The Hits Keep On Coming

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jonathan Coulton doesn't measure his success as a musician by the number of appearances he's made in the music magazines or blogs -- who needs that when you've got Google Analytics?

According the search engine's Web measurement tools, Coulton's Web site gets 50,000 to 60,000 visits per month, and about half of those are by people new to his site. Some visitors download a song and opt to pay a buck; many more download a song but don't pay. Coulton doesn't sweat that particular ratio so much because he's happy enough to be making more than he did a few years ago as a software programmer.

"The ratio of sales to free downloads is still pretty small," he said, but he has no way of knowing how many of those freeloaders come back later to buy a T-shirt or a CD or a concert ticket. "Whatever is happening, the bottom line works out for me and I'm making enough to make a living this way."

Coulton, who is Web-famous for his geeky and witty songs about software coders and zombies, is headed to the area this week to play at the Birchmere in Alexandria. And even though he's sold out two previous shows at the 500-seat venue, most recently in February, don't look for write-ups at or Pitchfork. A recent search for his name at the sites of those influential music publications comes up empty.

Coulton's musical career is an ongoing bit of proof that a performer can build an audience with the aid of free or low-cost Web tools. What's more, in Coulton's case, you can even do all that without getting any radio airplay along the way.

After leaving his programming job in 2005 to pursue his dream of a musical career, Coulton started uploading a new song each week to his blog, a project that lasted a year. Over time, and thanks to a few breakout hits that got passed around the blogosphere, his audience grew.

When he tours, he uses Web services that print T-shirts and CDs on demand, to avoid getting stuck with excess inventory. If you're a fan and want to see him perform, log on to the Web site and enter your request. If he gets enough requests from your town, he might just book a show there. He'll be looking for your song request on Twitter. This week's gig, for the record, is part of a series of shows he's putting on as a fundraiser for the Lung Transplant Foundation.

Coulton lives in Brooklyn but says he tends to be most popular in areas where there's a large population of techies. Areas, for example, like Washington.

"There's definitely a big geek factor in the D.C. area," he said. "That was one of the early markets for me where I noticed, 'Wow, that's a big crowd.' Even today, New York is much bigger population-wise but the audiences are probably stronger in D.C. still -- and that definitely has to do with the geek factor."

San Francisco, Seattle and Boston are other cities where he has a following. "The commonality is that the tech industry is there," he said.

It's possible you've heard Coulton's music before but don't realize it. His soulful, pensive cover of "Baby Got Back" was a Web sensation in the early days of YouTube, especially after a fan synced the audio of Coulton's version up against rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot's video. The video has long since been taken down, alas.

More recently, Coulton made a splash among video game fans when one of his songs was featured at the end of a hit game called Portal. Told from the perspective of a homicidal, passive-aggressive computer system in the game, "Still Alive" was enough of an online hit to prompt the makers of the music video game Rock Band to make it available as a downloadable song.

One of Coulton's biggest outlets has become a Web site called Spiffworld, where a fan has created a series of music videos by acting out the artist's songs inside the computer game World of Warcraft. The biggest hit, based around Coulton's song "Code Monkey," about a software programmer in a dead-end job, has been viewed 3.7 million times.

If it weren't for Spiffworld, ardent fans like JoAnne Abbot might not have heard of Coulton. The 49-year-old grandmother, a World of Warcraft player who lives in Dale City, first heard Coulton's music at the Spiffworld site. If she makes it to this week's Birchmere performance -- she was at the last two -- she plans to bring cookies or Rice Krispie treats for her favorite artist, as usual. When she's not listening to Coulton's music, or playing WoW, you can often find her at Coulton's site, where she and other fans debate topics such as, say, the precise meaning of a song's lyrics.

Coulton, meanwhile, says he isn't actively looking to expand his fan base. He's not opposed to signing with a music label, but he's not sure he needs one. In the early years of his career, he answered all his fan e-mails personally, but doing so at this point would take up his whole day.

And who wants an Internet rock star who doesn't have time to practice or write music? These days, Coulton admits, he employs an assistant to help sort out his inbox.

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