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Thoughts : The Jonathan Coulton Model
Many unsigned artists trying to develop their music whilst holding down a day job dream of the opportunity to turn their hobby into a career that will pay the bills. Jonathan Coulton the New York based software programmer turned singer songwriter did just that. What's more, he did it by giving his music, around four albums worth, away for free.
Giving away music for free is nothing new, most bands these days have a website or myspace page where fans can listen to or download complete tracks. But Jon Coulton took this one step further when he decided to produce a free song per week and make them available in an RSS feed for people to subscribe to. This combination of regular content and passive downloading turned out to be a winning formula. Not only did it made it easy for people to get his music into iTunes and onto their iPods, but it also perfectly satisfied the idea common to marketers that as consumers we need to be exposed at least three times to a message before we really receive it. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who browsing around for music, maybe they come across your site and download your free track, they like it, but probably they want to hear more before you'll get them coming to a gig or buying your next album. If they remember to come back and there's nothing new will they come back again? If you can provide something they can easily subscribe to maybe an RSS feed, perhaps just a mailing list, and then deliver some more content in the near future (you don't have to hit a track a week) then you stand a much better chance of building awareness in a potential audience.
Another crucial part of the puzzle was his use of Creative Commons licenses. By allowing the remix and use of tracks in podcasts and videos it made it easy for other people to spread the word about his music, whilst Coulton retained his royalty rights.
Of course none of this would have mattered if no-one liked the music John was making. But by producing the kind of music that came naturally and drawing on personal experiences he was able to create tracks with a real sticky appeal to a certain niche. Thus his background in programming led to internet hits like 'Code Monkey'. By following the exact opposite logic to that which the major labels use when they manufacture pop designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, he was able to carefully cultivate a niche but loyal following that ensures his gigs are always packed and his listeners love to spread the word to their friends. But Jon hasn't done this in a cynical or deliberately exploitative way, he loves his fans and he panders to the niche because he is of the niche. The result is real audience engagement which Jon has rewarded by creating something for nothing. And an open dialogue through his website and email. This is why fans who have downloaded his tracks for free will still buy the CD, buy the t-shirt, go to his gigs and even just donate money.
While their are some wider lessons from the Jonathan Coulton test-case, such as knowing your audience and knowing how and where to reach them, perhaps an exact replication of the Coulton model wouldn't work again for you. But a variation on the theme could. Maybe you could make some of your back catalogue available to download for free over a period of time and then asked fans to sponsor your next album through donations. Keep them involved with regular updates and rough mixes or acoustic versions of in-progress tracks and when it's finished give it away. If your music has appeal and you've engaged with your audience you'll probably find that your gigs are always well attended and fans will pay to get the CD version.
The broader issue here, which I'm sure we'll come back to in future posts, is that maybe selling the music itself isn't where you can make money any more. It seems that everyone in the industry is scrabbling to find a new business model and while that happens we're going to see lots more interesting approaches to making a living from music.