Earlier this year, NPR's Planet Money podcast — a joint effort between NPR News and This American Life designed to explain economics in a way that doesn't make laymen want to vomit out of sheer anxiety — briefly set its sights on the music industry in order to ask one bold question: "Is this man a Snuggie?"
The man in question was Jonathan Coulton, a former computer programmer living in Brooklyn who — despite his negligible mainstream presence and absolute lack of label support — made half a million dollars last year writing and recording geek-friendly songs with names like "Code Monkey" and "Re: Your Brains" and selling them for a buck apiece on his website. For host Alex Blumberg, Coulton's success poses a critical counterpoint to the idea that the Internet is dismantling the music industry, one free MP3 at a time.
NPR Music contributor Frannie Kelley, however, remained unconvinced.
"He's kind of like a Snuggie," she says. "We didn't know we wanted it, and then all of a sudden we did." But there's one glaring issue with the Snuggie comparison: It suggests that Jonathan Coulton's business model is a brand-new innovation. But, realistically, Coulton owes a significant chunk of his fame to the trails previously blazed by two other artists with careers spanning three decades — artists performing within days of each other this week in Nashville: They Might Be Giants and "Weird Al" Yankovic, who have been appealing to a niche and maintaining the kind of long-term relationship with their fans that most contemporary artists can only dream about.
"It's not uncommon for me to have a grown adult come up to me and say that they got into me when they were a small child," Yankovic told the Scene during a break in his Alpocalypse Tour. "It's nice to know that I've been a part of some people's lives for a long time at this point."
That's putting it lightly. Weird Al has been entrenched in popular culture since the day "My Bologna" was first played by Dr. Demento on Demento's radio program in 1979. With 13 albums under his belt, Yankovic is one of the most successful and celebrated novelty musicians in history — up there with Ray Stevens. Though Yankovic is quick to point out that his fans span many demographics and that he doesn't deliberately attempt to court young listeners, his songs have an undeniable appeal to kids buying records for the first time. A song like the now infamous Lady Gaga parody "Perform This Way" is something of a perfect storm: Its combination of absurd humor and pop familiarity has the same tractor-beam effect on young people that The Simpsons or Family Guy can claim.
"I think, probably, my hardest-core fans are about the same age that I was when I got into Mad magazine, which was probably 12, 13 years old," says Yankovic. "I think perhaps at a certain age, kids have some kind of chemical that gets released into their brain where they start appreciating this particular type of comedy — satire, parodies, pun, irreverence and things like that."
These are fans who, in many cases, Yankovic has had for life — whether they got into his records thanks to singles "Eat It," "It's All About the Pentiums" or "White and Nerdy" — and will eventually pass the fandom down to their own children. They're fans who are actively petitioning the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame on behalf of Yankovic, holding conventions and coveting their copies of UHF and Al TV on VHS cassette tapes. They Might Be Giants multi-instrumentalist John Linnell might call these fans a band's "front row."
"We've never had a really good plan for cultivating or recruiting fans, but we've been very lucky that it's worked out this way," says Linnell. "Aside from doing kids' music, we've had this oddly consistent refreshing of our audience. ... I think in some colleges you're issued a copy of Flood during your orientation."
Much like Yankovic, They Might Be Giants have been appealing to young listeners — whether by design or not — for decades. Though they're finding that their audiences are regularly college-age, many of those college-age fans could conceivably have discovered them from a 1991 animated music video of "Particle Man" on Tiny Toon Adventures. Or, perhaps in the future, their fans will have discovered them via their recent series of children's music albums: No!, Here Comes the 123s, Here Comes the ABCs and Here Comes Science.
"It was an idea that we backed into," Linnell says regarding the kids' records. "We thought we'd make songs for kids during spare moments in the studio."
The key for both Weird Al and They Might Be Giants lies somewhere in the 1,000 True Fans theory outlined by blogger Kevin Kelly. Kelly suggests that a person working in the creative arts — a musician, a writer, a dancer, etc. — can support themselves if they can build and maintain a fan base of 1,000 diehards (more or less depending on the medium). These are the people who are willing to drop $80 on They Might Be Giants' Instant Fan Club — a lifetime membership that comes with perks like exclusive vinyl — or camp out on Ticketmaster for front-row seats to Weird Al.
But, as Yankovic discovered earlier this year, these fans fill a valuable role that goes above and beyond pure financial support. "When I had that whole kerfuffle with Lady Gaga a few months ago," Yankovic says, referring to the pop glitter queen's people shutting down his parody of "Born This Way," "a lot of people got a lot of righteous indignation on my behalf. It was really kinda through their reactions that we were able to finally get my single and the album out."
Maybe — ignoring how thoroughly uncool it must feel to be compared to a blanket with sleeves — it would be absolutely accurate to label Weird Al and They Might Be Giants as Snuggies. After all, before Weird Al, how many people thought they wanted to hear a Coolio parody? Before They Might Be Giants, how many people thought they wanted to hear lightly absurd college rock sung from the perspective of a nightlight? But is that really the point?
Though Yankovic and They Might Be Giants might never be "cool" in the way that Jack White and Radiohead are "cool," they offer fans something that Jonathan Coulton (who, incidentally, is opening for They Might Be Giants on their current tour) recognizes immediately: "I still think that a lot of [my] sales that come through are from people who are choosing to buy it. And it's because — I think in my case more than some other artists for sure — you know that the money's going to me, and I think people feel like they're a part of something."