'The Rest Of The Story' : Planet Money We look back at the podcasts we've done in 2011 and tell you what we got right, what we got wrong and how everything turned out in Wisconsin and Iceland. Plus, we try to to figure out why that Rihanna song that cost so much money, bombed on the radio.
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'The Rest Of The Story'

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'The Rest Of The Story'

'The Rest Of The Story'

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL HARVEY: Today, together, you and I are going to learn the rest of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLACK KEYS' "THE LENGTHS")

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith, and that was the late great Paul Harvey you heard at the top of the show. Today, we will bring you the rest of the story. It's our first annual follow-up show, where we look back at the podcasts that we've done in 2011, and we figure out what we got right, what we got wrong and how everything turned out in Wisconsin and Iceland.

Oh, yeah. And we're going to try and figure out why that Rihanna song we deconstructed back in the summer bombed on the radio. All the members of the PLANET MONEY team will co-host today, but we start as always with Jacob Goldstein, who has a special follow-up indicator. Jacob?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Robert, today's special follow-up PLANET MONEY indicator is...

SMITH: I'm so excited.

GOLDSTEIN: ...Four. As of December 20, 2011 - which, frankly, is the day you and I are recording this piece of the podcast - as of today, one bitcoin is worth four U.S. dollars.

SMITH: I think you're going to have to explain what a bitcoin is and whether this is good or bad.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. The first part is easier than the second part, so I'll take the first part first. A bitcoin, it's a virtual currency. It's basically a kind of money. You can use it to buy stuff. But it exists only on the Internet, and it's independent of any government.

SMITH: And we did a whole podcast on this when?

GOLDSTEIN: In the summer - in July, I believe.

SMITH: OK.

GOLDSTEIN: When we were working on this podcast, it was actually this crazy time for bitcoin, and it was going on this huge price spike. Let's play just this little piece of tape from when David and I went online one day to try and buy bitcoins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GOLDSTEIN: OK. Buy bitcoins at market rates. Now it says 23.8.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

No.

GOLDSTEIN: So - what? - two weeks ago, it was seven.

KESTENBAUM: What?

GOLDSTEIN: So it's...

KESTENBAUM: Wait, is that right or is it...

GOLDSTEIN: ...At $24.

KESTENBAUM: ...Flipped or something?

GOLDSTEIN: The price per coin in dollars.

KESTENBAUM: So we really could have doubled our money in this last week.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, tripled.

SMITH: You're saying one bitcoin was worth more than $20. And today, you say as the indicator one bitcoin is worth $4.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

SMITH: It sounds like if you had spent a lot - if you'd listened to this podcast and spent a lot of money on bitcoins, your life would suck right now.

GOLDSTEIN: This is one of the many reasons we don't provide investment advice on the show. Certainly, anyone who has followed our investing adventures with Toxie and with gold would know better than to take investment advice from PLANET MONEY.

SMITH: But people were excited about the bitcoin. It looked like, you know, this new thing. People were piling into it. There was great demand for it. What happened? Why'd the bottom drop out of the bitcoin market?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, so right. So as you say, in the spring, there was, you know, all this press, and the price went way up. And then, bad things started to happen. This big exchange where you could trade dollars for bitcoins on the Internet - basically, where you could go to buy bitcoins - that got, I don't know, hacked or it broke or something. That happened actually while we were working on the podcast.

And then, after the podcast, there was this other sort of scandal where, again, it's unclear if it was a hacking or just theft. But mybitcoin.com, which is sort of this online wallet that David and I actually used, that also got hacked or robbed or whatever. So we saw this sort of steady deterioration in the price of bitcoins, you know, over the past several months.

SMITH: It's interesting because the big innovation of bitcoin was that they thought we've finally come up with a way to do electronic money that is trustworthy and untraceable. And it turns out, with the hacking, not that trustworthy. And the untraceable part turns out to be a problem if somebody steals your money.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, clearly, it has been a rough sort of six months for bitcoin. But I do think it's worth noting if you go back to the beginning of this year, if you go back to January 1, 2011, one bitcoin was actually worth 30 cents. Today, a bitcoin is worth $4. So you know, yes, there was this crazy bitcoin bubble this summer. The price went way up. But if you had bought bitcoins on January 1 of this year, you would have made a return of a thousand percent, an incredible return on your money. Now, again, I'm not saying you should go out and invest in bitcoin. I'm just saying the price now is way higher than it was at the beginning of the year.

SMITH: I should ask. There were a lot of people who were very excited about this technology and about this as an alternate currency. Now, how do they feel? Is there still that excitement around bitcoin? Is - do people still feel like there's a future?

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, you know, I think it is still functioning. I called today one of the people we talked to this summer, and he was a little bit less excited, but you know, he still believes in it. There are still places where you can go and buy lunch with bitcoin or whatever. And so you know, it's still alive. Bitcoin is not dead.

SMITH: We'll leave it at that. Thank you so much, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks.

SMITH: So one of my favorite podcasts of the year was one we did last spring. Chana Joffe-Walt flew to Madison, Wis., to meet with Governor Scott Walker. Now, you may know Governor Scott Walker for a different news story where he was battling with labor unions in his state. There were these protests outside the Capitol, we did lots of coverage of it on NPR. But Chana wanted to ask the governor about something very different. A campaign promise that won him his seat, he promised to create jobs. Now obviously this happens in every election campaign across the country, the candidates promised to create jobs. But the great thing about Scott Walker is he was extremely specific. He said over and over again that he was going to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. So we have Chana with us now. And in the original podcast, why did you go there? What did you want to find out from the governor?

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, HOST:

I love that they had this very specific number, and I wanted to sort of look at a politician that had given a number that we could measure over time to see if he actually came up with those jobs. So by the time we sat down, it had been almost four months into his term. We sat in his office, he has this big green sign behind him that he has had in every shot that he can get of him. And he first read the sign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SCOTT WALKER: Wisconsin is open for business. In fact, I put it up - a sign like that literally the night I won election, November 2. From that point forward, it's about telling the state what you're going to do. And so, literally, I just said, Wisconsin is open for business. And we said, we have a plan to help the people of the state create 250,000 jobs by the end of our first term. So 250,000 jobs by 2015.

JOFFE-WALT: So Governor Scott Walker is elected into office. He holds a special session and he pushes through a bunch of legislation that is all geared towards creating jobs in the private sector. And basically what he does is he says, businesses, if you hire people, you'll get these tax breaks. And there were a series of different ways that they could save some money if they added new hires.

How will you know that you were successful? How will you know that you created 250,000 jobs?

WALKER: We track them. I mean, we track every month. We track, for example, the first month this year, Department of Workforce Development tracks the number of new jobs are added to the private sector. In January alone, there were 10,100 - approximately - new jobs created in the private sector. We'll keep building off of those patterns. And that's...

JOFFE-WALT: But how do you know that's you?

WALKER: Well, it's not. You don't have a personal clicker every time you talk to somebody and get a job.

JOFFE-WALT: So, Robert, this is the weird thing about sitting down and talking with Governor Walker is we kept going in these circles where I would say, you said you you are going to create 250,000 jobs and he would say, oh, no, no, no, it's not me, it's the private sector. But I'm going to create 250,000 jobs over my term. So we have this weird contradiction throughout our conversation.

SMITH: So in other words, it's going to be my jobs. I'm going to help create them but I'm not going to say I'm helping create them because it's really private sector that creates them. But then I can take credit. (Laughter) OK.

JOFFE-WALT: So that was last March - that was the end of last March.

SMITH: Yeah. And the great thing about this podcast, I should say, is that Chana went around and talked to a bunch of people who were actually cleaning jobs, businesses like a lighting manufacturer and - I think it was like a nursing home - right?

JOFFE-WALT: Right.

SMITH: And went to them and said, so, what the governor do for you? And they went, the governor? Wait a minute. I'm creating the jobs, not the governor. So at the end of the podcast, there was this question mark, would he make it? Two-hundred and fifty-thousand jobs, is it possible? Could he take the credit? Would he make it? So, we're here at the end of the year. How's it going in Wisconsin?

JOFFE-WALT: So we should say this is only the end of his first year. He still has three more years left to prove that he can create those jobs. But if we look back at the first year, the first half of the year went really well. Up until June, every single month Wisconsin was adding jobs. And then in June, like suddenly - if you look at this chart, sort of suddenly it stops and every month Wisconsin starts losing jobs in the private sector. So June, they had a great jobs report. Walker goes out and makes all these announcements about how he's creating jobs and, basically, ever since then, it has not been going very well.

SMITH: Now, of course, he has three more years. But this doesn't bode well because I remember from the podcast - Wisconsin, even before Governor Walker was elected, Wisconsin was projected to gain about 180,000 jobs just in the normal course of the economy. You know, even if they had elected Ronald McDonald - especially if they elected Ronald McDonald (laughter) - all those burger-flipping jobs - they would create all of these jobs. And now, at least, so far, judging from the first year...

JOFFE-WALT: They're not projecting that anymore.

SMITH: They're not?

JOFFE-WALT: No (laughter). No. So now the same Department of Revenue in Wisconsin is no longer projecting 180,000 jobs. They're now projecting that the economy will add 136,000 jobs and there's actually a lot of reason to think that - even that number is very optimistic at this point.

SMITH: Is there any reason why Wisconsin is either doing better or worse than the nation as a whole? I mean, there's obvious reasons why the entire nation is struggling to create jobs and a lot of uncertainty and a lot of people not investing and there's consumers not buying and there's problems in Europe. But...

JOFFE-WALT: Right but Wisconsin's actually doing worse in terms of jobs when you look at it sort of nationally. Like at first, Governor Walker says, well, you know, that's the national economy, the national economy isn't doing well. But the national economy, overall, is doing better than Wisconsin. And then he said, well, it's the international economy. And it does actually seem like - you know, I met with a bunch of economists when I was in Wisconsin and followed up with them now and they say that probably is some truth to that. Wisconsin is a big manufacturing state, a lot of the jobs that they've lost over the recession have been manufacturing jobs. And so, if you think about what's happening in Europe that there's a recession in a bunch of countries in Europe, they're buying less. If we're exporting from Wisconsin to Europe, that might explain some of the jobs lost.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

But this brings us back to the conundrum of your podcast, which is, if somebody stands up and says, I will create jobs if I'm elected you're governor, then you can't really say, if we gain jobs, I get the credit and if we don't gain jobs, well, that's just the international economy and all the problems in Europe. There's this inconsistency there.

JOFFE-WALT: Right. So the economists basically said the same thing. When I was there and things were going well, they said, look, you can't give him credit for that, at least not mostly to him. It's mostly just has to do with the economy happening. And when I checked and now, they said, you can't blame him for it either. You know, you can't blame him that Wisconsin is losing jobs. That's the economy still happening.

SMITH: That's a perfect re-election slogan. It wasn't my fault.

JOFFE-WALT: It's the economy happening (laughter).

SMITH: (Laughter) Thank you, Chana.

JOFFE-WALT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN DOWN")

RIHANNA: (Singing) And I took his heart when I pulled out that gun. Rom-pom-pom-pom-pom (ph), Rom-pom-pom-pom-pom. Man down. Rom-pom-pom-pom-pom, Rom-pom-pom-pom-pom, Rom-pom-pom-pom-pom. Man down. Mama, I just shot a man down.

SMITH: Remember this song? Rihanna's "Man Down." If you've been listening to PLANET MONEY podcasts, you know this song because Zoe Chace thought this was going to be the song of the summer and she did a big investigation of "Man Down".

ZOE CHACE, HOST:

That's correct. Rihanna released it as her fifth single of her last album, "Loud." And we did a podcast about how much it costs to make the kind of song that goes to the top of the charts.

SMITH: This is a great podcast because we got to see every step in the process of making a supposedly hit song. And we added up exactly what it costs for the song. I have the list here - $18,000 for the writing camp, $15,000 for the songwriters, $20,000 for the producer, $15,000 for the vocal producer, which helps Rihanna get that sound. You have the mix and the master, that's $10,000. Anyway. The total for that song was $78,000.

CHACE: But remember, that wasn't the real money - right? You can make a $78,000 song and that doesn't guarantee it's a hit. What makes it a hit is that you have to see it, you have to hear it everywhere. That's a hit record. Let's hear a little bit from the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAY DANIELS: A rollout of one record might cost a million dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Rihanna's here. Hey, Rihanna.

RIHANNA: Hey.

DANIELS: The reason why it costs so much is because you need everybody to move at once. You want them to turn on the radio and hear Rihanna...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Rihanna is live in Studio 92.3 now...

DANIELS: ...And then turn on BET and see Rihanna.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRENCE JENKINS: ...Your reactions to Rihanna's latest video, "Man Down." Rihanna...

(APPLAUSE)

DANIELS: Then you look on Billboard, you look on the iTunes chart...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh my God. "Loud" is number one on iTunes right now.

RIHANNA: What?

DANIELS: I need to pay to make sure the record is on iTunes. When you log onto Apple Store, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs. I need everything to click at once. That's what the money comes from.

CHACE: So that was Ray Daniels talking us through the song rollout. He was the manager of the songwriters who wrote "Man Down" and went out to the writing camp. And basically, he said the rollout of one record, one song, can cost a million dollars.

SMITH: So we spent all this time talking about what was potentially the song of the summer, "Man Down." We calculated exactly what it cost - a million dollars - and what happened to this fabulous record?

CHACE: Well, I Skyped with this guy Paul Porter that we talked to on the podcast. He analyzes sales charts.

PAUL PORTER: It did terribly. It was done like three weeks after it came out.

SMITH: (Laughter) It's funny, here in New York, I did hear the song played quite a bit, but most of the country...

CHACE: Sure.

SMITH: ...Do not recognize this song. So after spending a million dollars, what happened?

CHACE: What happened was it didn't even crack the top 20, basically, in radio stations across the country. Certainly not on the charts, like it didn't go anywhere. And basically, "Man Down" is kind of Caribbean, you got to kind of - it's a little bit hip-hop. You know, the term that they use in the music industry is urban and basically, hip-hop, urban, that's not hot right now. That is not the song of the summer, and it was never going to be.

SMITH: So what was hot this summer? What was the song of summer?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY ROCK ANTHEM")

LMFAO: (Singing) Party rock is in the house tonight, everybody just have a good time. And we're gonna make you lose your mind. Everybody just have a good time.

SMITH: So am I wrong to love that song?

CHACE: You are not the...

SMITH: Everyday I'm shuffling.

CHACE: ...You are not the target demographic for that song but I see that you really enjoy it. And that's kind of the thing, that's why I was a hit because everybody was listening to it and everybody was playing it - every radio station.

SMITH: But that's thing about the song of the summer, you want something that you can listen to at the beach or driving to the beach, on vacation. You want something fun. "Man Down" was kind of a bummer.

CHACE: (Laughter) You're right, it kind of was. But more to the point, it's dance. Like, that's what it is, it's dance and that's what everybody's listening to and that's what's going to be hot.

SMITH: So when somebody spends a million dollars to come out with this big hit and it turns out to be a flop, what happens then? Does everyone go back, do people get fired for this?

CHACE: I asked Paul Porter about this, and this is what he told me.

PORTER: That's normal. Most records do bomb. Everybody's waiting for one hit, and if you don't get that hit, you're in trouble. Look. In 2011, Warner Music Group lost 205 million.

SMITH: So why do they keep trying, I guess, is the question.

CHACE: It's the business model. The business model is to spend money to get top-flight producers, to get top flight, you know, production levels. You know, that kind of promotion that you heard at the beginning, like, all that costs money. It costs money to possibly, allegedly, pay radio DJs to play your song. It costs money to fly Rihanna to studios across the country. Like, these things costs a lot of money, and that is the business model. But if you have a really ubiquitous hit, then, I guess, you can recoup. I guess.

SMITH: And I guess it doesn't reflect poorly on Rihanna because a few months later, she comes out with another song. And let's hear this one because this one is a hit. True?

CHACE: Totally a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE FOUND LOVE")

RIHANNA: (Singing) I was standing side by side as his shadow crosses mine, what it takes to come alive. It's just the way I'm feeling, I just can't deny. But I've got to let it go.

CHACE: That's undeniable. That song kills. You know it does.

SMITH: And as you said, it's a dance song. I can shuffle to it.

CHACE: (Laughter).

SMITH: Everyday I'm shuffling.

CHACE: Don't do that.

SMITH: Thank you very much, Zoe.

CHACE: Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE FOUND LOVE")

RIHANNA: (Singing) We found love in a hopeless place.

SMITH: On to the rest of the story. I should say the rest of our follow-up podcast.

KESTENBAUM: OK, Robert, I got my update for you.

SMITH: This is David Kestenbaum here. And listeners to PLANET MONEY know that David Kestenbaum is obsessed - obsessed - with Iceland.

KESTENBAUM: I went to Iceland. We had a - remember we had an Icelandic intern, Baldur Hedinsson - I hope that's right - who was here. And what had happened there, basically, everyone had to vote on this crazy, complicated economic issue that they thought the future of their country hung in the balance. And to understand the vote, unfortunately, there's a bit a complicated backstory I have to give you. This is one of the strangest stories to come out of the entire financial crisis.

What happened was Iceland had these banks, and these banks offered very high interest rates, so high that people in England and the Netherlands said, that's great, I'm going to deposit my money in the Icelandic bank. But then the banks went bankrupt - right? So what happens to all those people who have their money in the banks? Well, the British government bailed out all the depositors in England. The Dutch government bailed out the people there. The Icelandic government stepped in and bailed out its people.

SMITH: So everybody's even Steven.

KESTENBAUM: Except that the Dutch and British governments then said, well, we would like to be repaid. You know, you bailed out the Icelandic depositors, you should do the same for the people in our country.

SMITH: They say it wasn't our fault. Iceland, fork over the money.

KESTENBAUM: Right. And so, the Icelandic government decided to put it to a national vote.

SMITH: In other words, they were asking the Icelandic people, do you want your tax dollars to leave Iceland and make the British government - which is huge compared to the Icelandic government - do you want to pay back the Crown of Great Britain?

KESTENBAUM: And the Netherlands - right?

SMITH: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: And there are only 320,000 people in Iceland - right?

SMITH: (Laughter).

KESTENBAUM: So the bill - it's unclear how big the bill is going to be. It might be like 200 million. Or there was one estimate that was 2 billion. If it were that big, it would be like $6,000 a person in Iceland. So they had to vote, and it was a really complicated legal economic issue. There were some people who were saying if you vote no, then we're going to be outcast from the European community and our bond rating will be downgraded to junk status. It'll wreck our economy.

SMITH: So in the podcast, we followed one woman trying to make her decision.

KESTENBAUM: Heida Jonsdottir.

SMITH: And this is when she votes in the podcast.

KESTENBAUM: And at the end, you'll hear Baldur Hedinsson, our intern.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KESTENBAUM: You can see she's marking it now.

BALDUR HEDINSSON, BYLINE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think she hasn't decided yet. Her hand is moving back and forth.

KESTENBAUM: Heida emerges from the booth.

KESTENBAUM: So how did you vote?

HEIDA JONSDOTTIR: I said, no.

HEDINSSON: Then I went through my voting place and I canceled out Heida's vote.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter)

HEDINSSON: I voted yes. It just didn't seem right to me to say no.

I think the grounds that we stand on after having guaranteed everything in this country and - if anything, it's saying that don't trust foreigners. We guarantee our own people and we screw foreigners. And in the second place, it's going to say, don't trust Icelanders, which I think this is even worse. I think it sends a really bad signal.

KESTENBAUM: That was Baldur you heard at the end, our intern. So she voted no, don't repay the governments. And Baldur said, yes, it's our responsibility.

SMITH: And the vote turned out?

KESTENBAUM: The no's won.

SMITH: So fast forward now. It's been six months since you've done this - longer. And, you know, the people who are saying you need to vote yes on this were saying this could destroy Iceland's reputation around the globe.

KESTENBAUM: Turns out, their economy's still there.

SMITH: (Laughter).

KESTENBAUM: I called Baldur, who's in Iceland now. Here he is.

HEDINSSON: Things definitely did not crash after we said no. So the Icelandic government went on sort of a PR campaign and I went and talked to the rating agencies and the big investment firms and managed to stay above junk status and things have been, sort of, slowly improving since we said no. Definitely not worst-case scenario.

KESTENBAUM: Just describe a night out in Iceland - in Reykjavik for me or something. What's it feel like on the street?

HEDINSSON: It's dark (laughter) and cold but it's lively. I mean, I went out to a bar yesterday, and there was live music and people on every table drinking, having fun. It was a nice spirit.

KESTENBAUM: Robert, there's one thing I want to add, which is that on the day I called Baldur, he said, it's funny you should call today because we just got taken to the - basically the International Court by an international regulator who said it's been a few years now and it's pretty clear you guys should pay. You got to pay up.

SMITH: Does Baldur feel like a sucker voting yes and voting to pay back all these other countries when the rest the country voted no?

KESTENBAUM: He felt like it was their duty to the European Community to pay that money back and he still feels that way.

SMITH: We'll see how the courts sort it out. Thank you, David.

KESTENBAUM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RE: YOUR BRAINS")

JONATHAN COULTON: (Singing) Hey, Tom. It's Bob from the office down the hall. It's good to see you, buddy. How've you been? Things have been OK for me except that I'm a zombie now. I really wish you'd let us in.

SMITH: This is Jonathan Coulton. He is a music idol to nerds everywhere, and he is a special favorite of those of us here at PLANET MONEY because we did a whole podcast this summer on Jonathan Coulton. But we are not a music podcast, we're an economics podcast. Alex Blumberg's here. Explain to us why we were interested in Jonathan Coulton?

ALEX BLUMBERG, HOST:

Well, essentially, we wanted to see how much money he made because Jonathan Coulton is a new breed of musician in this age of transformation in the music industry where you no longer need a label, necessarily, to reach an audience. You don't need to get on the radio stations. Essentially, all you need to do - record a song, put it up on the Internet and then people could find it. That was Jonathan Coulton's method, and we wanted to find out how much money did he make doing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

COULTON: This is a spreadsheet of my income over the last four years, so 2007 through 2010.

BLUMBERG: And I'm looking at the total net. Are you prepared to reveal those figures?

COULTON: You know, it's - I don't know. It's always - it's embarrassing to talk about that.

BLUMBERG: I am not embarrassed to tell you what he made in 2010, and Jonathan Coulton said - he gave me his blessing to tell you. He brought in almost half a million dollars. And because his overhead costs are so low, he got to keep most of that money.

COULTON: Which is crazy. It's just insane.

BLUMBERG: Did you ever imagine yourself making this much money off of your music?

COULTON: Of course not. This is absurd. It's an absurd situation. Look at me, this ridiculous office here in the parlor of this Brooklyn brownstone. This is the business that I'm doing here. It doesn't seem right.

BLUMBERG: So, Robert, it's you and me back in real time in the studio here. And when we did that podcast over the summer, Jonathan Coulton was wrestling with this question, which is, where do I go from here? Do I continue on this path of just being sort of this self-sustaining musician - I make my songs I release them over the Internet - or do I try to make a jump up to the next level, which is, share my profits with somebody, a label, but in return, they give me the support and maybe I try to sell my music on the radio and do all this sort of stuff that I haven't done before?

SMITH: Which is a great question because we always do these stories about people fleeing major labels, saying, no, no, no, now is the age of the independent. But when you think about it, if you're a successful independent, you're looking for a little bit of help.

BLUMBERG: Exactly. And so, six months later, I talked to him again and he does have a new album out, "Artificial Heart," and he released it by himself online. He recorded it with his own money and he made a lot of money. He did this really interesting thing where he released this online and he did this sort of, what he calls, a tiered presale package thing where, you know, you could pay $15 and he would send you a signed CD or you could send $100 and you'd get this big special commemorative box.

And so, what he did from that he was basically able to pay his entire recording costs before the album even came out. Like, he said, over a thousand people bought that box. That's 100 grand right there, just on the box. And then he hired a distribution company to see if he could take it that more mainstream route. Get it in stores, get it on the radio. He gave them some money and they sort of promoted it and pushed it. And, in fact, for the first time ever, he actually made the charts. He debuted at No. 1 on the Heatseeker chart.

SMITH: I don't know what that is. What's a Heatseeker chart?

BLUMBERG: I think it shows you sort of like hot new thing, basically.

SMITH: OK. Sure, sure, yeah.

BLUMBERG: The hot new thing, number 23 on the indie chart and he debuted at number 105 on the Top 200 on the Billboard chart.

SMITH: You know, this is amazing because, essentially, rather than go join up with a label, he kind of is creating his own label. He's bringing in all the things the label has, pre-promotion and someone to get you on the charts, without having to deal with any of the big names.

BLUMBERG: Yeah. What's interesting, he didn't make that much more money doing all this. Like he did - he spent a lot more money and he brought in a lot more money but his net was about the same. It's not like he increased the net income from doing all this.

SMITH: But as always, it's sort of an interesting experiment he's doing.

BLUMBERG: And I think he got more enjoyment. Like, I think, for him, it was great to be on the charts. And for him, it was great to be in stores and I think he toured with They Might Be Giants, he had a big band touring with him. So he sort of stepped it up a little bit in terms of what he was doing but the net profit was about the same.

SMITH: So for other independent artists out there listening to this and wishing they could make this amount of money in an independent way, what's the lesson of Jonathan Coulton?

BLUMBERG: Oh, I think the lesson is absolutely keep doing it because I think you always need a lucky break. Whether or not you sign with a label and, like, have them front you the money and then you have to make the money back to them or you're doing it yourself, you need some sort of lucky break. But if you get Coulton's lucky break, maybe you don't get as big as Justin Timberlake, necessarily, but you get to keep all the money yourself.

BLUMBERG: Alex, thank you so much.

BLUMBERG: Thank you. Could I say one more thing?

SMITH: Sure.

BLUMBERG: The music from his new album, I actually really like. It's pretty different, it's not quite as funny and it's sort of more melodic and pretty. And maybe we'll go out on a song from his new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANT YOU GONE")

COULTON: (Singing) Well, here we are again. It's always such a pleasure. Remember when you tried to kill me twice and how we laughed and laughed, except I wasn't laughing? Under the circumstances, I've been shockingly nice. You want your freedom? Take it. That's what I'm counting on. I used to want you dead, but now I only want you gone.

SMITH: As always, we would love to hear what you think of the episode. Shoot us an email at planeymoney@npr.org. And we'll have links to all the podcasts that we reference today on our blog, npr.org/money. I'm Robert Smith. Happy New Year. Thanks for listening.

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