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Music Idle

Ask Jonathan Coulton About the Transformation From Code Monkey to Internet Star 122

Even though he created the definitive guide to enjoying yourself outside, Jonathan Coulton is best known for the programmer anthem Code Monkey, his Thing a Week project, and writing the theme song to Portal. In 2005 Coulton left his programming job to pursue his music career, and has since become a successful one man music label. Jonathan has agreed to answer your questions about robots, life, and internet stardom. Normal Slashdot interview rules apply.
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Ask Jonathan Coulton About the Transformation From Code Monkey to Internet Star

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  • Some current stars have made a career out of much less than what you have simply by signing a record deal with a label. Your song "Still Alive" from the Portal Soundtrack could easily have some filler phoned in around it for a 10 track album. Have you ever been approached by a major record label with a multi-million dollar signing? If not, what would be your response to such a proposal? Since you've already experienced success, would you admit to a point in your career when you would have been vulnerable to such an offer? Have you considered throwing your lot in with an independent record label? There are hundreds in Brooklyn, what stops you from joining one or forming your own to foster more artists like yourself?
    • And, if you are self-publishing, you should put up a few of your songs in the public domain via BitTorrent.

      While reading these comments I became curious about your music, and went directly to a torrent site to see if there were any samples.

      Nothing but crickets, man.

      Nothing but crickets.

      • by Kredal ( 566494 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @02:18PM (#36220034) Homepage Journal

        Why not go directly to his website (when it's not slashdotted, of course), click on "Songs" at the top, and have a listen, for free, to his whole catalog (minus a few songs he wrote for other people). No need to pirate when he gives it away for free.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          If it's given for free, then it's better if you get it from a torrent. That way, you don't use (potentially) expensive bandwidth that the artist has to pay. Cheap content distribution is what p2p is made for.
          • Bravo, my man.

          • If it's given for free, then it's better if you get it from a torrent. That way, you don't use (potentially) expensive bandwidth that the artist has to pay. Cheap content distribution is what p2p is made for.

            I dunno...the times I've tried BT...and granted this was a few years ago...I found it to be horribly slow for me...I could usually download from USENET much faster. I've got a pretty decent speed connection..usually about 15 down and 7 up or so...and BT just took FOREVER to download things. And this is

            • Your post has nothing to do with what I was saying, but anyway...
              You think nothing's wrong with your setup, but you're saying it doesn't work like it does for most people... Think again?
              Your ISP might throttle you, maybe you tried torrents with few sources?
              Using usenet for downloading is like pulling a truck trailer with a moped. It works, but it was not meant for it. There are tons of protocols made for downloading large binaries, and NNTP is not one of them. (sfv files? Really?)
          • If they wanted to distribute with p2p, they'd seed it and upload it to torrent sites.
            If they want people to visit their site and download it, they'd create a site and host it there.

            Even when it's *free* people are still unwilling to give the creator of their entertainment any control over it.

            • Well, right now, his website is apparently down, so it seems he made the wrong choice?
              If he had put up bittorent/ed2k/... links instead of hosting the files himself, he might have avoided death by slashdot.
        • by AP31R0N ( 723649 )

          Unless he's going to get in a boat, hoist the jolly roger and keel haul the captain of a ship carry copies of JoCo CDs, he not pirating.

          Piracy is ship to ship armed robbery, kidnapping and murder.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <(eldavojohn) (at) (> on Monday May 23, 2011 @12:46PM (#36218846) Journal
    You've released a number of studio albums, where are they recorded? Your own place? Do you have sound engineers or is it all DIY? If you have sound engineers, how do you reimburse them? How did you fund your setup if you use it yourself? Are things like an expensive mac hardware, isolation booths and Pro Tools a requirement to get decent sound quality or do you just wing it with whatever and some Sure microphones?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      The last part of your question is general stuff and makes assumptions that are not true.

      Are things like an expensive mac hardware, isolation booths and Pro Tools a requirement to get decent sound quality or do you just wing it with whatever and some Sure microphones?

      With any 24bit soundcard and audacity, you're capable of recording audio with a dynamic and frequency ranges greater than all but the best tape machines (2" 8 track). You don't need an isolation booth to record loud instruments with condensor m

      • by Anonymous Coward
        Sorry, I was referring to Shure's SM57 and SM58 mics that often sell for well under $100, especially if you buy in bulk and haggle with a small business ... my guitarist would often get a used one thrown in with a guitar he bought from shops. Great mics, just not studio quality.
  • by StikyPad ( 445176 )

    Who is Jonathan Coulton?

  • In music theory, there are a lot of things that tempt developers to "algorithmize" it. Coming from a programming background, did you/do you experiment with that? What about making your own patches or tweaking audio effects? Do you still code at all or is all of your time devoted to music and writing now?
    • I recall reading that Yuzo Koshiro used such a method for Streets of Rage 3. And since that was easily his worst soundtrack...

      • by Twinbee ( 767046 )

        Always on the look out for decent music which was created from an algorithm, I haven't ever come across anything that's even remotely worth listening to.

        Well, I guess the best I heard was a 'music' AI from a weird Amiga PD bat and ball game which had a sparse texture, and rhythmic, funky bassline, with occasional interspersed chord. Wish I could remember the name.

        I love harmonies too, and I bet there's nothing out that creates decent harmonies.

        • by neminem ( 561346 )
          Not that it has anything to do with JoCo, but I actually found this a couple weeks ago from a slashdot post:

          The others are pretty terrible to listen to, but the "trance" generator, after running them through gxscc, actually resulted in some pretty decent-sounding chiptunes. (I emailed the guy saying he should use them or something like them in a game, and he thought it was a good idea :D).
          • by Twinbee ( 767046 )

            Yeah, not actually too bad for an AI - nice one. The style was sort of reminiscent of the Amiga bat and ball I mentioned actually!

            You see, if I was rich, I'd create a competition and award a prize of $1,000,000 to the best attempt at creating a music generator. I bet that'd inspire more research into music theory than anything else.

  • Lawsuits? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <(eldavojohn) (at) (> on Monday May 23, 2011 @12:58PM (#36219012) Journal
    You've done many parody songs like the recent song about Tom Cruise being crazy as a Scientologist []. Have you faced any lawsuits because of subject matter or parody? How have they been resolved? Have you ever been forced to discontinue with something for fear or threat of litigation?
  • My Question (Score:4, Funny)

    by imadoofus ( 233751 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @01:03PM (#36219062)

    Where you promised cake for completing "Still Alive?" Did they deliver?

  • Han or Greedo?
  • Creative Commons (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 23, 2011 @01:06PM (#36219104)

    You've released some (all?) of your music under the CC-BY-NC license. What are some of the coolest things you've seen done by other people with your songs?

  • Why does your website only say Error establishing a database connection? This seems an odd way to sell music.
    Slashdot 101 - Beef up your webserver prior to doing a interview :-)
    Love your music BTW.
  • I've been to a dozen of your shows and I'm always left wondering, why aren't you writing more songs about giant squid or other intelligent mollusks? If you're going to have one (and I don't count Octopus because it really isn't about... you know, an octopus) why not go all in? As everyone knows, the giant squid is the unofficial marine invertebrate mollusk of the current pro-nerd trend that has contributed so much to your popularity, and deserves more recognition in song form.

    Haven't the giant squid suffere

    • by Kredal ( 566494 )

      Perhaps you've missed "I Crush Everything"? That's the only song I know of about giant squids. From any artist.

      TMBG's Apollo 18 had a giant squid on the cover, but no songs about one.

      • Oh, I'm well aware and I'm kicking myself for not making that clear. What I was asking is why Mr. Coulton thinks one song about giant squid is enough.

  • Creative Commons (Score:2, Interesting)

    Reposting my accidentally-anonymous question from earlier:

    You've released some (all?) of your music under the CC-BY-NC license. What are some of the coolest things you've seen done by other people with your songs?

  • by N0Man74 ( 1620447 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @01:12PM (#36219184)

    "Still Alive" is considered by many to possibly be, "the best video game song ever." Were you surprised by the acclaim that it has received, and did that put any additional pressure on you while creating a song for Portal 2?

  • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @01:24PM (#36219330) Homepage

    Which I heard as the soundtrack to these youtube videos:
        "The Future Soon" []
        "Code Monkey" []

    The general truths about loss of freedom as a coder working for others brought some tears to my eyes, after having had to stop running our own company making educational software and work at IBM Research for a time (even if, as places go, that was a nice place to work). It's also easy to turn to junk food when you are under stress -- even as eating a lot of vegetables, fruits, and beans, and getting adequate vitamin D is what keeps us healthier and more productive in the long term (along with stuff like omega-3s and iodine). Did you have any deeper comment in mind about food issues when you wrote that? It really seems like a lot of young programmers don't eat well.

    And The Future Soon really gets at some truths about the transhumanist movement. I've sent that link to at least one. I'm not sure if you meant it specifically about transhumanism though?

    I guess everyone probably asks you where you get your ideas for those two, or what sorts of things you may have meant, and sometimes art is intentionally ambiguous, so I'm not saying you may want to answer to those questions. I applaud your decision to make that stuff available for free, rather than create more artificial scarcity.

    So, I guess my question is, did you have any thoughts when you made those and put them under a free license that someone would make great videos to go along with them? Do you have any comments on the videos?

    Also, I'd love it if you did a song in relation to my sig line, which in it' full form is "The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity." Feel free to do what you want with that idea if it goes under a free license. :-)

  • Code Monkey (Score:5, Interesting)

    by j33pn ( 1049772 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @01:32PM (#36219414)

    Did you ever hook-up with that receptionist?

    • by kikito ( 971480 )

      Extending on that question: now that you are into music instead of bytes, do you find it easier to approach ladies (or men, whatever you prefer)? Or is the mark of software indelible?

      • by Hultis ( 1969080 )
        Fame can counter almost any deficiency, even having been a software developer.
        • I never really understood this viewpoint. Sure it's fun to joke about the social skills of us nerds, and indeed many of us are severely lacking, but there is nothing wrong with being a computer scientist in and of itself. I am proud to tell ladies that I am a programmer, and it's usually well received. Just use some confidence, know it's cool, and they will think so, too. Disclaimer: There are some r-tard women out there that you simply can't win this battle with. But in my experience, these people general
  • What are your thoughts on Performing Rights Organizations? Do you collect royalties, and if so, how does it interact with Creative Commons licensing?

  • Songmonkey? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Panaflex ( 13191 )

    Now that you've stooped to epic lows and have arrived at Slashdot, how did you arrive at our nerdy doorway? Do you find that you represent a generation of solitary coders, or are you actually a cool person disguised as a nerd? In other words, do you feel comfortable talking about how many cycles various move instructions take and whether the x86 instruction set is at once one of the universes's greatest achievements and also a momentous failure?

    Lastly... have you ever met your southern doppelgänger?

  • You made Code Monkey several years ago; do you ever intend to revisit this unfortunate soul to see how he's developed in his career? By now he may have progressed from a code monkey to a legitimate software engineer.
  • by just_another_sean ( 919159 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @01:48PM (#36219592) Journal

    ...interested in more about Mr. Coulton, NPR did some pretty coverage on their Planet Money blog:
    Internet Rock Start on NPR []

  • by supersloshy ( 1273442 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @02:00PM (#36219758)

    If you could change one thing about copyright/IP law in the USA, what would it be? If you can't think of only one thing, two or three would be fine. You license your music under a Creative Commons license, which is great as I support Creative Commons and other, similar licenses very much.

    Second, optional question: Who are some of your favorite independent musicians (like you)?

    • I suspect he'd secretly wish that the copyright-police were near-all-powerful and could crush anyone who illegally copied some work that was released under a less friendly license.

      That way the demand for CC licensed music would go way up.

  • If so, what kind and at what public venue should I drop it off?
  • by el_gordo101 ( 643167 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @02:17PM (#36220006)
    Jonathan, how does it feel to have you site slashdotted just minutes after your slashdot interview goes live? Does slashdot or Geeknet offer any sort of compensation to replace your poor little melted-to-slag web server?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's my understanding that if I by music (in a store or online) that the musician only gets less than 10 cents out of every dollar. As a do it yourself act, what are your costs like in proportion to your revenues? I don't want to know how much you're making, I want to know the costs/revenues ratio. Say hello to Scarface for me.

  • You used to work as a code monkey. Now that you don't have that job anymore, do you ever write code in your free time, or are you happe never to use a compiler again?

    ps: Are there any plans for rock band 3 pro mode guitar for some of your existing songs (Please :}
  • What's your favorite sexual position? Also, how do you feel about fisting?
  • I was introduced to your music through Rock Band.
    Do you plan to release more of your songs on Rock Band?
    Will they have Pro Guitar support?
  • by greg1104 ( 461138 ) <> on Monday May 23, 2011 @02:50PM (#36220428) Homepage

    Your year of "Thing a Week" resulted in many great songs. With classics like "RE: Your Brains" on week 26 and "Code Money" on #29, from the outside and in retrospect it seems obvious you'd already reached serious momentum halfway through. Was this apparent to yourself, and did you ever consider ending the experiment early based on that progress? I think it's interesting to consider schedule vs. goal oriented development as something applicable to a self-improvement context.

  • What are your top 4 favorite songs that you created?

    Mine are:
    1: Mandelbrot Set
    2: Chiron Beta Prime
    3: Todd the T1000
    4: Blue sunny day

  • I mean, we all know how subjective taste is, and though I didn't much take to Still Alive, I was quite taken with a couple of others, Your Brains and Code Monkey. These two captured something about the corporate IT experience better than I have ever seen, from a perfect Gen X-y mentality, which it also seems to brilliantly parody.

    The thing Your Brains did which I have never seen before was to couple the corporate manager killer mentality (eg. Office Space), with such an all around, nice, likable guy, an
  • Joco,

    As some one whose career has pretty closely paralleled the "popularization" of geek culture (and perhaps benefited from it), how do you feel on the subject?

    There seems to be a strong divide amongst nerds about public acceptance of larger swaths of what are traditionally "outcast" culture, and not a little bit of backlash against it (a'la Patton Oswalt). As a nerd who can't help but benefit from the continuing popularization (and, perhaps bastardization) of nerd culture, what are your insights?


  • Career longevity (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ElMiguel ( 117685 ) on Monday May 23, 2011 @04:31PM (#36221460)

    Are you worried that at some point you won't be able to support your family by writing (and performing) music? Do you have any plans for that situation?

  • When you're writing a song, how much research do you do into it it ensure accuracy? For example, in the Mandlebrot Set song (excellent analogy "Rorschach Test on fire", BTW), were you just playing the odds, or do you KNOW that it wasn't an unseasonably warm November evening for his birth? Thanks for all the great music.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Another favorite group of mine, They Might Be Giants (whom I think you like too), has been active for almost 30 years now. Do you envision continuing like you are for that long; do you think your style or content will change as you go?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Chuck Norris song requests anyone ?

    PS: posting AC for fear of Chuck Norris

  • Your body of work seems to have a remarkable split personality. A lot of your songs are perfectly kid-friendly, while others are rather raunchy. ("It's the first of May, first of May...") Does that ever get you into trouble?

    For example, do you ever look out into the audience at one of your posted adults-only shows and see kids? If so, what have you done? Have you ever had to decide on the spur of the moment to "redact" an R-rated song from your playlist at a show?

  • Manager is an idiot, boss is a fool. Secretary is hot, and pretends to be interested in what you have to say.
    Honestly, I think she's a little creeped out by the way you hang around the desk.

    Being delusional comes with the job, and you start to think she might be interested in you, but she's not.

    Work is miserable. And it doesn't matter if you're the lowest technology guy on the totem, or the highest.
    No matter what you do, you'll always be a codemonkey as long as you're here. Underpaid, never appreciated, and

  • From wikipedia:
    Thing a Week One (2006)
    Thing a Week Two (2006)
    Thing a Week Three (2006)
    Thing a Week Four (2006)
    Artificial Heart (2011)

    You went from writing a thing a week for 4 albums in a year to a 5 year break from new material. What happened?
  • This question intentionally left blank.

Marriage is the sole cause of divorce.