Last week you asked some questions of musician and programmer Jonathan Coulton. He's answered your inquiries about the music industry, video games, and being an ex-code monkey. Read below to see what he had to say.Have You Been Approached by a Label?
Some current stars have made a career out of much less than what you have simply by signing a record deal with a label. Your song "Still Alive" from the Portal Soundtrack could easily have some filler phoned in around it for a 10 track album. Have you ever been approached by a major record label with a multi-million dollar signing? If not, what would be your response to such a proposal? Since you've already experienced success, would you admit to a point in your career when you would have been vulnerable to such an offer? Have you considered throwing your lot in with an independent record label? There are hundreds in Brooklyn, what stops you from joining one or forming your own to foster more artists like yourself?"
Jonathan: I've had a couple of conversations with label people over the years. There are a couple of things that have kept it from working out. To get a label deal, you sort of need to prove that you can make money - nobody's going to give an artist a multiple-million dollar advance unless they're pretty certain that artist is going to make much more than that. My issue is always, I have proven that I can make money, BY MAKING MONEY. So now what? Admittedly, there are some things that a label can do that I can't. I don't dispute that the right artist on the right label can, even these days, still be taken to a higher level, get more exposure, make more money. But one of the first things everybody wants is a large chunk of my digital, and most of my income is digital, and that is the very last thing I need help with. If they want 50% of my digital, to make that worth my while, they'd have to more than double that part of the business. And maybe they can, but it's a big gamble for me, especially since I'm pretty comfortable where I am.
I'm not anti-label, I think there are great people working in labels, and there are plenty of really useful things they can still do for artists under the right circumstances. Just haven't found the right situation for me yet. And maybe someday I'll form one, or some other kind of company that helps artists do stuff, but at the moment I'd rather be a professional rock star.
You've released some (all?) of your music under the CC-BY-NC license. What are some of the coolest things you've seen done by other people with your songs?
Jonathan: My favorite of the moment is the kinetic typography video that Jared Heather made:. It's just an incredible piece of work. The theater department at Boston College created and staged a musical called Code Monkey made up of a lot of my songs, that was kind of awe inspiring to watch. A guy named Spiff makes great World of Warcraft music videos for my songs (and other people's songs). And recently I was listening again to a remix of Code Monkey done by Kristen Shirts. She won a remix contest with a version that I liked so much, it changed the way I play the song live . It also led to her playing ukulele at shows with me a few times. There are a lot of others I'm forgetting now I'm sure.
YouTube is full of fan-made videos. Your fans seem to make an extraordinary amount of them. How do you feel about them and do you have favorites, or are they like your children? You love them all equally.
Jonathan: See above. I absolutely have favorites, but I'm moved by even the crappiest ones - there's something very stirring about knowing that someone spent an enormous amount of time making these things. Anytime something I made inspires someone to make something else, it feels like a huge victory for us humans. That's what art is all about for me, that's what creativity is - a huge, complex inspiration cycle that elevates us above our short, dumb lives here on Earth.
Any advice to us current code monkeys?
While the contents of "Code Monkey" probably shouldn't be taken as a sort of moral compass or serious life guidance, I can guarantee you there are people reading this on Slashdot who feel like "boring manager Rob" is their boss. Any advice for a current code monkey, who maybe doesn't have any other skills or internet-sensation status to fall back on? How does one deal with the pressures?
Jonathan: It's been several years since I was seriously in the software game, but I'd say even if you don't have any skills other than coding, there are still things you can do to take charge of your relationship with work. Make your own software for goodness sake, ever hear of the App Store? The thing about Code Monkey's story that I think resonates the most for people is how beaten down he is. He's trapped, but tragically, only by his own self doubt and inaction. I don't want to be the guy who just tells everyone how great their lives would be if they quit their jobs, but for many people there's less justification than ever before for staying in a work situation that isn't rewarding for you. If you want to do stuff, go and do stuff. Who is stopping you?
The State of Geek Culture
Joco, As some one whose career has pretty closely paralleled the "popularization" of geek culture (and perhaps benefited from it), how do you feel on the subject?There seems to be a strong divide amongst nerds about public acceptance of larger swaths of what are traditionally "outcast" culture, and not a little bit of backlash against it (a'la Patton Oswalt). As a nerd who can't help but benefit from the continuing popularization (and, perhaps bastardization) of nerd culture, what are your insights?
Jonathan: I think railing against cultural phenomena is kind of a waste of time. Dear Editor, the printing press is great but WHAT ABOUT SCRIBES AND THE DEATH OF SCRIBE CULTURE? If a cultural shift is big enough for everyone to be talking about it, then chances are it's already happened, and it makes no difference if you think it's good or bad. I'm not saying we shouldn't talk about these things, it's certainly interesting to watch how things change, but once you start arguing about what "nerd culture" "is", or whether all the new nerds are as good as the old nerds, you've maybe lost your way a little. You can say that nerd culture is different now in such and such a way, but saying that it's not cool anymore, or it's not outsider enough for you anymore is really just you talking about you. Nerd culture is what it is, and being a nerd means different things to different people. Let's not turn the things we love into exclusive clubs where you have to do and say and think the right things to belong. I mean, what are we, the cool kids?
I do agree with Patton Oswalt on at least one point though: referencing something old is not the same as making something new, and too often the former is used as a substitute for the latter. Go ahead and make references and mash stuff up, but please do it in a way that is interesting and meaningful. Better yet, think of something totally new. If the primary joke of your Brady Bunch reboot is "Ha! Remember Brady Bunch?" then you've failed.
Do you still write code sometimes?
You used to work as a code monkey. Now that you don't have that job anymore, do you ever write code in your free time, or are you happy never to use a compiler again? ps: Are there any plans for rock band 3 pro mode guitar for some of your existing songs (Please :}
Jonathan: Every now and then I get to write code, and I still enjoy it. Right now I'm doing a little bit of work with PHP and MySQL to help build some pages that will let people book passage on JoCo Cruise Crazy II in 2012. It feels great to use those skills, and it engages my brain in a way that I don't experience with any other mental activity.
Rock Band 3: yes, on my list. Currently swamped finishing up this new album though, hopefully I'll have time to work on stuff like that this Fall.
Code monkey, Did you ever hook-up with that receptionist?
Jonathan: That song was loosely autobiographical - my manager was not named Rob, he was actually a great boss, and I never had a crush on any of the receptionists in our office (sorry Mark, not even you). Actually, when I was first hired the receptionist was ME. I learned Access 95 in between answering phone calls.
Where Do You Do Your Recoding?
You've released a number of studio albums, where are they recorded? Your own place? Do you have sound engineers or is it all DIY? If you have sound engineers, how do you reimburse them? How did you fund your setup if you use it yourself?Are things like an expensive mac hardware, isolation booths and Pro Tools a requirement to get decent sound quality or do you just wing it with whatever and some Sure microphones?
Jonathan: Up till this new album I've recorded everything at my home studio, really just a room in my apartment. The gear has evolved over the years, but it's mostly been a Digi 002 and Pro Tools LE on a Mac (mini, now iMac). You really don't need to much to get started. I never had an isolation booth for any of the music I've released so far. you can hear my cat, traffic, fans, and playgrounds in my source tracks. When I bought a bass guitar I literally asked them to point out the cheapest bass in the store. I've had a few microphones but never spent more than $3-400 on one. Like most people, I'd imagine, my ears and skills are a bigger problem than the weaknesses of whatever gear I'm using - if you don't know how to mix (guilty!) then the fidelity of your monitor speakers is the least of your worries.
This new album is a completely different experience - there's a producer (John Flansburgh from They Might Be Giants) and an engineer (Pat Dillett) and I'm paying for studio time and hiring professional players to play on it. I'm doing this because I'm tired of my imagination being beyond what I'm able to make happen, and I'm in the fortunate position of being able to pay for it myself. Obviously it's going to mean a smaller profit for me at the end of the day, but it feels great to be collaborating, and making things in a way where I don't have to compromise because I'm not personally good at something. I wanted to see what that was like (it's great).
It's my understanding that if I buy music (in a store or online) that the musician only gets less than 10 cents out of every dollar. As a do it yourself act, what are your costs like in proportion to your revenues? I don't want to know how much you're making, I want to know the costs/revenues ratio. Say hello to Scarface for me.
Jonathan: CDs cost about a buck each. iTunes takes something like 30% and CDBaby takes another 9% out of every digital sale. Sales through my own digital store only cost me the standard Paypal rate (I use a micro payments account when it applies). Add to this various shipping costs for the physical things, some hosting and bandwidth. So it depends on the year and what proportion these things are of my income, but that should give you some sense how much better it is than 10 cents on the dollar. If you want to talk about the whole picture it gets complicated, there are a lot of other revenue streams and expenses, but overall I'm able to do things very cheaply compared to a label.
Best Video Game Song Ever?
Still Alive is considered by many to possibly be, "the best video game song ever." Were you surprised by the acclaim that it has received, and did that put any additional pressure on you while creating a song for Portal 2?
Jonathan: Yes to both. I don't think it's anywhere near my best song, so I was surprised when people went so nuts for it. We all were I think. There was a lot of pressure for the second one, but early on I made peace with the idea that it could never be as good as the first one. Even if it were a better song (whatever that means), the first one owed it's success to the game, the writers who made GLaDOS, Ellen McClain who voiced her, and most of all the element of surprise and wonder that made you feel like you were having a unique and moving experience at the end of that game. That part of it had nothing to do with me, so I knew there was nothing I could do to make it happen again.
imadoofus (233751) Where you promised cake for completing "Still Alive?" Did they deliver?
Jonathan:Yes and no.
Thing a Week Progress
Your year of "Thing a Week" resulted in many great songs. With classics like "RE: Your Brains" on week 26 and "Code Money" on #29, from the outside and in retrospect it seems obvious you'd already reached serious momentum halfway through. Was this apparent to yourself, and did you ever consider ending the experiment early based on that progress? I think it's interesting to consider schedule vs. goal oriented development as something applicable to a self-improvement context.
Jonathan: Well, I had said a year, and bailing out would have felt like a failure. Right now is the 5-year anniversary of Thing a Week and I've been reblogging it in real time, writing about how it all felt at the time, how those songs sound to me now. It's very interesting to remind myself of the incredible ups and downs of that year - it took me until around week 25 to feel anything other than fear, self doubt, and despair. Looking back, it's obvious to me that I didn't actually get through to myself and really start writing until the halfway point, and in my opinion it's only the very last stretch of it when I started firing on all cylinders. I think the last dozen or so were the most consistently high quality songwriting I had ever done up to that point, which is interesting because that's when it was hurting the most to do it. For that reason alone I'm glad I kept going till the end.
There are many famous backstage riders out there, Van Halen demanding no brown M&Ms for example. Do you have any special backstage requirements, or are you content with Fritos, Tab, and Mountain Dew?
Jonathan: I used to have only one thing on my rider - a large bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Felt like I needed to put something on there. I had to change it though, because inevitably I'd end the tour with half eaten bags of Doritos in the car, in my suitcase, left in hotel rooms. Days would pass when I would eat nothing but Doritos, which sounds like a great idea until you do it. Now it's pretty standard: champagne, foie gras, white asparagus salad. And one bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos.