Thursday, September 21, 2006

Interview - Jonathan Coultan

Jonathan Coulton possible has the biggest fandom of online SF/F enthusiasts out there, among others. Almost every podcast I frequent has at least one of his songs featured, including one song, titled "Skullcrusher Mountain", that I plan to use as a wedding song if I ever get married (, uh hum!). On to the interview:

When did you decide to be a musician?

Well that depends what you mean exactly. I've been singing and
playing instruments since I was a little kid, and writing songs since
high school. But it wasn't until about a year ago that I decided to
quit my day job and try to turn the music side of things into some
kind of living. I originally came to New York with the idea that I
would be a musician, but made the mistake of working in regular jobs
instead for a few years. Then my friend John Hodgman started doing a
live show called the Little Gray Books Lectures (part reading series,
part variety show), that I wrote some songs for. I released my first
CD in 2003 and began selling my music online, and writing more and
more. Somewhere along the way the music part of my life got bigger
and bigger, until it just made sense to let go of the day job and
start focusing more on music.

How did you come up with your "Thing a Week" idea?
And how has it worked out for you?

That was actually a suggestion from a co-worker of mine. We were
talking about what I was going to do after I left the job, and he
suggested that I write a song a week. I thought he was crazy. Turns
out he was: it's pretty hard. But it's been very rewarding. Not
everything is a masterpiece, but I've written a number of pretty good
songs that I don't think I would have allowed myself to write if I
wasn't on a deadline. And of course it's really helped to generate
interest in my music and increase my fanbase.

How much influence has Science Fiction, Fantasy, and
Horror had on your songwriting?

I think a great deal - I write a lot about monsters of various kinds,
giant squids, robots, mad scientists. While I'm not always thinking
directly about those themes, they just keep coming up. I don't know
why this is. But for some reason I can really get behind a song that
explores what characters like this actually feel. I think that's one
of the great things about science fiction, the way it can use an
alien perspective to illustrate ideas and feelings that are common to
us all. Now I sound like a jackass, but you know what I mean.

How has making your songs podcast-friendly, and
offering free downloads for many of your songs, worked
out for you?

Incredibly well. Podcasting in particular seems to be a great way for
an indie musician to get exposed to a lot of new listeners. Many
people who write tell me that they first heard me on one podcast or
another. I think giving music away (and making payment optional in
some ways) has also helped a great deal - there's no question in my
mind that, at least for a non-superstar like me, having your music
circulating out there is more important that getting paid for every
single song. If I allow someone to download a song for free and they
really love it, they will probably send it along to a few friends,
and they to a few more friends, etc. Even if the first person doesn't
pay for the song, somebody in the chain probably will. Anyway I'd
rather have 50 new fans than a dollar.

Do you think the Creative Commons License protect
artists better than the much more stringent copyright
laws (e.g. DRM) that might be coming out?

I think Creative Commons is fantastic. It's a great way to indicate
to the world how you'd like your material to be used. It's important
to understand that it doesn't replace copyright, it merely gives some
rights back to the world that copyright takes away - and you can
decide what those rights are. It also doesn't mean everything you do
is free, you can still sell CC-licensed music or be paid to have it
used in films, etc. And don't get me started on DRM - it's the worst
idea in the world. It will always be breakable and therefore will
never stop piracy. But it does make things difficult for consumers,
and it does take away consumer choice by locking their media into a
certain service or device. I love the iTunes store, but if you buy
music from them, it only plays on Apple devices and software, because
it uses a closed proprietary DRM scheme.

How much impact do you think the Internet is having
on the way people select, and buy, music?

It's enormous and growing every year. I think that we're still
waiting for a few pieces of the puzzle - for instance, how do we find
the music we like out of all these many millions of independent
artists? The radio will still tell you what you're supposed to like,
but it only plays a tiny fraction of the world's available music. And
of course, we're all still trying to figure out what file sharing and
"illegal" P2P traffic actually means for artists - the RIAA will tell
you it's just bad, but I think it's a lot more complicated than that.
But we've already started to see huge changes, and it won't be too
long before it gets really really interesting.


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