Friday, August 31, 2007

For years, Jonathan Coulton felt as if he were living two lives simultaneously. In one of them, he was a writer of computer code, a cubicle cowboy at a small software company in New York City. In the other, he was a writer of quirky songs, a balladeer who mused on topics such as fractals, robots and monkeys.

Then he had a “Mr. Mom” moment — sort of like the one Jack Butler (played by Michael Keaton in the 1983 film) has when he drives his children to school for the first time and goes the wrong way around the facility’s circular driveway. “Dad, you’re doing it wrong!” the youngsters yell.

For Mr. Coulton, though, this voice came from inside his head.

He and his wife had just had a baby girl, and he stayed home from work for nearly three weeks to care for the infant.

“When it was time for me to go back to work, I thought, ‘Whoa. I don’t really want to go,’ ” Mr. Coulton says by phone from his Brooklyn apartment. “I had nursed the music-hobby thing for my entire adult life, and here was this new child who was going to look at me as an example of what to do. It just seemed really dishonest doing that [software development] job.”

So, in September 2005, “contrary to every shred of reason,” he walked away from his steady paycheck and into the uncertain world that surrounds a full-time musician.

Since then, Mr. Coulton has used a combination of magic, talent and marketing savvy to turn what could have been just another starving-artist tragedy into a fairy tale.

His folky reworking of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was an Internet smash, and another tune, “Code Monkey,” became a favorite of key crunchers everywhere. He has been written up in the New York Times Magazine, mentioned in the music rag Blender and invited to appear on National Public Radio. He has a publicist; gorgeous, glossy full-color press photos; and an income that surpasses that of many signed artists who have been in the game a heck of a lot longer. (According to the New York Times Magazine, Mr. Coulton’s music sales bring in as much as $5,000 a month.)

Then there are the fans. They volunteer to organize gigs for him, work his merchandise tables, make free music videos for his tunes and create other “JoCo”-inspired works of art — be they illustrated books or fuzzy vibrating pillows.

When asked about his success, the now 36-year-old songwriter says without a hint of irony, “It’s actually very easy to do.”

First, he started with an original sound. We’ll call it silly-yet-smart geek-rock, but it’s far more nebulous than that.

To 25-year-old Pittsburgh resident Bonnie Bogovich, it’s best summed up as “the skill of Billy Joel, a hint of [Albert] Einstein, and the quirkiness of Weird Al Yankovic, but with a more pleasant singing voice.”

“It’s funny, sweet and crazy all at once,” adds 31-year-old Chicagoan Andrea Crain, speaking from the Windy City.

Next, Mr. Coulton embraced the tools of the anti-album, pro-single generation.

“When I left my job, I had a very, very vague plan, which was essentially make music, put it on the Internet, then something happens, and I make money,” Mr. Coulton says.

From the safety of his apartment, he embarked on what he calls a “forced march,” committing to produce a “thing a week” for one full year (2005 to 2006), relying almost exclusively on just his singing, instrumentation and digital tricks. When he finished each tune, he posted it online as a free podcast. Some songs now cost $1, and the albums he has thrown together are available for more. In those early days, though, donations were optional.

The artist says he wrestled with the “Thing a Week” concept and often was forced to finish ideas he didn’t much like. However, the plan turned out to be a stroke of genius. Not only did it keep him busy and expand his creative horizons, it also gave him a chance to get instant feedback, to give fickle Internet surfers something perpetually new and different and to maintain consistently high levels of traffic on his Web site. (He still gets 5,000 to 6,000 visits daily, even though his output has slowed significantly.)

By fall 2006, Mr. Coulton was in the black and able to take his show on the road.

He made another smart move in choosing to release his songs under a Creative Commons license that allows for file sharing, copying and noncommercial derivative works. This enables fans to take his music for a serious test drive — remixing it or, perhaps, using it in a movie, provided the project isn’t for profit — rather than merely giving it a casual spin.

This way, Mr. Coulton has given fans a shared investment in his songs.

Miss Crain, for example, entered a contest sponsored by Popular Science magazine in June that involved making a music video for “I Feel Fantastic,” the musician’s parody of those who think pill-popping leads to a balanced life. (Mr. Coulton is the magazine’s “contributing troubadour.”) First prize was an 80 gigabyte IPod with a laser-engraved Jonathan Coulton autograph on it.

An ardent JoCo supporter, Miss Crain was keen on scoring the MP3 player and simultaneously helping Mr. Coulton “build his entertainment empire.” However, she says, her biggest motivation was more personal.

“I wanted to make people laugh,” Miss Crain says. “I kept visualizing these ideas and images for the video that made me laugh, and I wanted to realize them.”

Before the contest’s deadline, she logged 40 hours animating stick figures for her final product and listened to the track “hundreds of times” — so many times she thought for sure she would get sick of it.

Miss Bogovich also submitted a stellar live-action video that took her four days to shoot and edit.

In the end, Miss Crain nabbed the IPod and Miss Bogovich the fifth-place runner-up slot. Both videos are on the Popular Science Web site (

For Miss Bogovich, a multimedia designer and video-audio technician, the runner-up status cold lead to more freelance work.

Ultimately, though, Mr. Coulton’s audience doesn’t appear to be in it for their own benefits.

“We all want him to succeed,” Miss Crain says.

Why? Because Mr. Coulton’s fans really seem to identify with him, the ex-“code monkey,” science and SkyMall lover and unabashedly goofy guy. They appreciate his frequent blog entries and constant online interaction and find that however zany they may be, his lyrics are ripe with emotional truth.

Says Miss Crain: “His songs aren’t just clever and nice to listen to. They have heart, too. You care about the characters in his stories, and you can see yourself in them. [Like] ‘Skullcrusher Mountain.’ [It] isn’t just a funny song about an evil genius. It’s also about being geeky and awkward and bewildered by love and misunderstood. A lot of people have been there.”

Thus, within the framework of otherwise impersonal modern technology, Mr. Coulton has managed to make some meaningful human connections.

“It’s true that…you can send something out there, and the audience will find you,” he says.

These days, the musician is also trying to build his live audiences and hopes to beat his best-ever crowd count of 275 in the very near future. On the other hand, he prefers to tour in short spurts and wants to maintain “a normal life.” He says his aspirations don’t include becoming a household name.

“My goal,”Mr. Coulton says, “is to make a living.”

Jonathan Coulton plays the Birchmere ( in Alexandria with Paul & Storm at 7:30 tonight.

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