Jonathan Coulton and Creative Commons Copyright

Tonight’s blog is a complete change of pace. I have started to collect opinions and comments from established artists to add to this blog.  For the moment I am creating the questions and topics and deciding which artists to ask to comment. In the future I hope that some of the questions and topics will come from you, the reader…

Tonight’s blog which is just an interlude between longer postings about the inner workings of a recording contract, introduces the changing face of copyrights in the age of the web. Anyone with some sense of vision sees that the universal distribution of knowledge, music, art, writing, all of the various elements of the web, will bring about a complete redefinition of the artist’s relationship to the commercial exploitation of his art.

Certainly the question isn’t if change is coming, rather it is where will these changes take us?

I asked Jonathan Coulton to discuss his progressive attitude towards controlling his recordings on the web. For those of you who haven’t heard of Jonathon yet he is one of the more interesting Post Guided by Voices , Lo Fi musicians breaking through the inertia  of Nirvana and programmed pop.  His songwriting combined with a generous and healthy attitude about giving everyone access to his music helped him break out and create some purely web driven hits like “Code Monkey”  and “Still Alive” (A song released as the final dirge on the underground hit video game Portal).  In short Jonathan is a talented songwriter that is comfortable with the changes that the web has offered and has altered his approach to line up his personal musical strengths with the power of the web.

I asked Jonathan a question via email while a little bit altered and completely exhausted. As a result his reply is much better than my question. Thank god for catching a break some days……….

Jonathan – your music has spread through the web, first through association with gaming programs and then through peer to peer trading. You have been a vocal advocate of “Fair Use” copyrights, rather then the “I own it and you gotta buy it model” – how has this helped you succeed and how might it help others to build connections with fans? (I intended to ask about Creative Commons copyright. Like I said I was under the influence of stupidity that night)


“I’d actually say that it went the other direction, first my music spread across the web through word of mouth, and that led to my association with Valve and the song for Portal. And I think that’s a really important point – for a musician who is just starting out there is nothing more important than exposure. That’s why I released my music with a Creative Commons license that allowed people to share the music freely, and to create new works using the music, as long as those things happened in the non-commercial realm. My plan was to let the music speak for itself, to let it find my fans for me, and then figure out how to monetize whatever success I had in that effort.

Of course, to my surprise I started making money directly from the music before I had to figure out how to monetize it. As I went through the year-long Thing a Week project releasing a new song every week, I would post each song for free to my blog but I would also put it in my online store. I made it clear that while it was fine if you wanted to get the song for free, I was trying to make a living as a musician, so I’d prefer if you bought it. Many people chose to buy it even though they didn’t have to. Many people chose to buy it later after they had downloaded it for free and listened for a while and decided they really liked it. And later when I started touring and selling tshirts and CDs, many people came to those shows and bought the merchandise. None of that would have happened if I had kept the songs locked up tight for fear of them being “stolen.” I figured, worst case scenario a million people hear my music without paying for it – that’s actually not a terrible situation at all, in fact it’s kind of awesome.
So I really think that whether you agree with the details of the Creative Commons license or not, it’s important to let your music get around out there. It’s important to make the process of people discovering your music as fluid and friction-free as possible. Once you are willing to leave a little money on the table and not worry about squeezing every bit of profit out of every interaction a fan has with you and your work, you are free to do interesting and fun things. Can I use your song in a YouTube video I’m making? Sure. Can I send a copy of my favorite songs of yours to all my friends? Absolutely. A great deal of energy comes out of transactions like these, and I believe that energy can’t help but translate into actual cash somewhere down the road.”
I’ll take a moment to expand on one comment that he makes ” to create new works using the music, as long as those things happened in the non-commercial realm”. This concept, an idea that is the core idea of a good portion of hip hop recording is the future of pop. How long before musician start to play hot potato with musical ideas and pass them around, with each contributor adding a piece and passing it on until the music itself feels undeniably finished. How compelling can a collective piece of art be?  Certainly the power of a song is amplified once you free it from the bonds of being a commercially exploited CD in the mold of music from the 1990’s.  This is one of many ideas that are coming to the surface as the web reworks how musicians succeed at rock……………………………
©Creative Commons license Brad Morrison/ Billiken Media 2010. Portions of this blog may be used in part or whole to create another work of art on the condition that any and all subsequent exploitations and copies of this work are non commercial in character and bring no monetary gain or remuneration to the third-party involved………Let art rule and rise above……………

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Coulton and Creative Commons Copyright

  1. Excellent post. I’m glad to have stumbled upon your blog. It is always great to listen to an industry insider’s point of view who doesn’t come off sounding too cynical.

    About copyright… I think that the traditional model is well past its prime and needs to change radically or disappear altogether. Back when the internet was fresh and new, many people, myself included, enjoyed exploring all its nooks and crannies, finding something funny, entertaining, unusual or familiar. Back when file-sharing was the new thing, I took my part in it, sometimes looking for the familiar songs of old but also coming across incredible music which I would’ve never been exposed to via the traditional media gatekeepers. As a direct result, I’ve spent upwards of $10,000 on my music collection — that’s money which would’ve gone someplace else had it not been for the internet exposure.

    Jonathan Coulton has the right frame of mind, not trying to fight against the inevitable but embracing it. Exposure is the most important ingredient to art, unless you plan on being a recluse. Build a loyal following while finding new methods for generating profit. The future is here and there’s no turning back the clock. As you’ve mentioned before, Brad, an album should cost about $5 tops, not $15-20 (unacceptable!), and I’d add that it should come with extra content such as a DVD including a ‘making of’ featurette, MVs, the whole album pre-converted to mp3 format in case anyone wants to transfer it to their computer, et al. People always love it when you give them extra bang for the buck.

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