There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch


Jonathan Coulton built his entire career on the Internet. The rest of us are supposed to follow.

A friend and I were riding our Vespas over in West Seattle a couple of weeks ago when we rounded a corner and came face to face with a full-grown coyote standing in the street. His body-language and his tremendous ears gave him away from a distance: not a dog. Low-slung, grey and slinky, his tail bushy as a squirrel’s, he moved like a thief. By the time we pulled our Vespas to a stop he’d scooted up into the brush, but he peered back at us for awhile before dissolving into the shadows. Despite his wild manner he seemed perfectly unflustered on the manicured hillsides of Fauntleroy. My friend and I were jumping around with excitement, but a neighbor in his driveway gestured unperturbed (Mr. Cool West Seattle) to a sign on a nearby telephone pole, which read, “A family of coyotes is eating cats, so BEWARE!”

I have to say, cat-lover that I am, that I am even more in love with the cat-eating coyotes of West Seattle! I haven’t rooted for an animal like this since that bear swam over from Vashon Island last year and freaked out Federal Way. I get the feeling that there may be coyotes all over West Seattle, but until they start eating Volvos no one is going to raise a stink. My one complaint about the wildlife around here is that it always seems to make itself scarce whenever I have out-of-town guests visiting from faraway places. I make a big production to my far-flung friends about how the bald eagles are going to eat their Pomeranians, and how the sea lions break into unlocked cars, and how the raccoons drink Night Train and have learned to make phone calls, but whenever I have a friend visiting from, say, Spain, the in-town animal life seems to take a union break. Two days before my most recent Spanish guest arrived I had a possum fighting a great Horned Owl across my front lawn, but for the three days of her visit, the best I could muster was a trip to watch the smelt get pummeled by the current at the Ballard Locks. “Their bodies are getting acclimated to the salt water, see?” I said. “Yawn,” she yawned.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago the musician Jonathan Coulton came to town to play two sold-out shows at the Triple Door, and the two of us took in an early dinner at Quinn’s on Capitol Hill, which is the restaurant an Audi Quattro Wagon would be if it could be a restaurant. Jonathan is widely regarded as perhaps the only musician who is actually building a career for himself entirely on the internet, despite the conventional wisdom that the ENTIRE music business is either going to embrace the internet or starve huddled in a cold alley selling matches. Jonathan invites his fans to pay for his songs, but he doesn’t require that they do. It’s an idea that seems so logical and effortless that there have been at least fifteen issues of Wired and four million boring podcasts devoted to it, causing every blithe suburban twit with an 80GB iPod and a semester of Marx to rip whatever music they want believing it’s a fait accompli and that the bands approve. But in actual fact it appears that only Jonathan Coulton in the whole of the universe is actually managing to earn a living exclusively this way.

But Jonathan is quick to point out that his success on the web is due partly to the fact that his target audience is the high-geek priesthood for whom the internet is native ground. I’m not talking about the ten percent of the population who have figured out how to pay their bills online, I’m talking about the nerd-elite who experienced their first sexual stirrings while reading Elf Quest comics, who spell magic with a “k”, and dream about attack ships burning off the shoulder of Orion. Jonathan writes songs about killer robots, giant squid, angry monkeys, and the joys of tech support, and his audience enthusiastically relates. And to his credit, if you squint your ears, the songs themselves sound like Seals and Crofts, which is awesome. But overall, his success on the internet only points out how hard it is for the rest of us to navigate this transition.

Long Winters fans, for instance, spend their money on Pabst and overdue library fees, and every once in awhile buy 180 gram vinyl which they don’t unwrap. How the hell am I going to sell THAT on the internet? All my attempts to appeal to the internet super-nerds just resulted in one guy in St. Louis coming to the show in a Punisher tee-shirt and laughing at all the wrong banter.

On a related note, I watched half of the documentary “Festival Express” the other night, about a bunch of hippies on a concert tour across Canada in 1970. I couldn’t watch the whole thing because the camera kept cutting away to shots of shirtless Canadian hippies doing the “trippy dance”, and it put me into a murderous rage. Still, the main concern of the bands throughout the film is that “the kids” of that era expected to get into the concert for free and consequently the whole tour was going bankrupt. Woodstock put it into everybody’s head that rock concerts were a public service, and it’s super-gratifying to watch footage of Jerry Garcia explaining to the crowd that paying admission to the concert wasn’t some kind of fascist head-trip. The lesson I took away from it is that kids have been trying to get their music for free for the last forty years, and all those self-righteous boomer gasbags from 1970 are now record company executives indignant over file-sharing. The real solution is to lock all kids in work camps until they’re 29 and ready for mating. If you are a parent, please start undermining your kids now, so they won’t feel so damn entitled. Try rolling your eyes at everything they say.

As a nice contrast, I recently experienced some full-on, old school arena rock that I’d spent twenty-five years sort of half-anticipating. When I was in high school my sister used to play her records over and over at top volume on her cheap Fisher stereo. Our bedrooms were right next to each other and her music thumped incessantly through the walls, interrupting my deep thoughts about the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Eventually I developed a form of Stockholm Syndrome, wherein I began to actually like, and eventually love, the New Romantic music of Human League, Roxy Music and Duran Duran. I even got into fights with fellow metalheads about it later, insisting that side two of Rio was better than anything by Megadeth, which is an unforgivable apostasy in some circles. But growing up in Alaska I’d never had the chance to see Duran Duran live, until a spontaneous invitation last week found me a few rows back at the Wamu Theater jumping around like a girl with too many belts. The show itself was kind of boring, as the band mistakenly interpreted two thousand thirty-six-year-old women screaming “RIO!!” as an entreaty to play five more bloodless tunes from their recent, techno albums. Still, the band looked great, (except for Nick Rhodes, who looked like Katie Couric’s mom) and played enough hits from the early years that most everyone was satisfied.

When the show was over and the lights came up I was suddenly aware that the entire audience was in my exact demographic. Two thousand women between the ages of thirty-five and forty, all dressed in various approximations of “slinky” and “chic”, all of whom certainly knew most of the words to "Careless Whisper." I was searching the crowd, looking for a wife, disappointed that I didn’t see any fedoras or sleeveless ESPRIT sweatshirts, when I noticed how many dudes were there. Hundreds of guys in their late thirties, all sporting the same exact short, gelled hair, the same leather car coat, and the same relaxed-fit jeans. The men of my generation are a sartorial blemish upon the world! I don’t know what motivates that kind of conformity, whether it’s fear of looking gay, or lobotomy-by-Coors, or what, but if you’re reading this right now, and you’re a man in his thirties or forties wearing relaxed-fit jeans, I beg of you: jazz it up!

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