Jonathan Coulton is a singer/songwriter from NYC who is setting the standard for circumnavigating the record companies and proving not all music fans are thieves. He took some time out of his wicked busy life to sit down and answer some questions for us!
Your story is that, after being a musician on the side for a long time, you quit your computer programmer job one day to take a chance
on being a full time musician. Was there a certain event, a “straw that broke the camel’s back” instance, that made you make that decision, or was it a gradual “water wearing away rock” situation?
It was something that I wanted to do for a long time, but it always seemed just over the horizon. Without question, when my daughter was born everything changed – I suddenly felt mortal in a way I never had before, seeing my replacement right there in front of me. I started to look back on all the “last chances” I’d had to do something like this (in my 20’s, before getting married, before buying real estate, etc.), realizing that it was never going to get any easier. And it suddenly seemed extremely important to set a good example, to be the person I felt I was supposed to be.
A coworker recommended you write a song a week for a year. How hard was it to let the finished product go at the end of the week, and if
you had the chance, would you continue to fiddle with the songs, much like George Lucas won’t stop “fixing” the original Star Wars trilogy? How do you know when enough is enough?
It was difficult, and that was one of the reasons I took on the challenge. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to this sort of thing, and I think a lot of people who record music are the same way. There’s an inclination to spend long hours on the final polishing and tweaking, to get that extra one or two percent of excellence. But you can easily spend all of your time on that last one or two percent, and in my opinion, it’s not always the best way to spend that time. I think it’s really about the song – if the song is good, it doesn’t matter all that much what the arrangement is or whether or not it’s
recorded in a professional studio. Think of how many recordings you love that aren’t perfect – whether it’s a live track or something old that sounds awful by today’s standards, it’s the song that matters.
What is your process for writing new songs? Do you have to work on a schedule (ie: making yourself sit down daily to work on specific things) or are you more of a “when inspiration strikes” kind of guy?
I used to wait for inspiration, but Thing a Week taught me that wasn’t necessary. I know now that I can make it happen by deciding to write and sitting down with the guitar to do it. The challenge now is carving out time for it – I’ve become so busy with the other aspects of my job, and they can easily take over entire weeks. There’s always something that needs doing, and it’s sometimes hard to put all that stuff on hold to noodle around on the guitar.
Your work has been compared a lot to They Might Be Giants and The Barenaked Ladies. Who are some of your influences in music but also
writing? Also, who would you love to tour with? Finally, what’s on rotation on your iPod?
They’re both in the mix, particularly TMBG who are real heroes of mine. I like music that’s smart and that doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially stuff that’s got lots of vocal harmonies and is highly singable. I listened exclusively to The Beatles and Billy Joel as a pre-teen, branching out into Steeley Dan and XTC as I got older. And there was plenty of folky stuff in there too: Simon and Garfunkel, Dan Fogelberg, Sean Colvin, and in particular Loudon Wainwright III, who is one of the most personal songwriters I know. I’d love to tour with TMBG someday, not only because I think they’re awesome, but I definitely think there’s some audience overlap there (a bit one-sided to be sure, because they are very famous and I am merely semi-famous). At the moment the stuff in heavy rotation includes Tally Hall, Jon Brion, the new one by Spiraling, OK Go, and Mike Viola.
Giving away your music was one of the things that helped you begin to gather a fanbase. How do you feel about bands like Metallica, a band who started out poor and now collect priceless art, who speak out against giving away music? Do you think they are completely clueless about technology and the internet or just really greedy?
I think bands like Metallica are suffering from two problems. First of all, they just don’t get it, and I don’t really blame them – it does seem counter-intuitive to most people, and I still find myself wondering sometimes if it’s the right way to go. Second, they’re addicted to the old business model, which really doesn’t work all that well with free music. Most fans of Metallica know that downloading an album without paying for it is only likely to take a dollar or so off the band’s bottom line – the rest of the retail price would go to the labels and all the rest of the middle men who USED to be necessary to make the engine go. And I imagine it’s a scary thing to contemplate leaving that whole infrastructure behind when that infrastructure made you into a wealthy rock star. But that’s just what they’d need to do in order to take part in the new model, as have Radiohead and Trent Reznor.
Obviously you are very much against DRM (and rightly so). What suggestions would you make to the record companies and tech companies
to set them at ease and also give DRM the final nail in the coffin?
As I see it it’s very simple – DRM doesn’t work. You can never, never ever, keep someone from making a copy of a piece of music if they really want to. So why bother?
Having grown up in a time of classic videogames, do you have any particular favorite consoles and games? More importantly, which Mario
Bros. game is your favorite and why?
I love them all, but I have to give the crown to Super Mario Bros. 2 because it was so trippy. And of course when you play Princess Peach you can jump up and stay up for a little while before you come down – look into it!
Do you have a particular favorite videogame system? Do you take a portable console on the road with you?
At the moment I’ve got an XBox 360 and I’m enjoying it. I love the Wii too, though of course you can’t actually buy them because there are only two or three in the world. I don’t take anything on the road with me, mostly because I’ve already got enough tiny boxes of electronics that have to be plugged in.
You said on TWIT (This Week In Tech) that you filmed the San Fran show for a DVD, so you have any other cool things in the works you can talk about? Have the record companies come knocking?
No word from the big labels. Perhaps they fear me. We’re editing the footage from that San Francisco show right now, and I’m hoping to have a finished version in a couple of months, though it probably won’t be released until this Fall. And of course there is the ongoing trickle of new music, song by song. These days any time I work in the studio I stream it live on my site so people can watch, which is another way of me getting over the fear that comes from not knowing what I’m doing. By showing everybody the mistakes I make when I try to play the guitar and sing, I tend to worry about them less – you know, if you show up to the party naked, nobody can pull your pants down.
Thanks to Jonathan for taking time to answer some of our questions. You can listen to all of his music for free at www.jonathancoulton.com, some of which you can download for free and some of which you have to pay for, but it’s all awesome!