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June 26, 2019

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Musical web ensnares ‘professional geeks’

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Jonathan Coulton launched his music career by writing, recording and posting songs on his Web site.

Forget the politics of the music industry. That’s so 20th century.

Jonathan Coulton launched his music career by writing, recording and posting songs on his Web site. He established a fan base and then performed in cities with a large contingent of listeners.

“The old way of doing things sounds to me so grueling and awful,” says Coulton, who will perform Friday at Bally’s as part of the Coverville 500 party.

“It’s one of the things that kept me out of the business for a long time. The story was that to make it big you have to drive around in a stinky van up and down the East Coast and play to empty houses. The van breaks down. You’re eating fast food, you’re up late and driving all day.”

Not for Coulton, whose fans are so devoted, so involved and so technologically advanced that they create videos to his mostly folk rock songs and post them on YouTube. Coulton releases all his music under Creative Commons, a license that allows for the sharing of material.

“It’s great to have someone say, ‘I love your songs,’ ” he says. “It’s even better to have them say, ‘Here’s a music video I made. I spent hours and hours putting this together.’ ”

When the Yale music graduate quit his computer programming job in 2005, he already had a small following from a few New York performances and work with John Hodgman (who plays the PC in Apple’s TV ads) on the “Little Gray Lecture Series,” a performance at the PopTech Conference in Maine. Coulton drew more attention by pledging to write, record and post one song a week for as long as he could, which turned out to be one year. But it was his cover of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” that spread through the Internet and drew new listeners to his site.

Typical fans are “professional geeks” who write code, administer servers or build databases, he says. “They are culture geeks as well. They’re interested in things like ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘World of Warcraft.’ They might be carrying action figures with them.”

He speaks their language in his songs “Code Monkey,” “Bacteria” and “That Spells DNA.” Other fans prefer his whimsical pop culture songs (“Tom Cruise Crazy”) or personal songs about what it’s like to be a parent.

Coulton can track a song’s popularity in real time: “You get addicted to spikes in traffic and you get depressed when the spikes go away.”

But it all evens out. After he plays Las Vegas, Coulton is heading to Ireland and England to meet his European fans.

“Looking back, it looks very calculated, but it was kind of a freewheeling leap into the unknown,” he says. “It’s a delightful surprise every time I walk out onstage and there are people there. You get all this feedback from the void, but you don’t know where it’s coming from and how big it is.”

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