Internet Geek-rocker Jonathan Coulton (hereafter often referred to as “JoCo” because apparently neither he, his die-hard fans, nor I really enjoy repeatedly typing “Jonathan Coulton”) was recently interviewed by NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast/radio show, and he blogged about it.
First, he kinda seemed a little hurt that they comapred him to a “snuggie” – you know, one of those blankets with sleeves? – due to the fact that he was characterized as having a sucessful product marketed primarily as a novelty item. He hems and haws about that a bit, but that seemed to wound him slightly. His fans seemed even more wounded by that fact. But you know what? He is. I mean, all pop music is kind of snuggie-like when you come right down to it. I’m a snuggie. We’re all snuggies. We make the product that nobody really needs, but some people want because they think it’d be fun to have. The intent of the artist is sort of beside the point – I’m sure the inventor of the snuggie was thinking he was really on to something useful, too, just as I think my songs express something interesting. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, since it’s entertainment at the end and we don’t have any final control over how people perceive it. It’s probably a poor metaphor, but at the core, the Planet Money people grasped one of the painful truths about pop music. We’re not, generally, changing the world. JoCo gets that, to a degree, when he says that the Grateful Dead, Nirvana, and Madonna are also all snuggies. Well, right. Difference between them is, while Nirvana may have appealed primarily to Seattle grunge kids intially, they crossed over into the mainstream because they had a fairly broad appeal. JoCo writes the kind of folksy alt-rock about DNA, supervillians and giant squid that makes TMBG look downright accessible – the subject matter is specific enough that it will always exclude a larger audience, with a nod and a wink to those that get it. It’s what I call the “XKCD effect.” It’s a very specifically targeted sort of act, and it happens to be towards a fanbase that is both rabidly protective of their pop culture signifiers and also one that is generally underserved in that specific kind of medium – there just aren’t a whole lot of geek-specific singer-songwriters. He’s got himself a stable set of fans for the rest of his life, but as much as they’re a lot of fun, “Code Monkey” and “Ikea” aren’t about to become the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
I say this as a guy who owns a lot of JoCo stuff and likes it, and have seen him live. He’s a good, engaging performer, and I can respect him as a guy who gave up his 9-5 to basically bang out solid songs on a cheap mic and a laptop. That’s cool and all. I wish I had the guts to pull something like that off. However, as awesome as that is, it’s not exactly a lofty vantage point from which to stand and make pronouncements about the music industry. Anyone with a blog can do that. I’m doing that right now.
More tellingly, his blog post turned into a “JoCo’s rules for success!” sort of post. He comes out and says
“I make songs that are good and then I sell them (and concert tickets, and Tshirts) to the people who want them – that’s my business model, and it’s patently obvious that it’s replicable because I stole it from every other recording artist in the world. “
Well, um…DUH. So the business model is “make good stuff people want and sell it.” That’s about as meaningful as…well, it’s not really meaningful.
Coulton downplays the assertion that he “won the Internet Lottery” because “It’s accurate but unhelpful, because it fails to draw a meaningful distinction between me and anyone else who has had success in this business.” The Beatles, after all, won the British Invasion lottery, he says.
That’s where it all falls apart, and comes down to something I rant about constantly. Success in most artistic endeavors depends heavily on one thing: circumstance. Success as an indie artist doubly so. It’s always about winning the proverbial lottery, whether you’re The Beatles or Jonathan Coulton or Rebecca Black. If Brian Epstein hadn’t gone to the Cavern Club on that specific night, the Beatles might never have gone beyond playing german strip clubs. To assert that chance and timing didn’t play an enormous role in the success of any artist is arrogant. Sure, talent plays a part – it doesn’t matter how lucky you are if you suck so badly nobody wants to hear you. Still, you can be incredibly talented and unlucky, too.
This sounds remarkably cynical, I know, but think about it; how many excellent songwriters and artists have you heard or seen over the years that have entirely failed to “succeed” (for some undefined value of “success”, but that’s a different rant of mine)? Rarely can anyone tell me that [really awesome band] wasn’t trying hard enough or wasn’t talented and wasn’t writing songs that people want to hear. It could be anything – they weren’t playing the right bar on the right night, or the guy who would kick off some viral revolution on the internet showed up two songs too late, or something. No matter how awesomely talented you are and how hard you work, you can still never get the lucky break you need. The uniquely transient nature of music and art pretty much ensures that sort of time-based dependence.
You can go to bandcamp.com and go through page after page of great bands following the same sort of “business model” of Mr. JoCo – indie distro, performer-owned rights, open-source creative commons, etc – who will never sell more than a few thousand albums in their lives. Hell, I’m one of them. The business model will work, to an extent, for anyone, but nobody will ever quite replicate it again, because what got many of the successful artists the press coverage needed to really break was the fact that they were the first ones doing it. Slashdot picked up on Code Monkey because it was a nerdy song about a coder released like a piece of open-source software, and that exposure got Coulton a ton of basically free promotion and downloads. Anyone who tries that now? They’ll get a big “yeah, and…?”
I’m neither incredibly talented nor incredibly lucky, but I attribute what limited success I’ve had to my moderate talent and my being lucky enough to have met the right people at the right times. I’d love to say “yeah, I sold a few thousand CDs because I am totally awesome” but that’s not it. I’ve sold what I’ve sold because I happened to meet people like Matt the promoter and Kristy the label manager or Dan the guitarist at times when that benefitted us both.
Those artists that have grapsed that brass ring of indie success? Sure, talented folks. Your Coultons, your Reznors, your Keatings, your Radioheads. But every single one of them could’ve basically missed it by a day – Trent Reznor could easily have been just another weekend warrior instead of an Oscar winner. There’s the whole Beatles/Epstein thing I mentioned before. Sure, JoCo and Zoe Keating tour incessantly, which helps spread the word, but then, a lot of great indie bands tour incessantly, so it’s no guarantee. “Code Monkey” went viral on the internet – but so did cats asking for cheeseburgers, the trololo guy, and Wil Wheaton, so it’s not exactly something easily predicted and replicated. Maybe someday social science might have a grasp on that, but until then, it’s pretty much luck. Trent, Radiohead and OKGo could go all indie becasue they had the advantage of already being well-known and established.
Basically, lots of this could be applied to pretty much any endeavor, especially when money is involved. At least something like “opening a McDonald’s” has the benefit of market research and demographics. You can’t really do that for a song, not with any degree of meaning. Pretty much ANY advice you’re going to get about the music industry will boil down to “work hard, be talented, hone your craft, and promote.” That’s not exactly a really specific recipe for anything. Beyond that, it’s probably best to be skeptical of anyone who tells you they have some great tips for succeeding in music. Especially if they tell you that the trick is to “go viral.” Yeah, well, if we knew how to do that, we wouldn’t be reading “how to succeed in music” blogs.
What the talent and hard work really get you more than anything is the ability to notice the opportunity when it arrives and take advantage of it at that moment. That’s all. Does that kind of suck? Well, sure. Then again if the only reason you’re putting your talents out there as an artist is to just acheive some ill-defined rock-star paragon of success, ur doin it rong.