CS28 - Technology and Music

This week, Myke and John talk about:

  • What does John like to be known for? (Attitude and Opinion)
  • How does Technology fit into John’s life? (Technology)
  • How would an iPhone have affected John’s walks through Europe? (The Big Walk)
  • Technology in the music industry (Music)
  • Archaic structures at record labels (Music)
  • Has the online distribution of his collaboration with Jonathan Coulton influenced him? (Music)
  • Touring with Jonathan Coulton and the different fan base of the online community (Music)
  • Roderick on the Line

John finds that Myke has a very posh accent. Myke grew up in East London and has always had a less Cockney accent than his peers. He was born in the Whitechapel Hospital just outside Bow. If you are born in earshot of the Bow Bells, then you are a true Cockney. Myke has lived his whole life in this area, so he claims to be a true Cockney. John doesn’t believe it! This is already a very different episode compared to the usual episodes of this show because John has not yet spoken about his digital assistant.

What does John like to be know for? (CS28)

John likes to be known for as the one true Christ who has arrived on Earth to shepherd our sin to the post-apocalypse where the believers in John are guaranteed eternal life and the doubters spend eternity in torment. Unfortunately the group of people who so far have accepted that premise is a very small group centered around his house in Seattle. He can count them on one hand, but it is the early days.

What John is mostly know for is being a Rock musician and performer with his band called The Long Winters. He was a member of the Seattle Indie Rock scene during the 1990s and the 2000s. More recently he is known as a podcaster, twitterer and ubiquitous Internet presence in some small corner of the Internet. If you are looking for him, you will find him. Twitter is 1000 points of light and you can be an avid twitterer and still never encounter him, but he is there! His podcast is breaking all kinds of podcast records that are sent to new heights every day. John has a column in the Seattle Weekly what was formerly a village voice publication.

John’s career has become multi-faceted to the point where it is hard to nail down, because being a Rock Musician, Podcaster, Journalist, Tweeter, and Raconteur don’t necessarily follow from one another. A lot of Rock musicians are inarticulate and barely literate (John is thinking specifically of the Gallagher Brothers). As John is getting older, his notoriety is spread across several platforms.

How does Technology fit into John’s life? (CS28)

During John's early Rock’n’Roll life he realized that if he knew how to use a 4-track tape recorder, he would be able to demo his music and could have cassette tapes of his songs to pass around, but he didn’t naturally have the necessary interest in technology to master the art of 4-track recording. His first computer was an IBM PC with 64K of memory and 2 floppy disk drives. Very quickly, his friends who were programming in Basic and he himself diverged paths and he spent most of his time on the computer using the WordStar program, an early word processor that he used as a glorified type writer. He wasn’t interested in programming. A lot of his friends in the late 1970s and early 1980s went into lucrative careers in computers, but while John owned one, he just didn’t have that interest. He wasn’t interested in learning how to use a 4-track either, which inhibited him as a Rock-musician. As time went on and the Internet arrived, The Long Winters did not have a website for a long time, because John couldn’t figure out why you would want that. When they eventually got one, John didn’t understand how to maintain it.

He has been behind with every evolution of technology and he has always expressed dis-interest in it that was probably mostly a fear of it. It has inhibited his career and in many ways inhibited his life. Although John practices all these forms of culture creation, he does not have his own Internet store. It would surely earn him some numbers of hundreds of dollars a week just selling T-shirts with his face on it, because surprisingly there is a market for that, usually among girls between the ages of 17-24. John doesn’t sell those things, because he fears to learn the process of just setting up a simple store and getting that machine working.

When the iPhone came out John felt a great relief, because his phone and his computer would finally have a shared platform. It had been a problem in the past having some things on his phone going through a multi-staged process to get them to his computer. Most of the time, he gave up half way through. Now he has an iPhone and a computer that is a Mac and those things talked to one another, which was great! Unfortunately, as he started to use these tools and as they solved his last generation of problems, they also created a whole new world of problems that can be reduced to the fact that our imaginations are way ahead of what reality is because of Science Fiction. John can imagine an iPhone and a Macintosh computer doing amazing things, but those devices are actually at the very dawn of the evolution. We are at the dawn of the Internet and Smartphones. If computers are analogous to powered flight, then we are 4,5 years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. We are still flying airplanes made out of bicycle parts.

John looks at his phone every day and it fails him. He looks at his computer every day and it fails him. Also the Internet fails him and because his imagination is so far ahead, he is like ”Come on! Can’t we…?”. He was driving in South Washington yesterday and was looking at Google Maps on his iPhone because the iPhone Map application is useless to the point of personal insult. South Western Washington is kind of an unmapped area anyway and this map program was telling him that he was a flashing blue dot in the middle of a sea of nothing. For years he had travelled this part of the state with no smartphone at all, but the fact that he can imagine that this device would be being capable of telling him where he is and the fact that it fails to do so is more of an affront to having no map and reading street signs. John has never had a Microsoft phone or a Google phone or whatever these droid phone are called that have the additional complexity of not interacting with a Mac computer and being designed by Steve Balmer and reflecting his imagination rather than Steve Jobs’. John doesn’t like either one of these guys, but at least Steve Jobs has black turtle necks and is a chic nerd instead of the Steve Ballmer football jock nerd.

Technology and John have a fraught relationship, particularly now where much of his public life is transpiring exclusively on the Internet. His podcast and his Twitter-life are Internet-based and for the first time John is inextricably married to these gizmos. He can no longer say that he is just a guy with an acoustic guitar who doesn’t care, but he has to use those things now! Every time he doesn’t have his phone, he is searching frantically for it. It has infected him! John doesn’t resent it, because he loves the Internet and he loves Twitter and he loves this world that he has access to, but he really feels like a surgeon that is forced to wear welding gloves. It does not have the precision and the acuity that he dreams of.

How would an iPhone have affected John’s walks through Europe? (CS28)

On many of his trips through Europe, John didn’t even bring a disposable camera and there is no photographic evidence of it at all. If you are taking a picture of something, you fail to see it with your eyes. You are trying to record it rather than to experience it. Avoiding that was the Punk Rock principle that he was trying to live according to for many years. At the time he felt liberated from getting this camera to the post office and mailing it home or get this pictures developed or otherwise they would be ruined if he would be caught in a rain storm. It was just one less thing that could break, particularly on some of the longer walks. When he walked from Amsterdam to Istanbul, which took him many months, he didn’t even have a watch. he had no thing that was powered by batteries and no mechanical devices. He had a compass and a sleeping bag.

At a certain point in Hungary John made friends with some local kids in Budapest and as he was about to leave after spending a couple of weeks there, one of the kids, a law student, informed John that he had elected himself to join him for part of the walk until the Romanian border. He had not seen his own country in this way and he had gotten curious when he listened to John’s stories. Off they went! He had a simple wrist watch which he could not help but check. Before that, John would wake up in the morning and would walk until the sun went down, but now they were walking from town to town and were able to time their progress. They were able to know if they were making good time or bad, they were able to calculate their speed and they would not be able to make it to this town before 5pm until they really pick up their pace.

After a few hours, the fact that he had a watch completely changed the rhythm that John had established over months of walking, which was: Is it noon-ish? Then maybe he should sit under a tree and have an apple. Is the sun going down? Then maybe he should look for a place to sleep. These were the only time questions he had. To think of a wrist watch as a psychological technology was very new to him because it is the simplest little machine that you can have, buy all of a sudden it was ordering his life in a fascistic way that he had been free of. After about a day and a half John told the kid to get on a train back to Budapest. Although he is a good man and he wishes him a happy life, he had to get away from him because of simple things like ”we need to get there” or ”we are late”. Having a camera would have been a variation on that theme, like ”I didn’t get that picture”, ”I need to stop here and get this picture”, ”I need to be over here to get the picture”. Not having that, John very quickly lost all desire to record things. With a smartphone that adventure wouldn’t have been anything like it was, but it would have been completely and utterly different.

John continues to go on adventures even now that he has a smartphone and he is broadcasting to an audience all the time. ”Look, here is the back of Zooey Deschanel’s head!" SEND! 10 minutes after that he will go back to the phone and read 25 replies from people, running the gamut from ”That’s not Zooey Deschanel’s head” to ”OMG, you are so lucky!" FAVE! Recording and sharing causes a compulsive behavior, let alone the map program and the time keeping. John would have ended up being a documentarian and a social networker on what in fact was a 6 months long journey in complete solitude where sharing played almost no role. John doesn’t know what way is better. People said they couldn't wait to see the pictures, but John said that he didn’t take any pictures. It must not have happened then! If you would see a picture of John in front of a tree and he would tell you that it was in Bulgaria, you would believe his story? It is unreal to people. Maybe the forced solitude and the Bataan Death March aspect of his 6 months walk across Europe would have been better if he would have tweeted about it? Maybe he would have spent less time huddled under a bush weeping, but it would have been a completely different animal!

Technology in the music industry (CS28)

When John started playing music and all through the Grunge years into the late 1990s, musicians were still largely counting on the major label record business. Although there were bands like Fugazi who have been self-financing their tours, most bands in Seattle hoped to at least get signed by Sub-Pop, which was the smallest label anyone could think of. What you really hoped for was getting signed by Warner Brothers, Sony, BMG or EMI. It felt like the first incarnation of this evolution of technology as those major labels self-destructed and Indie labels rose up out of the ashes, able to promote themselves and produce records. The proto-Internet like the early blogs and message boards played a role in it. Bands counted on those things to promote their music in the absence of major labels who had millions of dollars to spend. Even though the Long Winters didn’t have a website, their first record was heavily promoted by blogs, live-journals, MySpace, Friendster and all these places. That kind of promotion filled that gap and enabled them to have a reach that even 5 years before you would have needed a large promotion budget and a team of people to achieve.

The situation got out of control pretty quickly, particularly when Napster came around. What musicians didn’t expect was that no-one wanted to buy their records if they would be out there for free. It shocked and scared everyone! It didn’t really shock and scare John, because The Long Winters are a cottage industry and he never expected to make $10 million a year making music anyway. As people started stealing his albums, he was earning money other ways. Not to defend stealing records, but it didn’t affect him personally. Maybe it did affect the guys in Metallica who are living hand to mouth now that people have started stealing their albums.

John came up playing music in clubs. He played many shows as the first of three bands on a Tuesday night until he was was playing as the first of three bands on a Thursday night which seemed like quite an evolution. Then he was playing second of three on a Tuesday, then second of three on a Thursday. Then he was given his first headlining show on a Tuesday night until he was playing a headlining show on a Thursday night. At that point he had 100 fans who came to every show. Then he was given his first opportunity to play first of three on a Friday night and then he was second of three on a Friday night, headlining on a Friday night and then opening for a national band on a Saturday night. It took John years to do and in Indie Rock in the early 2000s, they all had this shared experience! Every band, like Modest Mouse and John’s friends in Keane from the UK played many Tuesday night opening slots before they made a record.

A few years ago it suddenly became possible to put out a video on YouTube showing yourself sitting in your own bedroom playing the ukulele. Because of some combination of cuteness, naive quality and maybe songwriting acumen, that YouTube video would acquire a million views. John was backstage at a show chatting with a swell nerd rapper called MC Frontalot. John said that this club was just like a million other black-painted bleach-smelling shitty bars that he had been to his whole life, isn’t that right? Frontalot looked at him and said that the first show he had ever played was in front of 5000 people at Comic-Con in Boston and he had been asked to play the show because he had put some videos of himself on the Internet. After that he just always had an audience.

He had never met the succession of sleazy booking agents and he had never wrestled with other bands for the one bag of M&Ms in the backstage room. He had put some videos of himself rapping on the Internet and he was playing for thousands of people at his first show. That is the way technology has profoundly changed the game. The moment you could point to somebody like Jonathan Coulton or MC Frontalot or some other of these characters who became bonafide Rockstars as a result of putting some stuff on the Internet, that moment has passed. Now there is so much stuff on YouTube that one person can’t really have that experience. Look at Gangnam Style! It has a billion views. You could not accomplish that with money, no record label in the world could have paid enough people to get a billion views of a thing.

For the first time it feels for John like his ludditeism or his agnosticism about putting stuff on the Internet genuinely pushed himoff the road a little bit. Not knowing how to have a web store, not knowing how to put YouTube videos up feels like he has not kept up with certain aspects of technology, particularly around his music career. It is conceivable that there are kids out there who would only discover him if he were on YouTube and John is just not communicating with them.

Archaic structures at record labels (CS28)

There is one Long Winters album that Myke is unable to find for purchase in the UK, called Putting the days to bed. It is not on iTunes and it is not on any of the streaming services. Myke went through The Long Winters site to a web store that holds them and as he put all his information in, but he got the answer that he cannot purchase it because of geographical restrictions. Do those short-sighted things hold back the music industry?

This is an example of what John meant by saying that our whole world of technology is still in the ”one horsepower motor with a bicycle chain” era. Most of the time when John follows a link to something, there will be a pop-up asking him to download an app. He just wants to read this article! Then he doesn’t have the right version of Flash on his computer and Flash is not even supported on this phone. ”Putting the days to bed” was released in Europe on a Dutch label called Munich Records and also released in Spain on a Spanish label called Houston Party. Those labels had some kind of exclusivity over European territories and for whatever reason, the record has presumably more or less gone out of print because Munich records doesn't supported it.

His label Barzuk in the US couldn’t be less interested in Europe. They have more than once expressed the opinion that Europe is just a fantasy that certain people have from watching movies. There is no such place like Europe! Every time John keeps coming back with stories from Europe, people just shake their heads and say ”There he goes again! He has been reading Tolkien and he thinks that hobbits are real." But yes, there really are British people and they talk like Hobbits, but they are normal-sized and no-one here believes it.

Will it still be true 5 or 10 years from now that somebody anywhere in the world won’t be able to go to one location and find all the music of The Long Winters for sale using international space currency that is tied to some kind of international standard? This idea drives nationalists crazy in both their countries! The idea that the pound or the dollar will some day be tied to some standard currency, either the dreaded Euro or maybe the Danish Kronor. It is ludicrous to imagine that you won’t be able to buy music with one touch of a button and that it will be the same standard everywhere, but of course it is not! iTunes UK and iTunes America are somehow different.

If John comes to the UK with his iPhone, he cannot turn it on because even though all the technology wants to work together, someone has figured out that they can charge John $15 a minute to use the map program when he is in Edinburgh. He keeps it on Airport mode (sic) and uses it as a WiFi device, but he can’t use it as a phone. Only 5 or 7 years ago, if you bought a phone in the Netherlands and crossed over into Belgium, all of a sudden you were paying $25 a minute. They had to work hard to achieve that. They could have just let the phone service bleed over into the next country. No! They pointed the transmitters away from one another to achieve this goal of making it impossible to communicate.

Every record contract that you will ever sign has a little clause on page 42 that says something to the effect of: After all the percentages of money you have negotiated, there is a 5% breakage fee off the top, which is a piece of boilerplate that dates back to the time when you sent out 1000 vinyl records and it was presumed that 5% of them would arrive broken. The label didn’t want to pay for this, so 5% off the gross is deducted just to account for breakage. The clause survives not only in record contracts that talk about CDs, but also in record contracts where the majority of records sold are MP3-files on iTunes. It is 5% of immediate profit for an imaginary thing which does not exist! If you are negotiating a record contract and you tell them that this thing is baloney and you would like it to be taken out of the contract, they will tell you that this is standard and they can’t talk about it.

There are threads of that kind running throughout the whole world: Those turf battles between phone companies, these incompatibilities between software makers and computer makers cannot survive and have to be winnowed out! It is like Sony would still be promoting Beta Max 30 years after it was acknowledged that nobody wanted it anymore! The technology market is garbled and it lacks market-Darwinism where a thing makes its attempt, fails and goes away. Instead we have all these incompatible systems working simultaneously. Somebody is trying to make money on their blog by having pop-up ads, somebody else by having hyperlinks. There is no consistency and there is so much noise!

It causes John to retreat into his thick book about Napoleon, but he has lost the ability to read a thick book about Napoleon. He keeps touching the paper trying to get it to link to the page on Wellington. John used to say that when it would get too crazy he would move to a cabin in Montana, but now that it has gotten too crazy and he has no interest in going to Montana. He loves Wikipedia! He loves map programs! These things are spectacular, but John is still glad to have grown up in a world where most of the things he learned and most of the things he knows are things he read in an encyclopedia, which gives him this familiarity when he goes to Wikipedia. He is looking things up that he has kind of read about maybe or that he already knows something about. He is not skimming across an ice pond, but he still has the benefit of a classic education. What will that look like 25 years from now when there in a way is no such thing?

Has the online distribution of his collaboration with Jonathan Coulton influenced him? (CS28)

John has released an album ”One Christmas at a time” together with Jonathan Coulton that was distributed online as MP3s, CDs and some box sets. Has that at all changed the way he thinks about music distribution for himself?

John still has a record contract with a record label that still feels like it is in the business of selling physical CDs. They have now started moving into the digital world, but it was a hard fought with them. John has been friends with Jonathan Coulton for many years. Jonathan lives almost entirely in an Internet-economy, but he is not an evangelist because he recognizes that he was a one of a kind type of artist who made a certain type of music at a certain moment in the Internet’s history. He became ubiquitous and it turned into a career for him, but it is not a thing he recommends to other people. He does have some interesting philosophical corner stones, like the first 1000 people who buy your new album the day it comes out are your true fans and they will pay $50 for that album or $100. They are buying it both to hear the music, but also to support you and they are your most ardent supporters.

If you sell your album to those first 1000 people for $10, you have made $10.000 that day. You have fulfilled the very most basic performance of this relationship, because they want your album and you sell it for $10 to everybody, including 6 months later to the casual perfunctory fan who just heard about you somewhere. Jonathan Coulton feels that this is a terrible model! For those first 1000 people you should sign the CD and you should give them a certificate and you should sell it to them for $50. It is not that you are exploiting them, because they want to pay $50 to get that certificate and that signed CD, that facsimile of a handshake and a look in the eye. They say that they are your biggest fan and you go ”Hello my fan, let me give you this thing!” This is the principle of Kickstarter or message boards where the artist comes out from behind the screen and personally replies to your tweet and is personally offering this CD that he has touched with his hands. So those first 1000 people become $50.000 instead of $10.000. That amount of money can be your whole recording and promotion budget.

In contrast, John’s record label or any record label, looks at that first day and they say that they need as many people as they can get to buy this album on the first day because that is how we prove to people that it is a popular record and the only way they can sell a bunch of these is if they make it very clear that this record is super-popular. They will sell it for $5 the first day to get as many of the cows out there as they can to come into the tent and sign up for this thing. Then they can say that they sold 5000 records the first day. Maybe they sold them for $5 each, but it is the total revenue that matters. The label does not have an interest in caring for those first 1000 fans and giving them anything special. The label wants to just herd them together and they want them to tell their friends and for their friends to tell their friends, which are fundamentally different ideas of how you treat those first 1000 people.

There are a lot of philosophies for how you treat the 25.000 people that come after that, but Coulton’s approach to his first 1000 fans is what intrigues John. In Coulton’s world, those fans belong to you, they are not your record label’s, they don’t belong to anybody else and you shouldn’t share that money with anybody. You and those first 1000 people should live together in a small room where you pet one another’s hair. To herd them together is to insult them or to devalue the aspect of making things that still have a modicum of love in it.

John and Jonathan made their Christmas album with these 1000 fans in mind. They did not really intend that it would shoot up the charts, but it was meant as a talismanic gift. They understood that if they sold signed versions of it or if they sold the CD with a box set, it would intrigue these 1000 people and it would be self-sustaining and profitable without being a thing that they were trying to make $500.000 off of. It cost them $3000 to make and if the whole thing made $30.000 that they would split it in half, it would be a high five. It was fun and it was a master class to John! He will go back to his record label with this experience in mind and he is going to talk about it with them. The Internet offers us the opportunity to invite those 1000 people into our homes without literally having them in our homes. It will be very interesting to see what their response is.

It works for the reasons John said, because Myke has his box right here! It is beautiful and he likes that little wax stamp seal on the little card inside. What does that fulfill? Nothing! But Myke liked it. Those were individually stamped by Jonathan’s wife Christine, which makes it all the more sweeter. It is a wax seal like Henry VIII might have put on a parchment. It is a beautiful thing that you could not sell it on its own, but it is a talisman, so much as we move deeper and deeper into this technology vortex. That is why those artisanal hand soap stores are popping up everywhere. People are hungry for the sense of things being made for them or the feeling that somebody had their hands on a thing.

When John first was on the Internet, he was still being coached by people in the music business, by other artists and people who had come before. They would tell him that he shouldn’t reply to people on message boards and he should not be visible on these places, because he needed to cultivate an area of mystery. There needs to be a clear delineation from artist and fan! If you are on there arguing about guitar tone with people, it demystifies it too far. That was the conventional wisdom among artists in 2003. Now John is on Twitter every day. If you want to send him a thing that says that his song ”Scent of lime” saved their life, more times than not, John will say ”Thanks a lot! XOXO! Fave! Send!” and does it demystify John? Maybe! We are all a bit demystified now, but it does not cheapen the fan/artist-relationship, ii somewhat enhances it instead!

Touring with Jonathan Coulton and the different fan base of the online community (CS28)

A large proportion of the fan base of The Long Winters is not an Internet savvy group and they do not represent the mavens of social networking. The fan base was established in the years between 2002 and 2006 from a group of old fashioned record store employees, hipster music snobs and Indie rock culture people. Although the Internet culture certainly has a corner of those people and a lot of them have made the transition, it is a separate animal. John hears from his fans all the time who are waiting for the email newsletter to tell them what the band will be doing next, but John’s reply is that there is a faster way to do that: You can follow him on Twitter! They often enough ask if Twitter wasn’t a place where people take pictures of their sandwich, because they don’t understand what Twitter is. Facebook is probably as far as they have gotten.

Somebody sent John a tweet the other day from a hotel bar in some town in Australia out in the bush. The bartender was playing The Long Winters record ”Pretend to fall” and the person told John that he found it hilarious because they were literally at the end of the Earth. In Tweeting back and forth with this person, John found out that the bartender had discovered this record through record buyer channels. He had no idea who John was at all, let alone that he was accessible on the Internet. It would not have occurred to him, because he was consuming music and was not interested in being pen-pals with the person who wrote the songs.

There is no fan of Jonathan Coulton who is not on the Internet, because that is the only way you would discover that music. John’s fans are made up of those other creatures, but now that John is on the Internet and is introduced to this new community of people, 35-year olds routinely come up to him at Jonathan Coulton shows and tell him that this was their first music concert and they really enjoyed it. In those situations, John always has to lean in a little closer and ask again: Your first music concert? Ever? Then they are very excited and confirm that they had never been out at night to see a music band, but they really liked it. This happens nightly! How can there be a downside of that? Welcome! Welcome to the world! You have detached yourself from your Aeron chair and you are in a room with other people! A lot of them have social anxiety disorder or whatever, but they came, they had a beer and they watched the show!

John has no way of knowing how he fits into that world, whether or not that is an audience he is just seeing because he is on tour with godfather Coulton or if those people will follow John through his musical adventures. Initially, John's music is probably too figurative. There is no protagonist, but there are a lot of ambiguous set-pieces about people who seem to not be able to have their love affair go very smoothly. Does that appeal to someone who spends all day creating levels for World of Warcraft?

(Myke): Myke found out about The Long Winters music after he started listening to Roderick on the Line and he is a big fan now. Some of the albums, especially When I Pretend to Fall have, been in Myke’s highest play-count for the year and he started listening in August.

For John’s part, he was called a nerd all the way through school. It was the old-fashioned definition of being a nerd, meaning that he used big words, he tried to read the newspaper every day and he preferred talking to adult rather than other kids. Defining a nerd as somebody who likes comic books is a fairly new definition, because when John was a kid, normal people and all the other kids liked comic books. Liking Batman did not make you a nerd, but it made you a kid! John understands that liking Batman as an adult is one of the ways that nerds self-identify as a culture group. He definitely feels that he is a member of the category of people who are consumed and fascinated by esoterica and who are eternally child-like within the realm of ideas. They are not content to take the world as it is spoon-fed by the dominant culture.

John felt an affinity with early internet pioneers and the now ascendant world of technology nerds and it was easy for him to embrace that world and try and figure it out. The Internet has given a voice to this other world of people, the ones who were sitting at the back of the room or who were hugging the wall at a dance or who are otherwise anxious about all the crazy cues that go into just walking up to somebody on the street and say Hello! The Internet has emboldened people who have previously been quiet. Those people have interesting things to say and they have interesting observations, a characteristic that John feels naturally very close to.

The part of nerd culture that is harder for John to feel a part of is the confusion that exists around the idea that liking something is not the same as creating it or owning it. A lot of Internet culture is based on collecting and disseminating the work that you like and curating an online-personality or a feed based on what you like. The thing you like becomes who you are and it entitles you to a feeling of proprietorship over them. ”I like Jonathan Coulton and therefore he must listen to me when I email him and tell him what I think about his new record!” or ”My appreciation of Jonathan Coulton is a part of the larger Jonathan Coulton Internet project”. Neither of those things are true! Jonathan Coulton is making his music and the fact that you like him does not make you own him and does not make you part of his brand. The sense of entitlement to things on the Internet is a real problem. John used to love Judas Priest when he was a kid, but it never occurred to him to send a letter to Rob Halford. If he had replied to it, John wouldn’t have felt that he had any more say in Judas Priest or that their connection meant anything to them.

Whenever John has encounters with people online, he always likes to tell them that if they have a creative impulse, by all means, they should make something! Don’t confine your creative impulse to just appreciating things. Just appreciating things is a honorable practice, but you must not conflate that with making things, because they are different expressions and they are not equivalent.

As John goes through this modern life, he navigates a lot of things where he feels like we are approaching a border here, that a line needs to be drawn and that certain things are on one side and certain things are on the other. Those are largely just cognitive borders, but if you don’t make a distinction between curating and creating, then something real is lost. A playlist is not an album! That definition may be archaic and 50 years from now, a playlist may be an album. The DJs are the ones getting paid, not the sad bastard guitar strummers.

Roderick on the Line (CS28)

Roderick on the Line is a weekly show with Merlin Mann where the two of them sit down and talk. Whatever happens happens, but there are also overarching themes throughout the show. Did John know what he let himself in for when he recorded the first episode?

Merlin and John had been calling each other on the phone and had been yelling at each other about The Beatles for 10 years. Because Merlin is a hyperactive polymath, he would routinely say that he wanted to start recording these conversations and John would be ”whatever!” Then they would continue to yell at each other about The Beatles and about Hitler. A month later they would call each other again and do the same. One day Merlin did start recording their conversations and put them on the Internet, which felt very natural to do, because he was already podcasting from several different platform. John was surprised about how many people were not just interested in eavesdropping in the conversation, but how many people were very much engaged in the conversation despite the multiplicity of topics and the loosely interconnected streams of thought. John was impressed by that because he doesn’t even think Merlin and John themselves understand everything they say. Merlin says a lot of stuff that John only gets 15 seconds later. It was a really good joke, but now we are gone! We are onto something else! We are talking about parrots now.

Merlin talks so fast and he is so quick while John’s stories lumber along and always have some moral component. You get the sense that Merlin is only half-listening to the moral aspect, but then he gets it and the full force of it lands on him and you hear him ”Oh! Wow! Yes! Is this what you are saying?” The fact that other people are interested in hearing all that is wonderful and it has relieved John of 20 years of feeling like he was imperfectly explained. When he would do interviews for newspapers and radio shows, they would edit them and when John would read the final results, he would go ”Nah, not really, that doesn’t get it, you edited out the good part! You don’t know how semicolons work or you put quotes around the wrong word!” On the podcast, Merlin and John are in their own voices and if you listen to enough of them, you can’t help but have the real picture. John could not be more satisfied with it and it is the thing that he is most proud of. It is so simple, but it is 100% unaffected and the fact that people like it means that there are more like-minded people in the world than John had given credit to.

Myke says that if you want to start listening, you have to start at episode 1, because otherwise you will not understand what Supertrain or Pump Chili is and it is important! You may find references to Pump Chili and blow-up dolls funny when you hear them, but you need to understand that these are jokes that have run for months and nobody would understand Supertrain without hearing the overarching theme of Supertrain. Supertrain was an idea that appealed to a lot of people immediately in a way that John wasn’t prepared for. It has taken off in other people’s imaginations and exists in a far more fleshed-out reality than John can lay credit to. People fell like they know Supertrain, they know it is coming and they are looking forward to it.

John has no idea where the Supertrain stickers are coming from. The first stickers with quotes around Supertrain are largely Merlin’s reaction to Supertrain. They started appearing originally in Brooklyn and people sent John pictures of it. Then people would send him pictures from all over, from Mexico City and all across Europe. John has no idea who is producing them and how they are making this uniform sticker that goes all over. More importantly, when John was done with the Christmas show that he had played with Jonathan Coulton in Brooklyn, there was one in his guitar case and he doesn’t know how it arrived there.

John has friends in a couple of different cities who have stopped sending him pictures and have started sending him concerned text messages. Is John running a cult? Are they supposed to understand the meaning of these quotes in a way that they are not? There are a couple of very concerned texts who are afraid that John is doing this to freak them out. He is in Seattle, he has nothing to do with it! If he would be making those Supertrain stickers, he would be selling them for $5 each and he would be making money. Nobody would tell John where they come from, even though he asked, which is in keeping with the Supertrain philosophy. They sound like somebody who waits until the last possible minute to board a plane, they sound like somebody who checks their cigs and John has only the highest esteem for that. They keep on moving, they slap Supertrain stickers all over the place and they get out of the way!

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