ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There's no question the Internet has been disastrous for the recording industry. Revenues have plummeted in recent years. But there is a fierce debate over the question: Has the Internet been bad for musicians themselves?
Well, Planet Money's Alex Blumberg profiles one man for whom the answer is a resounding no.
ALEX BLUMBERG: I'm betting that many of you have never heard of this man. His songs almost never get played on the radio; he doesn't have a contract with a music label. And yet, he's a one-man counterargument to the notion that musicians can't make money doing music anymore.
Mr. JONATHAN COULTON (Singer-Songwriter): This is a spreadsheet of my income over the last four years, so 2007 through 2010.
BLUMBERG: And are you prepared to reveal those figures?
Mr. COULTON: You know, it's - I don't know. It's always embarrassing. It's embarrassing to talk about that.
BLUMBERG: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jonathan Coulton, a singer-songwriter in Brooklyn. And I'm not embarrassed to say what he made in 2010. He authorized me to tell you - almost exactly a half a million dollars in revenue. And since his overhead costs are very low, most of that money goes straight to him.
Mr. COULTON: Which is crazy. It's just insane.
BLUMBERG: Did you ever imagine yourself making this much money off of your music?
Mr. COULTON: Of course not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COULTON: This is absurd. It's absurd situation.
(Soundbite of song, "Re: Your Brains")
Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Heya Tom, it's Bob from the office down the hall. Good to see you, buddy. How have you been? Things have been okay, except that I'm a zombie now. I really wish you'd let us in.
BLUMBERG: Jonathan Coulton's music is funny, melodic and pretty nerdy. This is one of his hits. We'll explain what hit means in Coulton's case a little later. It's a song called "Regarding Your Brains," which imagines a pleading email written by an ex-office mate who's now a zombie.
So how did Jonathan Coulton take this song, and another 97 like it, and without the aid of a record label or any outside support, really, turn them into half a million dollars in revenue?
Mr. COULTON: All right, so we're going to jonathancoulton.com.
BLUMBERG: The Internet, of course. On Coulton's bare-bones website, you can see lyrics to all his songs, read his blog, connect with other fans - oh, yeah, and one other things.
Mr. COULTON: This is the chronological list of the songs that I have released. Next to each one, there's a button to buy it for a dollar.
BLUMBERG: So, Coulton doesn't need a read label to sell his music. But traditionally, the label helped you with another thing: fans. The label marketed you, got your music on the radio, got you that first hit. Jonathan Coulton managed this, too, without a label, taking a very different path to fame.
(Soundbite of song, "Code Monkey")
Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Code Monkey, get up, get coffee. Code Monkey go to job. Code Monkey have boring meeting with boring manager Rob.
BLUMBERG: You've always needed a lucky break to make it in the music business. This was Coulton's, a semi-autobiographical song called "Code Monkey," about a lovelorn computer programmer.
Coulton put it up on his site, where it soon got posted to a tech discussion board called Slashdot, one of the largest and most influential tech sites on the Internet.
Mr. COULTON: And so here was this song about a sad tech geek, and it went directly - it was shot - an arrow shot directly to the heart of the tech geek community.
(Soundbite of song, "Code Monkey")
Mr. COULTON: (Singing) Code Monkey like Fritos. Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew.
Mr. COULTON: I mean, that was the equivalent of, you know, me being discovered by some impresario and, you know, or getting to go on the Ed Sullivan show when nobody knew who I was, and people - you know, that was my breakthrough.
BLUMBERG: Do you think you would have been - if, you know, 20 years ago, before the Internet, before social media, would you have been able - would you be making a living as a musician?
Mr. COULTON: Well, 20 years ago, I moved to New York City to make a living as a musician and instead I got a software job. So the answer is no.
BLUMBERG: The question, of course, is this: Is Coulton a beacon that other musicians can follow or an anomaly, a niche musician who, through a lucky fluke, found an equally niche audience? Coulton says both.
He's niche, sure. But there are a lot of niches out there for others to find, with more forming all the time. After all, he says, that's what the Internet is.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.
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