Jonathan Coulton and Artistic Niches

Independent musician Jonathan Coulton’s journey as an artist fascinates me. I was introduced to his music about a year-and-a-half ago through word of mouth, and I’ve been listening to him since.  His music does not fit the mass market tropes (for example, he’s got quirky songs like “Flickr”, “Mandelbrot Set”, and “Re: Your Brains”).   Music label companies are looking for hits, not artistic niches, so Coulton ended up creating a small business to sell his music.

He’s written a long blog about his journey entitled “How I Did It” on his website.

Several things struck me when I read Coulton’s blog post on how he got to where he is:

1) He played for live audiences, experimenting with his music, and watched their reaction. Over time he figured out what sort of music he was good at (i.e. finding one’s ‘voice’ as an artist).

2) He learned–as he became interested in doing so–how to produce his music, first in posting mp3s to his website, then in having a CD made, and eventually in building an entire store of music on his website. Nothing happened overnight, it just slowly snowballed as he tried new ways of reaching listeners.

3) Putting his music under the Creative Commons license became a way for him to encourage people to share his work with others if they liked it.

4) After he quit his job as a programmer, he did a project called “Thing A Week” where he wrote a new song on a weekly basis. It ended up lasting for a year. This helped him learn how to work past creative blocks, and also (inadvertently) meant there were lots of songs that could be purchased from him by fans.

5) Technology has reached the point that niche artists can side-step distributors who require mass market appeal.

6) Selling one’s artistic work is a small business, like any other small business. You gotta learn about marketing, means of production, operating costs, technology, et cetera.

There’s a good article by Clive Thompson for the New York Times Magazine from May 13, 2007 which explores the time and emotional demands of doing your own marketing as an independent artist.

Interestingly enough, a heated debate erupted in March 2008 over Kevin Kelly’s blog post “1000 True Fans”, but I’m going to save discussing it for a separate blog post. Let me just summarize by saying people argued about how many “true fans” are needed in order for an independent artist to make a living without a distributor.

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