helpful.
But I think the main thing is that we're both so busy now and traveling so much -- He's in LA a lot of the time; I'm wherever I am a lot of the time, so we don't have vast swaths of time to just hang out and do nothing any more. Plus we both have kids and families and our kids are getting older and becoming more and more like actual humans...
Jinx: Does that mean you don't have time to take care of each other's cats any more?
Yes, thank goodness! Thank goodness.
Bry: I hear he was at the show on Saturday?
He was at the show on Saturday, yes.
Jinx: What did he think?
He thought it was great.
Jinx: Had he been to any of your larger shows?
Yes, I think so. Yeah, he usually comes to my shows when I play in New York. I don't know if he's ever been in the same city when I've been doing a show somewhere else, but yeah, he's seen some larger crowds at my shows before.
Jinx: How about the whole music industry stuff.... the convictions that you've had have been really strong and clear about things like... access to music, and DRM and that sort of thing. What made that whole thing so clear to you, that people needed to be able to access music freely?
Well, mainly because I'm a fan of music and a consumer of music and maybe I feel it more acutely because I'm kind of technical, but DRM drives me nuts. I've been directly affected by DRM many times. Like, just the very... like, when you get a new Mac, and then suddenly all your music says you are not authorized to play this music on this machine? Like, what, are you kidding me? Really? Really? Five devices!? What... huh!? It just seems very obvious to me that that's how people use their music and how they've always used their music. You know, we never had DRM in the past and it was never a problem.
And I understand people say. oh, now it's digital, and now it's different and now there's no loss of quality when you transfer it from one thing to another. Yes! So what? It doesn't change anything. And I don't know, because it's always bugged me when people try to limit that stuff.
And I've heard this thing about the Zune, about how new models of the Zune are going to have some sort of filter that doesn't play things that aren't officially authorized to play and like, oh, that's going to go well! Like, that won't cause any problems or make any consumers angry. And also -- p.s., it's not going to stop any piracy!
You can't create a system that is 100% secure -- like, everyone knows that -- and so it's like a pointless exercise. And you know, on the free angle... (truck acceleration noise) (C'mon, truck...) I do think that artists should be paid for making music. And you know, I buy music when I like it, but I also download stuff for free when I can, just to check it out. And there've been plenty of albums that I've purchased that I didn't like and that I never listen to now. And I'm not sure those people deserve my fifteen dollars. They have it, but... And you know, there have been other albums that I've downloaded for free and then purchased later, because I listen to them all the time. And... I don't know, that just seems to me a much more natural way. I mean, this day and age, the idea that you used to have to buy an album without experience.... that seems to me to be the craziest thing in the world. You know, like you'd have to read a review in a magazine and say, oh, that's something it sounds like I would like, and then purchase it, not knowing whether you'd like it...
Jinx: ...hoping you'd like it...
Yeah! It's crazy!
Bry: As far as your friends, your network of peers, the people you've befriended, fellow musicians, the podcast community and so on, how has that affected your career?
I don't know, that's just something that's happened over the course of time as.... You know, I mean everybody is sort of connected in a way. You have this sort of direct connection -- like, because of email and blogging and podcasts you can keep up with people without keeping up with them. Yeah, it's been great to make that kind of connections with people. It was always thrilling when a podcaster would email me and say they were playing my music on their podcasts, regardless of how many people they had listening to them. And also I'm playing at this Coverville 500 concert in Las Vegas this summer and Coverville was one of the first podcasters that was playing my stuff. I love that. It's a great thing.
Jinx: Are you likely to go back to Pop!Tech?
Jinx: How did that come about in the first place? How did you get invited?
The curator of Pop!Tech came to a Little Gray Book lecture -- came to the one about What Will Happen in the Future -- and I played the Future Soon there, and he came up to me afterwards and said 'you need to come and play that song at this conference.' And I've been there I think three times.
Bry: You've kind of set out the path that you've followed, I mean not intentionally, of course; do you think that's something that other people could follow as well, in the same way?
It seems like it, yeah. I mean, obviously it'll be different in small ways for everybody. Everybody has different tolerances for things. If I were 25? And single? I'd probably be doing a lot more touring and stuff, or I might be doing longer tours and that would be a much bigger part of what I'd do. Or, if I were in a duo, I'm sure that would change things for me, or if I were in a band because just like the economics changes and not just the money economics but how you manage your time and effort and all that stuff. But yeah... basically something to it and a lot of people are doing it already, or were doing it before me, and we're all sort of experimenting with different ways. It's just a question of finding out what works for you.
Bry: Do you think other people... anyone could follow the Jonathan Coulton pattern and have the Jonathan Coulton level of success by following your model, without having to write Jonathan Coulton songs?
Well, that's another aspect of it. There's a nice synergy between the subject matter and the business model. So the fact that... I'm releasing songs on this podcast model, it helped that they were geeky songs and that the fans were geeks, who knew how to access, how to subscribe to a podcast. If I was writing polka music, I'm not sure I would have the same kind of success with this distribution method.
Jinx: You could tour in Poland, though....
Well, yes, and you know... I recognize that that's been -- that's one of the things that has worked for me perhaps in a unique way, this precise combination of things has kind of conspired to make me successful, whatever that means.
Bry: If you were giving advice to, say, a young musician starting out today who might not be writing your style of music, what kind of advice would you be giving him?
Well, I would definitely say, you know, regardless of what kind of music you're doing or who you think your fans are, like, you've got to sort of reduce the friction as much as possible. You know, obscurity is your enemy. Don't worry about the money to start with. Like, if the worst problem you have is that a million people downloaded your song for free? Let that be your terrible burden -- you know, like you can get somewhere from there.
Bry: But is there any benefit in obscurity? Like, the songs that you've done that you consider really juvenile today, and are sort of hidden away... Do you think there's any benefit for people not having their early music out right away?
Maybe... No, I mean I don't necessarily think it would hurt me to have that early stuff out...
Bry: If that were the only music you had out?
Yeah, but it's also that... I mean, the most important thing is you gotta find your fans. And you have to recognize that you don't know who your fans are. You can guess, and so you just keep guessing, and you try to get that music in the places where those fans are. And sometimes you'll be right and sometimes you'll be wrong. And the more you let it bounce around out there, the more it will find things. Like the World of Warcraft connection, like I never in a million years would have known to try to make that happen. And you know it happened, because Spiff plays World of Warcraft and made a video. And countless people have come to me through that connection. And that was a completely unplanned form of free marketing.
Bry: Right. Who do you think your fans were... Did you have a conception of who those people would be really early? Like when you were doing the Little Gray Book lectures?
Yeah, they were people who lived in New York who would come to a Little Gray Book lecture. I mean, it was a geographically based thing. Or it was the handful of people who had been emailed an mp3 by their friends or whatever. But you know, that's the point, the geographically based stuff is meaningless now. Well, it's not meaningless, but it's less important.
I mean, the whole concept of touring used to be.... We're going to do the East Coast. And we start on the top part of the East Coast and every day we drive to another town and we play a show (draws itsy bitsy spider diagram in the sky of the East Coast tour) and we drive to another town and play a show, and we do that for three weeks. And sometimes people come and sometimes people don't come. And then we wait six months and we do that same thing again. And we build and build and build and build. (disgusted) Oh god! It's so awful! I'd never want to do that. And it's unnecessary now. Because, like, you can reach more people more directly without thinking about geography at all.
Bry: Although it's kind of a big deal when... you know, things like Eventful have let you get to that point.
JoCo : Yeah, exactly. And obviously when you play a certain place, it has a lot to do with geography. And you know, ... like, I have larger pockets of fans in certain places and I know that from Eventful and I know that from having played in certain places. And you know, you figure that stuff out. But that's the change between now and before it was The Future -- is that now the geography doesn't matter as much as it used to.
Bry: So that's what kind of advice you'd give to somebody who was starting out now. But what advice would you give to somebody who was starting out like back in 1993 when you were starting out -- can you look back and say for a musician starting out then what you should have done?
I wish I'd learned more guitar. I wish I was better at playing the guitar. I still think I might take guitar lessons some day. And... well, you shouldn't be afraid to play with other musicians, collaborate and stuff like that. That's something I wish I had done more of at that age. But I don't know, -- as I say, it's all, the path you take is the path you take. So are there any wrong steps? Probably not, not really.
Bry: Alright, well... I guess, what? one more question?
Bry: So... what's with all the monkeys?
[bursts out laughing] That question answers itself, doesn't it?
Bry: Right, right. Okay, thanks a lot, Jonathan. Thanks so much for doing this for us.
But thank you guys, and thank you to everyone who's a fan and who does crazy things like this. You're awesome. Thank you.
Bry: That's the end, so you can stop listening. But I hope you'll linger for a couple more seconds. I'd like to thank Jonathan Coulton and Jinx, of course, but I can do that elsewhere. I want to say this entire interview owes a lot to a gentleman name of Dave Coffin, who wrote a little free program that's the only reason I was able to process these audio files. If you enjoyed this interview, and I hope you did, head to http://cybercom.net/~dcoffin/rca and maybe throw him a buck or two. And if you didn't enjoy the interview, come to jonathancoulton.com/forums and tell me so.
Well, here's the real end. I feel as though I should say something, or at least trip over a bass or something, but then I never was very good at letting go, and I've said way too much already. So, take care. Yeah.