Jonathan Coulton
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Jonathan Coulton

Colchester, Connecticut, United States

Colchester, Connecticut, United States
Band Folk Singer/Songwriter


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos



"NY Times Sunday Magazine"

Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog

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Jonathan Coulton sat in Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn, his Apple PowerBook open before him, and began slogging through the day’s e-mail. Coulton is 36 and shaggily handsome. In September 2005, he quit his job as a computer programmer and, with his wife’s guarded blessing, became a full-time singer and songwriter. He set a quixotic goal for himself: for the next year, he would write and record a song each week, posting each one to his blog. “It was a sort of forced-march approach to creativity,” he admitted to me over the sound of the cafe’s cappuccino frothers. He’d always wanted to be a full-time musician, and he figured the only way to prove to himself he could do it was with a drastic challenge. “I learned that it is possible to squeeze a song out of just about anything,” he said. “But it’s not always an easy or pleasant process.” Given the self-imposed time constraints, the “Thing a Week” songs are remarkably good. Coulton tends toward geeky, witty pop tunes: one song, “Tom Cruise Crazy,” is a sympathetic ode to the fame-addled star, while “Code Monkey” is a rocking anthem about dead-end programming jobs. By the middle of last year, his project had attracted a sizable audience. More than 3,000 people, on average, were visiting his site every day, and his most popular songs were being downloaded as many as 500,000 times; he was making what he described as “a reasonable middle-class living” — between $3,000 and $5,000 a month — by selling CDs and digital downloads of his work on iTunes and on his own site.

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.

Coulton welcomes his fans’ avid attention; indeed, he relies on his fans in an almost symbiotic way. When he couldn’t perform a guitar solo for “Shop Vac,” a glittery pop tune he had written about suburban angst — on his blog, he cursed his “useless sausage fingers” — Coulton asked listeners to record their own attempts, then held an online vote and pasted the winning riff into his tune. Other followers have volunteered hours of their time to help further his career: a professional graphic artist in Cleveland has drawn an illustration for each of the weekly songs, free. Another fan recently reformatted Coulton’s tunes so they’d be usable on karaoke machines. On his online discussion board last June, when Coulton asked for advice on how to make more money with his music, dozens of people chimed in with tips on touring and managing the media and even opinions about what kind of songs he ought to write.

Coulton’s fans are also his promotion department, an army of thousands who proselytize for his work worldwide. More than 50 fans have created music videos using his music and posted them on YouTube; at a recent gig, half of the audience members I spoke to had originally come across his music via one of these fan-made videos. When he performs, he upends the traditional logic of touring. Normally, a new Brooklyn-based artist like him would trek around the Northeast in grim circles, visiting and revisiting cities like Boston and New York and Chicago in order to slowly build an audience — playing for 3 people the first time, then 10, then (if he got lucky) 50. But Coulton realized he could simply poll his existing online audience members, find out where they lived and stage a tactical strike on any town with more than 100 fans, the point at which he’d be likely to make $1,000 for a concert. It is a flash-mob approach to touring: he parachutes into out-of-the-way towns like Ardmore, Pa., where he recently played to a sold-out club of 140.

His fans need him; he needs them. Which is why, every day, Coulton wakes up, gets coffee, cracks open his PowerBook and hunkers down for up to six hours of nonstop and frequently exhausting communion with his virtual crowd. The day I met him, he was examining a music video that a woman who identified herself as a “blithering fan” had made for his song “Someone Is Crazy.” It was a collection of scenes from anime cartoons, expertly spliced together and offered on YouTube.

“She spent hours working on this,” Coulton marveled. “And now her friends are watching that video, and fans of that anime cartoon are watching this video. And that’s how people are finding me. It’s a crucial part of the picture. And so I have to watch this video; I have to respond to her.” He bashed out a hasty thank-you note and then forwarded the link to another supporter — this one in Britain — who runs “The Jonathan Coulton Project,” a Web site that exists specifically to archive his fan-made music videos.

He sipped his coffee. “People always think that when you’re a musician you’re sitting around strumming your guitar, and that’s your job,” he said. “But this” — he clicked his keyboard theatrically — “this is my job.”

In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply. This is not merely an illusion of intimacy. Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube.

So musicians dive into the fray — posting confessional notes on their blogs, reading their fans’ comments and carefully replying. They check their personal pages on MySpace, that virtual metropolis where unknown bands and comedians and writers can achieve global renown in a matter of days, if not hours, carried along by rolling cascades of popularity. Band members often post a daily MySpace “bulletin” — a memo to their audience explaining what they’re doing right at that moment — and then spend hours more approving “friend requests” from teenagers who want to be put on the artist’s sprawling list of online colleagues. (Indeed, the arms race for “friends” is so intense that some artists illicitly employ software robots that generate hundreds of fake online comrades, artificially boosting their numbers.) The pop group Barenaked Ladies held a video contest, asking fans to play air guitar along to the song “Wind It Up”; the best ones were spliced together as the song’s official music video. Even artists who haven’t got a clue about the Internet are swept along: Arctic Monkeys, a British band, didn’t know what MySpace was, but when fans created a page for them in 2005 — which currently boasts over 65,000 “friends” — it propelled their first single, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” to No. 1 on the British charts.

This trend isn’t limited to musicians; virtually every genre of artistic endeavor is slowly becoming affected, too. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and Rian Johnson (“Brick”) post dispatches about the movies they’re shooting and politely listen to fans’ suggestions; the comedian Dane Cook cultivated such a huge fan base through his Web site that his 2005 CD “Retaliation” became the first comedy album to reach the Billboard Top 5 since 1978. But musicians are at the vanguard of the change. Their product, the three-minute song, was the first piece of pop culture to be fully revolutionized by the Internet. And their second revenue source — touring — makes them highly motivated to connect with far-flung fans.

This confluence of forces has produced a curious inflection point: for rock musicians, being a bit of a nerd now helps you become successful. When I spoke with Damian Kulash, the lead singer for the band OK Go, he discoursed like a professor on the six-degrees-of-separation theory, talking at one point about “rhizomatic networks.” (You can Google it.) Kulash has put his networking expertise to good use: last year, OK Go displayed a canny understanding of online dynamics when it posted on YouTube a low-budget homemade video that showed the band members dancing on treadmills to their song “Here It Goes Again.” The video quickly became one of the site’s all-time biggest hits. It led to the band’s live treadmill performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which in turn led to a Grammy Award for best video.

This is not a trend that affects A-list stars. The most famous corporate acts — Justin Timberlake, Fergie, Beyoncé — are still creatures of mass marketing, carpet-bombed into popularity by expensive ad campaigns and radio airplay. They do not need the online world to find listeners, and indeed, their audiences are too vast for any artist to even pretend intimacy with. No, this is a trend that is catalyzing the B-list, the new, under-the-radar acts that have always built their success fan by fan. Across the country, the CD business is in a spectacular free fall; sales are down 20 percent this year alone. People are increasingly getting their music online (whether or not they’re paying for it), and it seems likely that the artists who forge direct access to their fans have the best chance of figuring out what the new economics of the music business will be.

The universe of musicians making their way online includes many bands that function in a traditional way — signing up with a label — while using the Internet primarily as a means of promotion, the way OK Go has done. Two-thirds of OK Go’s album sales are still in the physical world: actual CDs sold through traditional CD stores. But the B-list increasingly includes a newer and more curious life-form: performers like Coulton, who construct their entire business model online. Without the Internet, their musical careers might not exist at all. Coulton has forgone a record-label contract; instead, he uses a growing array of online tools to sell music directly to fans. He contracts with a virtual fulfillment house called CD Baby, which warehouses his CDs, processes the credit-card payment for each sale and ships it out, while pocketing only $4 of the album’s price, a much smaller cut than a traditional label would take. CD Baby also places his music on the major digital-music stores like iTunes, Rhapsody and Napster. Most lucratively, Coulton sells MP3s from his own personal Web sites, where there’s no middleman at all.

In total, 41 percent of Coulton’s income is from digital-music sales, three-quarters of which are sold directly off his own Web site. Another 29 percent of his income is from CD sales; 18 percent is from ticket sales for his live shows. The final 11 percent comes from T-shirts, often bought online.

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. The Canadian folk-pop singer Jane Siberry has an even more clever system: she has a “pay what you can” policy with her downloadable songs, so fans can download them free — but her site also shows the average price her customers have paid for each track. This subtly creates a community standard, a generalized awareness of how much people think each track is really worth. The result? The average price is as much as $1.30 a track, more than her fans would pay at iTunes.

Yet this phenomenon isn’t merely about money and business models. In many ways, the Internet’s biggest impact on artists is emotional. When you have thousands of fans interacting with you electronically, it can feel as if you’re on stage 24 hours a day.

“I vacillate so much on this,” Tad Kubler told me one evening in March. “I’m like, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this intimacy with our fans. And I’m not sure you can have both.” Kubler is the guitarist for the Brooklyn-based rock band the Hold Steady, and I met up with him at a Japanese bar in Pittsburgh, where the band was performing on its latest national tour. An exuberant but thoughtful blond-surfer type, Kubler drank a Sapporo beer and explained how radically the Internet had changed his life on the road. His previous band existed before the Web became ubiquitous, and each town it visited was a mystery: Would 20 people come out? Would two? When the Hold Steady formed four years ago, Kubler immediately signed up for a MySpace page, later adding a discussion board, and curious fans were drawn in like iron filings to a magnet. Now the band’s board teems with fans asking technical questions about Kubler’s guitars, swapping bootlegged MP3 recordings of live gigs with each other, organizing carpool drives to see the band. Some send e-mail messages to Kubler from cities where the band will be performing in a couple of weeks, offering to design, print and distribute concert posters free. As the band’s appointed geek, Kubler handles the majority of its online audience relations; fans at gigs chant his online screen-name, “Koob.”

“It’s like night and day, man,” Kubler said, comparing his current situation with his pre-Internet musical career. “It’s awesome now.”

Kubler regards fan interaction as an obligation that is cultural, almost ethical. He remembers what it was like to be a young fan himself, enraptured by the members of Led Zeppelin. “That’s all I wanted when I was a fan, right?” he said. “To have some small contact with these guys you really dug. I think I’m still that way. I’ll be, like, devastated if I never meet Jimmy Page before I die.” Indeed, for a guitarist whose arms are bedecked in tattoos and who maintains an aggressive schedule of drinking, Kubler seems genuinely touched by the shy queries he gets from teenagers.

“If some kid is going to take 10 minutes out of his day to figure out what he wants to say in an e-mail, and then write it and send it, for me to not take the 5 minutes to say, dude, thanks so much — for me to ignore that?” He shrugged. “I can’t.”

Yet Kubler sometimes has second thoughts about the intimacy. Part of the allure of rock, when he was a kid, was the shadowy glamour that surrounded his favorite stars. He’d parse their lyrics to try to figure out what they were like in person. Now he wonders: Are today’s online artists ruining their own aura by blogging? Can you still idolize someone when you know what they had for breakfast this morning? “It takes a little bit of the mystery out of rock ’n’ roll,” he said.

So Kubler has cultivated a skill that is unique to the age of Internet fandom, and perhaps increasingly necessary to it, as well: a nuanced ability to seem authentic and confessional without spilling over into a Britney Spears level of information overload. He doesn’t post about his home life, doesn’t mention anything about his daughter or girlfriend — and he certainly doesn’t describe any of the ill-fated come-ons he deflects from addled female fans who don’t realize he’s in a long-term relationship. (Another useful rule he imparts to me: Post in the morning, when you’re no longer drunk.)

There’s something particularly weird, the band members have also found, about living with fans who can now trade information — and misinformation — about them. All celebrities are accustomed to dealing with reporters; but fans represent a new, wild-card form of journalism. Franz Nicolay, the Hold Steady’s nattily-dressed keyboardist, told me that he now becomes slightly paranoid while drinking with fans after a show, because he’s never sure if what he says will wind up on someone’s blog. After a recent gig in Britain, Nicolay idly mentioned to a fan that he had heard that Bruce Springsteen liked the Hold Steady. Whoops: the next day, that factoid was published on a fan blog, “and it had, like, 25 comments!” Nicolay said. So now he carefully polices what he says in casual conversation, which he thinks is a weird thing for a rock star to do. “You can’t be the drunken guy who just got offstage anymore,” he said with a sigh. “You start acting like a pro athlete, saying all these banal things after you get off the field.” For Nicolay, the intimacy of the Internet has made postshow interactions less intimate and more guarded.

The Hold Steady’s online audience has grown so huge that Kubler, like Jonathan Coulton, is struggling to bear the load. It is the central paradox of online networking: if you’re really good at it, your audience quickly grows so big that you can no longer network with them. The Internet makes fame more quickly achievable — and more quickly unmanageable. In the early days of the Hold Steady, Kubler fielded only a few e-mail messages a day, and a couple of “friend” requests on MySpace. But by this spring, he was receiving more than 100 communications from fans each day, and he was losing as much as two or three hours a day dealing with them. “People will say to me, ‘Hey, dude, how come you haven’t posted a bulletin lately?’ ” Kubler told me. “And I’m like, ‘I haven’t done one because every time I do we get 300 messages and I spend a day going through them!’ ”

To cope with the flood, the Hold Steady has programmed a software robot to automatically approve the 100-plus “friend” requests it receives on MySpace every day. Other artists I spoke to were testing out similar tricks, including automatic e-mail macros that generate instant “thank you very much” replies to fan messages. Virtually everyone bemoaned the relentless and often boring slog of keyboarding. It is, of course, precisely the sort of administrative toil that people join rock bands to avoid.

Even the most upbeat artist eventually crashes and burns. Indeed, fan interactions seem to surf along a sine curve, as an artist’s energy for managing the emotional demands waxes and wanes. As I roamed through online discussion boards and blogs, the tone was nearly always pleasant, even exuberant — fans politely chatting with their favorite artists or gushing praise. But inevitably, out of the blue, the artist would be overburdened, or a fan would feel slighted, and some minor grievance would flare up. At the end of March, a few weeks after I talked with Kubler in Pittsburgh, I logged on to the Hold Steady’s discussion board to discover that he had posted an angry notice about fans who sent him nasty e-mail messages complaining that the band wasn’t visiting their cities. “I honestly cannot believe some of the e-mails, hate mail and otherwise total [expletive] I’ve been hearing,” he wrote. “We’re coming to rock. Please be ready.”

Another evening I visited the message board for the New York post-punk band Nada Surf, where a fan posted a diatribe attacking the bass player for refusing to sign an autograph at a recent show, prompting an extended fan discussion of whether the bass player was a jerk or not. A friend of mine pointed me to the remarkable plight of Poppy Z. Brite, a novelist who in 2005 accused fans on a discussion board of being small-minded about children — at which point her fans banned her from the board.

When Jonathan Coulton first began writing his weekly songs, he carefully tracked how many people listened to each one on his Web site. His listenership rose steadily, from around 1,000 a week at first to 50,000 by the end of his yearlong song-a-week experiment. But there were exceptions to this gradual rise: five songs that became breakout “hits,” receiving almost 10 times as many listeners as the songs that preceded and followed them. The first hit was an improbable cover song: Coulton’s deadpan version of the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot rap song “Baby Got Back,” performed like a hippie folk ballad. Another was “Code Monkey,” his pop song about a disaffected cubicle worker.

Obviously, Coulton was thrilled when his numbers popped, not least because the surge of traffic produced thousands more dollars in sales. But the successes also tortured him: he would rack his brains trying to figure out why people loved those particular songs so much. What had he done right? Could he repeat the same trick?

“Every time I had a hit, it would sort of ruin me for a few weeks,” he told me. “I would feel myself being a little bit repressed in my creativity, and ideas would not come to me as easily. Or else I would censor myself a little bit more.” His fans, he realized, were most smitten by his geekier songs, the ones that referenced science fiction, mathematics or video games. Whenever he branches out and records more traditional pop fare, he worries it will alienate his audience.

For many of these ultraconnected artists, it seems the nature of creativity itself is changing. It is no longer a solitary act: their audiences are peering over their shoulders as they work, offering pointed comments and suggestions. When OK Go released its treadmill-dancing video on YouTube, it quickly amassed 15 million views, a number so big that it is, as Kulash, the singer, told me, slightly surreal. “Fifteen million people is more than you can see,” he said. “It’s like this big mass of ants, and you’re sitting at home in your underpants to see how many times you’ve been downloaded, and you can sort of feel the ebb and flow of mass attention.” Fans pestered him to know what the band’s next video would be; some even suggested the band try dancing on escalators. Kulash was conflicted. He didn’t want to be known just for making goofy videos; he also wanted people to pay attention to OK Go’s music. In the end, the band decided not to do another dance video, because, as Kulash concluded, “How do you follow up 15 million hits?” All the artists I spoke to made a point of saying they would never simply pander to their fans’ desires. But many of them also said that staying artistically “pure” now requires the mental discipline of a ninja.

These days, Coulton is wondering whether an Internet-built fan base inevitably hits a plateau. Many potential Coulton fans are fanatical users of MySpace and YouTube, of course; but many more aren’t, and the only way for him to reach them is via traditional advertising, which he can’t afford, or courting media attention, a wearying and decidedly old-school task. Coulton’s single biggest spike in traffic to his Web site took place last December, when he appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” a fact that, he notes, proves how powerful old-fashioned media still are. (And “Weekend Edition” is orders of magnitude smaller than major entertainment shows like MTV’s “Total Request Live,” which can make a new artist in an afternoon.) Perhaps there’s no way to use the Internet to vault from the B-list to the A-list and the only bands that sell millions of copies will always do it via a well-financed major-label promotion campaign. “Maybe this is what my career will be,” Coulton said: slowly building new fans online, playing live occasionally, making a solid living but never a crazy-rich one. He’s considered signing on with a label or a cable network to try to chase a higher circle of fame, but that would mean giving up control. And, he says, “I think I’m addicted to running my own show now.”

Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world. Neither would, say, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, a singer who was initially so intimidated by a crowd that she would sit facing the back of the stage. What happens to art when people like that are chased away?

It is also possible, though, that this is simply a natural transition point and that the next generation of musicians and artists — even the avowedly “sensitive” ones — will find the constant presence of their fans unremarkable. The psychological landscape has arguably already tilted that way for anyone under 20. There are plenty of teenagers today who regard themselves as “private” individuals, yet who post openly about their everyday activities on Facebook or LiveJournal, complete with camera-phone pictures. For that generation, the line between public and private is so blurry as to become almost nonexistent. Any teenager with a MySpace page is already fluent in managing a constant stream of dozens of semianonymous people clamoring to befriend them; if those numbers rise to hundreds or even thousands, maybe, for them, it won’t be a big deal. It’s also true that many recluses in real life flower on the Internet, which can famously be a place of self-expression and self-reinvention.

While researching this article, I occasionally scanned the list of top-rated bands on MySpace — the ones with the most “friends.” One of the biggest was a duo called the Scene Aesthetic, whose MySpace presence had sat atop several charts (folk, pop, rock) for a few months. I called Andrew de Torres, a 21-year-old Seattle resident and a co-founder of the group, to find out his story. De Torres, who played in a few emo bands as a teenager, had the idea for the Scene Aesthetic in January 2005, when he wrote a song that required two dueling male voices. He called his friend Eric Bowley, and they recorded the song — an aching ballad called “Beauty in the Breakdown” — in a single afternoon in Bowley’s basement. They posted it to MySpace, figuring it might get a couple of listens. But the song clearly struck a chord with the teen-heavy MySpace audience, and within days it had racked up thousands of plays. Requests to be the duo’s “friend” came surging in, along with messages demanding more songs. De Torres and Bowley quickly banged out three more; when those went online, their growing fan base urged them to produce a full album and to go on tour.

“It just sort of accidentally turned into this huge thing,” de Torres told me when I called him up. “We thought this was a little side project. We thought we wouldn’t do much with it. We just threw it up online.” Now their album is due out this summer, and they have roughly 22,000 people a day listening to their songs on MySpace, plus more than 180,000 “friends.” A cross-country tour that ended last December netted them “a pretty good amount of money,” de Torres added.

This sort of career arc was never previously possible. If you were a singer with only one good song, there was no way to release it independently on a global scale — and thus no way of knowing if there was a market for your talent. But the online fan world has different gravitational physics: on the basis of a single tune, the Scene Aesthetic kick-started an entire musical career.

Which is perhaps the end result of the new online fan world: it allows a fresh route to creative success, assuming the artist has the correct emotional tools. De Torres, a decade or more younger than Coulton and the Hold Steady, is a natural Artist 2.0: he happily spends two hours a day or more parsing notes from teenagers who tell him “your work totally got me through some rough times.” He knows that to lure in listeners, he needs to post some of his work on MySpace, but since he wants people to eventually buy his album, he doesn’t want to give away all his goods. He has thus developed an ear for what he calls “the perfect MySpace song” — a tune that is immediately catchy, yet not necessarily the strongest from his forthcoming album. For him, being a musician is rather like being a business manager, memoirist and group therapist rolled into one, with a politician’s thick hide to boot. - Clive Thompson

"Contributing Troubadour"

LIKE SCIENTISTS and engineers, science and technology periodicals are often a lot more eccentric and whimsical than one might expect. And for evidence of this, it often isn't necessary to look past the masthead. Wired, for example, may no longer list Marshall McLuhan as its Patron Saint, but it does bestow upon former editor-in-chief Kevin Kelly the cranky-sounding title of Senior Maverick.

Back in February the 133-year-old magazine Popular Science quietly slipped a Contributing Troubadour onto its masthead. An explanation finally appeared in the current (September) issue: Jonathan Coulton, the magazine's designated tunesmith, has recorded a soundtrack to the issue.

Last winter, after hearing the Brooklyn-based Coulton perform heart-wrenching songs about cyborgs at a futurist conference, Popular Science asked him to write them a theme song.

''I assumed they were kidding, but they called me a few months ago and said, 'Hey, you're on the masthead, where's that theme song?"' recounts Coulton, an aspiring singer-songwriter known to cognoscenti for his ability to write catchy ditties about anything from Ikea end tables to fractal geometry. ''We decided it would be even more fun if I wrote songs about the September issue on the future of the body."

Coulton explained the thinking behind a couple of the five songs--''That Spells DNA," ''I Feel Fantastic," ''Womb With a View," ''Todd the T1000," and ''Better"--which are free for downloading at the website

'''That Spells DNA' goes with an article about how we'll eventually be able to predict our own demise by examining our DNA. In the song, our own DNA sings to us about how we're all eventually going to die no matter what," Coulton said. '''Womb With a View' is about a baby inside a transparent artificial womb who falls in love with the fetus next door. And 'Todd the T1000' responds to a report on new materials that may someday replace our muscles--and make us stronger--with a story I invented about bulking up in order to intimidate your android butler."

Coulton admitted that it can be difficult to get the details exactly right in songs about science and technology. ''It's already been pointed out to me that T1000 was the name of a robot in 'Terminator 2'--and not the muscular Schwarzenegger robot, either." - Boston Globe

"Smoking Monkey Review"

Open wide, breath slowly, take it all in - a breath of pure, unpretentious fresh, fresh air. That is Jonathan Coulton`s "Smoking Monkey" in one simple sentence. Funny, too! Well-crafted geek pop - hilarious but heartbreaking songs about clowns, masons and exhibitionists. By turns hilarious and melancholy, rockin` and melodious, Jonathan Coulton`s lovely ditties about vengeful nerds, ennui-afflicted clowns, partially-imagined historical figures, and devotees of a certain Swedish prefab furniture store are insanely clever without ever being too clever for their own good.It`s not often, too, that we get an artist here w/ a quote from Popular Science(but we`re taking this one with a bit of a skew on our eyebrow): "His songs scan a vast, weird range of subjects with the sort of wit, edge and self- deprecation heard in vintage Loudon Wainwright III or They Might Be Giants, or in newer bands like Fountains of Wayne -- but he`s funnier than any of them.". More Various and but accurate quotable quotes: "singer-songwriter stylings with all the versatility and winning wit of They Might be Giants", "like the Barenaked Ladies, but not soul-suckingly horrible in the least", "craftsman-ly pop, with made to order tunes regarding jingoism, Swedish furniture super-stores, de-evolution and the shadowy, world-domination-oriented cabal known as the Masonic Guild!!!", "Not only is Jonathan funnier and more tuneful than Spinal Tap, with the terrible and lighthearted wit of Tom Lehrer, he creates songs that stick in the head and become instant favorites with children (so be careful which songs you play loudly in the car!).", "Compulsively listenable. Not a send-up or a parody of folk rock, but a loving addition to the corpus from a riotously funny man.". One first listen, I thought it was a pretty nice little ditty but this one, when it sinks in, sinks *deeply* in. Just take our word, looking for something a little different and one everyone in the car, family room or inside that schizoid head of confusion when yr by yourself, this one is Extremely Highly Recommended! -

"Actual Fans Say"

Best…geek music…ever. Whatever you are doing, stop doing it, and go check out singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. He played at the conference we were just at. We got his EP. We listened to it about ten times on the way home today. We’re downloading his other CD from iTunes now. He writes quirky, funny, poignant geek folk. There’s a song on the EP from the POV of a giant squid, and one from the POV of an alienated kid who builds a robot army, and (the best) one from the POV of an evil genius which is so wrong it’s right (there’s this line about a monkey — no, no, I can’t explain, you just have to listen to it) and which I love in ways I can’t explain in words. It makes me laugh hysterically even while tears are welling up in my eyes. Several of his songs are available for free download, under a Creative Commons license. One of them is “Skullcrusher Mountain,” my new favorite song. Go listen! And then go to iTunes and buy his albums, because he rules.

…a truly heartbreaking song by Jonathan Coulton about oceanic self-loathing. That is, if you can find a giant squid heartbreaking, which I grant you is a stretch. “Did the stars come out?” the mollusk sings. “Did the world spin round? Does it matter that much when you’re ten miles down?

This song is freaking AWESOME. Genius. I think Jonathan Coulton has really captured what it’s like to be an evil overlord in love. Er, I mean.. what it must be like. I mean, I surely wouldn’t know… ’cause I’m not an evil overlord. Honest. Well, I’m certainly not an overlord and you can’t prove otherwise. - The Internets

"Geek Culture Tunesmith"

Name: Jonathan Coulton
Gig: Geek-culture tunesmith, online sensation, Creative Commons champion

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Coulton is an artist for our techie times. The Contributing Troubadour for Popular Science magazine has won a cult following among the digerati. His Thing a Week podcast delivers a new song--arranged and recorded in his Brooklyn home studio--every Friday. Coulton’s folky, white-bread cover of “Baby Got Back� got the buzz going, and the hilarious yet touching original “Code Monkey� capitalized on it by laying bare the proud, pitiful lives of lonely programmers everywhere. Last Friday’s offering, “Tom Cruise Crazy,� rehumanizes the aging star after the awkwardest year of his life. This Friday, Coulton makes a rare live solo appearance at Jammin’ Java, where he opens for Paul and Storm.

Q: Not many bards have sung the praises of fractal wizard Benoit Mandelbrot.

A: When I first started writing that song, [Mandelbrot Set], it was supposed to be a joke--you know, ha ha, isn’t it funny that this guy’s singing about math--but by the time I got to the end of it, I was emotionally involved in a way that I didn’t expect. I still get a little misty.

Q: That’s true of a lot of your work. You start out with something really larky and find a poignancy to it. With its slow zooms of people’s snapshots, the “Flickr� movie somehow makes sense of the fractured community the tech explosion has engendered.

A: That was another example of accidental profundity. I had an idea in my head for a while to do a music video...and the music and the lyrics would be written in a way that would give you all the right cues that they were emotionally stirring. But the idea was that there would not be any content. It would just be all surface.

Q: But it didn’t end up that way.

A: As it turns out, the combination of music and images is so powerful that even though the song is not about anything at all, it ends up being about Flickr and all of these random images that are just out there and all of these private lives suddenly being made public....It also ended up being about the idea of Creative Commons [a nonprofit organization that offers flexible copyright licenses for creative works].

Q: You’ve had people make subsidiary artworks out of your songs.

A: I love when that happens...[For “Code Monkey�], these guys did this machinima video with a bunch of gorillas. I was just thrilled. One of the great things about Creative Commons is that you can put something out there and invite people to use it to create other things, and in so doing you are creating something you haven’t even planned on creating.

Glenn Dixon
- Washington Post Express

"Coulton Performs in Second Life"

News editor

A giant squid. Zombies. Mad scientists. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, and, of course, half-pony, half-monkey monsters. What do they all have in common? They’re all song topics of folk-alt rock singer- songwriter Jonathan Coulton, who performed live this past Thursday in Second Life to a large, energized crowd. Coul- ton’s concert makes him just the latest full-time,real-life musician to perform in Second Life.
The event was sponsored by, the web home of Popular Science magazine, and Creative Commons, the non- profit organization founded by legal scholar Lawrence Lessig dedicated to expanding the copy- right system.
Coulton is currently the Contributing Troubadour at Popular Science, and releases many of his songs for free on his website under Creative Commons licensing.
It wasn’t just Jonathan Coulton who sang, of course. A wide array of SL musicians played, and the event carried on for more than three hours. Even with its length, there were a huge number of residents constantly packed into Menorca, the sim where it was held. Indeed, over a hundred residents were at the sim for most of the event.
The event was more than a con- cert, too. There were definite performance elements to it, and thanks to SL, Coulton was able to perform along with some of the subjects of his songs. A giant squid that couldn’t play with ships floated above the audience, a half-pony, half-monkey monster decorated the venue, and memo-sending zombies cavorted about on-stage during another song. All this created a unique concert experience, to say the least.
The event came together through the Free Culture group, which Creative Commons has been using to organize events since Lessig’s speech in Second Life several months ago. Zenigma Suntzu, who joined the group shortly after Lessig’s SL appearance, was the main coordinator for the event. Suntzu and the other organizers hoped that the event would “raise awareness of the benefits of Creative Commons Licensing to the music- loving and music-creating community of Second Life, as well as introduce to the SL community.�
In that they were likely successful. The attendance they achieved with the event, and other events Creative Commons has sponsored since entering Second Life, have surely given CC a great deal of visibility in Second Life. Moreover, the Creative Commons licensing seems to fit Second Life creators well. No doubt a number of perform- ers and creators in the metaverse will want to give it a second look after learning of it from the show. Suntzu wasn’t the only one involved in organizing the event, of course. Slim Warrior provided the event in her sim, as well as performing. Adri Saarinen helped promote the event and worked on Coulton’s avatar; Haver Cole helped with Coulton’s avatar as well. kaia Ennui of Nocturnal Threads designed clothing for the event, and Trinity Cole’s Mad Muse Radio pro- vided the music stream.
Things seem to have gone very well for the Creative Commons team, despite, as Suntzu said, “some technical problems with SL, but it was like rain at an outdoor music festival. The musicians played through and the crowd loved it.�
If you missed the event, both pictures and a recording are available online at http://wiki., and, according to Suntzu, there will be more music and other events coming from Creative Commons and
- The Metaverse Messenger

"Boston Herald"

Jonathan Coulton is a little bit science and a little bit science fiction.

A singer, songwriter and Internet superstar, Coulton has used every Web weapon and tech trick to promote his songs about pony-monkey hybrids and asteroid penal colonies. And with hundreds of thousands of MySpace [website] and YouTube streams for songs and videos - including zombie anthem “Re: Your Brains” and misunderstood-programmer-with-a-heart-of-gold power-pop gem “Code Monkey” - he used the tools well.

So the irony that old-fashioned radio has given his career its biggest bump hasn’t been wasted on Coulton.

“The spike in popularity that I got after I did an interview with NPR dwarfed all the spikes I’d gotten from Internet links,” Coulton said from his Brooklyn home while trying to feed his toddler daughter. “It was this piece of old media - radio, for god’s sake - and it still reached all these people.”

Despite the boon of the NPR piece, Coulton, who plays Northampton’s Iron Horse Wednesday and Johnny D’s in Somerville Thursday, is still a Web-made man.

Almost two years ago he quit his job writing software and began the ambitious “Thing a Week” project. From September 2005 to September 2006, he wrote, produced and released a new song through his podcast every Friday. The tunes range from the absurdist They Might Be Giants-like “Chiron Beta Prime,” about a Christmas letter from a family imprisoned on a asteroid by robots, to a folky cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

“I would prefer not to be known as a novelty songwriter,” Coulton said, “but I know that with writing songs about giant squids and robots and monkeys I’m sort of asking for that label. But I’ve been quite pleased to find that a lot of people who listen to me enjoy my serious songs just as much.”

Coulton has already managed to cultivate a fan base eager to follow his every move. Even though his songs stream for free, the Coulton crowd buys enough CDs at shows and online (no brick-and-mortar distribution for these techies) to keep the singer a success.

“People are more than willing to pay for something when they know it’s going directly to the artist,” he said. “People don’t want to buy a Sting CD because they kinda know that Sting is only getting a buck of that, while I’m getting 10 bucks. Given the fact that I don’t spend any money on promotion or drumming up press, my success is amazing.”

His strategy of not doing anything to market himself is also working for live shows. Coulton has played Boston only twice, but both shows (the first at the Paradise Lounge, the second at Johnny D’s) sold out. Apparently good news and zombie anthems travel fast.

Jonathan Coulton, Wednesday at the Iron Horse, Northampton. Tickets: $15; 413-584-0610. At Johnny D’s, Somerville, Thursday. Tickets: $15; 617-776-2004. - Boston Herald

"NPR Weekend Edition Interview"

Hear it here:

Weekend Edition Sunday, December 10, 2006 · A bit of back story on Jonathan Coulton:

He's the musical director for Little Gray Books, a series of coffee-house performances, led by humorist John Hodgman, that are part lecture series, part variety show.

(Hodgman is the guy who plays the stodgy, less-than-hip PC in all those Mac ads on TV. He also shows up with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. He's funny. But that's another story.)

Coulton is plenty funny, too. And he has his own projects going.

One is called Thing A Week. For an entire year, he wrote one song a week, publishing them on Fridays.

Coulton calls it his forced-march approach to writing and recording. It was a way to prove to himself that he could still be creative on a schedule.

When a Friday arrived with no truly original "thing" in mind, he would reinvent a song, or simply put a new spin on a cover. (See "Baby Got Back" in the left-hand column. It's not Sir Mix-A-Lot's version, that's for sure.)

Coulton's "Code Monkey" took off with the online crowd. Now all of the songs are compiled in a set of four CDs which are about to go on the market via the indie-music distribution network CD Baby.

Through his Web presence and live performances, Coulton is developing an enthusiastic audience -- including an artist who has used his songs to create graphic illustrations and even a coloring book. Other fans put their own video interpretations of his music on YouTube.

Coulton recently stopped by NPR's New York studio, guitar in hand, to tell Andrea Seabrook what he's been up to.


"Zombies, Robots, Giant Squids and Broken Hearts"

I was directed to Coulton’s website from a message board I frequent. I listened to three songs, and then plunked down my cash for everything the man’s ever done. And I’ll tell you, it was probably the best $70 I’ve spent in a while. Coulton is a witty writer with an ear for great melodies, and he combines the best parts of Barenaked Ladies (before they started to suck) and Fountains of Wayne, with a touch of Dr. Demento. His songs are geeky, funny, sad and triumphant, and they deserve to be heard on a wider stage.

Much of the press attention Coulton gets centers on his unique marketing methods. His website allows you to hear every song in full, and buy each one individually or as an album set. You can purchase CDs from Coulton, too, but one gets the sense that printing up physical discs is merely a concession to an old paradigm for him. He’s an internet artist through and through, and he releases everything under a Creative Commons license, which means that anyone else is free to use his material for their own projects, as long as they a) don’t make any money off of it, and b) they link back to his site.

So naturally, YouTube is full of homemade Jonathan Coulton videos, ranging from fully animated concept pieces to single-camera shots of people dancing. Coulton counts on this exposure to spread his name across the net, and as far as I can tell, it’s working wonders. He records his songs at home, using professional digital equipment, and then he releases them into the world, and watches the lives they live. And with each new video or podcast or what have you, more people hear his work, and more of them find their way to his site.

But that’s not the best of it. In September 2005, Coulton embarked on a year-long experiment he called Thing-a-Week. Basically, he recorded a song a week, and released each one as a podcast on Fridays, and he kept that up for a full year. By the end, Thing-a-Week became an internet sensation, and to hear him tell it, the experiment increased his audience considerably. I missed out on Thing-a-Week while it was happening, of course, but I can easily imagine racing home on Fridays to check for the new song. It’s a fascinating and very effective approach.

But you know what? I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about the songs, because they’re at the heart of the matter. And Coulton’s songs are the best kind of pop music – warm and funny and touching and simply bursting with ideas. Those ideas are often about monkeys and robots and zombies, but they are just as often about people orbiting around each other, and the interesting ways they interact.

Coulton’s first album, 2003’s Smoking Monkey, is hit or miss, and sometimes self-consciously silly, but it is a fun half-hour. It includes a couple of smirking winners, like “Ikea,” a They Might Be Giants-esque anthem to the world’s greatest discount store, and “First of May,” a sweet ode to… well, I don’t want to ruin that one if you haven’t heard it. But the record is weighed down by brick-subtle numbers like “Over There” and “I’m a Mason Now,” songs that pale in comparison to later efforts.

2004’s follow-up EP Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow is a huge improvement, taking Coulton’s melodic pop to geeky new heights. The first three songs are all classics – “The Future Soon” starts off as a tale of grade school embarrassment, but ends up being about robot wars in a far-flung decade, and “Skullcrusher Mountain” concerns an evil genius in love with his latest captive. (“I’m so into you, but I’m way too smart for you, even my henchmen think I’m crazy, I’m not surprised that you agree…”)

But it’s “I Crush Everything,” a sad ballad about a self-loathing giant squid, that fully establishes the Coulton style. You would never expect a song about a sea creature to move you, but this one will – Coulton manages to find the sadness, the desperation, and the humanity in his science fiction concepts, doing what all good sci-fi should do. Oh, and he composes heartbreaking melodies, too. I’ve had “I Crush Everything” stuck in my head a dozen times this week, and I’m not tired of it yet.

And then there is Thing-a-Week.

Coulton’s year-long endeavor is collected on four CDs, one for each season, with corresponding mini-vinyl-style sleeves, all packaged in a tin box. All 52 songs are here, with the exception of “When I’m 25 or 64,” a copyright-violating mash-up. And as a whole, it offers the most complete picture of Coulton’s particular brand of genius.

The best thing about Thing-a-Week, though, is that you can hear Coulton blossoming and maturing as a songwriter before your ears. The first volume is a mixed bag, with found-sound experiments like “W’s Duty” and “Sibling Rivalry,” novelty tunes like “Podsafe Christmas Song” and a folksy cover of “Baby Got Back.” (Okay, that last one is brilliant.) At track four is “Shop Vac,” the disc’s one undisputed keeper – it’s an exploration of suburban half-life, with an entire bridge about taking a left turn into Starbucks. But otherwise, Coulton’s warning about the relative quality of his Thing-a-Week material seems spot-on.

But a funny thing happened about halfway through Thing-a-Week Two: Coulton started taking this experiment as the challenge it was meant to be, and began turning out his best work. There’s “Chiron Beta Prime,” of course, a Christmas card from a family held captive by robots, but there is also “A Talk With George,” a deeper song about conversing with the ghost of George Plimpton, and there is the aforementioned “Re: Your Brains,” detailing a business meeting between a zombie and his victims. (Imagine the Misfits singing a ‘90s pop song after watching Office Space.) Mix in fine covers of Beatles and Rick Springfield songs, and an anthem for the unlikeliest of Olympic events (“Curl”), and you have a winner.

Here’s the thing, though – Coulton was just getting warmed up. Thing-a-Week Three and Thing-a-Week Four are superb pop records by any definition – the sound experiments are all but gone, the novelty tunes take a back seat, and in their place are song after song of melodic bliss, each one with its own high concept. The third volume includes “Code Monkey,” a should-be smash hit about a hapless software engineer in love. There’s also wimp-seduction ballad “Soft Rocked By Me” and kickass breakup song “Not About You,” but the highlight might be “When You Go,” an a cappella stunner.

Thing-a-Week Four contains “Creepy Doll,” his Danny Elfman-esque four-minute horror movie, but it also has hard-luck anthem “Big Bad World One,” sweet parenting song “You Ruined Everything,” and “Pull the String,” a psychodrama about secrets. And at track eight is one of the most perfect love songs in my collection, called “I’m Your Moon.” It’s a love letter to Pluto from its moon Charon, written shortly after Pluto was declassified as a planet, and it is defiantly beautiful: “I’m your moon, you’re my moon, we go round and round, from out here, it’s the rest of the world that looks so small, promise me you will always remember who you are…”

Coulton wrapped up Thing-a-Week last August with an unlikely cover of “We Will Rock You,” but he did it in a way that symbolized his connection with his fanbase. He asked his fans to record a single handclap and send it to him, and he assembled all those claps into the famous backbeat of the song. Then, naturally, he bluegrassed it up, and as an encore, he gave “We Are the Champions” a low-key arrangement, as if sung by a weary mountain climber surveying how far he’s come. It sounds strange, but it’s the perfect conclusion.

In the end, Coulton delivered a set of surprisingly warm and well-crafted songs, and it’s kind of amazing that he managed one of these a week. It’s also kind of amazing that he’s remained obscure, with a pen so prolific and witty. So here’s my attempt to spread the word: Go here to hear anything and everything he’s done, and then buy what you like. And then, tell a few people and send them to the site. Someone this good deserves all the support I can muster for him.

Some places to start:

“Ikea” and “First of May” off of Smoking Monkey.

“The Future Soon” and “I Crush Everything” off of Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow.

“Shop Vac” and “Baby Got Back” off of Thing-a-Week One.

“A Talk With George” and “Re: Your Brains” off of Thing-a-Week Two.

“Code Monkey” and “When You Go” off of Thing-a-Week Three.

“Big Bad World One” and “I’m Your Moon” off of Thing-a-Week Four.

Or, you know, just pick a song and start listening. I hope you like Coulton’s music as much as I do. - Tuesday Morning at 3AM


Smoking Monkey
Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow (EP)

The Popular Science EP:
Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms (online only)

The complete Thing a Week collection:
Thing a Week One
Thing a Week Two
Thing a Week Three
Thing a Week Four



An independent musician with the heart of a geek, Jonathan Coulton is a Yale graduate who left his day-job as a computer programmer to stay home and write songs. Between 2005 and 2006 he wrote, recorded, and published a new song every week as a free podcast project called “Thing a Week.” This year-long experiment produced 52 consistently well-written and solidly produced songs, and he soon became an internet sensation. Jonathan’s songs cover unusual topics not often heard in music and tend to make even the most jaded listeners excited about music again.

Coulton's is the voice of every elementary school kid who could never quite keep his shirt tucked in or shoes tied; every lovelorn mason and mad scientist; every vengeful nerd; every one of us who has ever sat despairingly on the floor, surrounded by parts of an Ikea endtable, weeping over an allen wrench.

A number of Jonathan’s songs have become full-fledged internet hits: his folk-rock cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back” the unrequited love of a mad scientist in “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and "Code Monkey," the anthem of software designers everywhere. The office zombie song "Re: Your Brains" made the Dr. Demento Funny 25 countdown for 2006. But beneath the geeky comedy there is real heart. ” I’ve always been a math (sorry, I mean “maths”) and science guy, so I think about robots and fractals all the time. But on a deeper level, there’s a thread running through my songs about how it feels to be a nerd – this kind of alienation, a sense of not belonging, not being accepted. And it’s not just limited to actual nerds – I think we’re all familiar with that feeling, no matter how popular we were in school,” says Coulton.

Jonathan Coulton won the 2007 Game Audio Network Guild “Song of the Year” award for his composition “Still Alive,” which was featured in the critically acclaimed game Portal, the Game Developers Choice Awards “Game of the Year” for 2007. All of the songs from the Thing a Week project are now available on CD, either individually or in a packaged box set and his song “Code Monkey” is heard each week on the G4 Television program of the same name.

Coulton releases all his music under a Creative Commons license that allows for legal file sharing and copying, as well as non-commercial derivative works. His worldwide community of fans has rallied around him to generate airplay on hundreds of podcasts, create a library of music videos, and arrange gigs around the United States.

When not traveling the globe or using his powers for good, Jonathan Coulton resides in New York City with his wife and child.