It’s 7:30 a.m. on a late-winter Thursday, and the songwriter and YouTube performer Jonathan Mann is prowling his family’s apartment in Hartford’s West End, tidying up. A colorful chaos of toys announces that little kids live here. Two mini electric guitars, one white, one pink, hang on a living-room wall, beneath a poster for The Mario Opera, a Nintendo-based rock opera Mann wrote in graduate school 15 years ago.
Mann’s wife, Juliana, swoops by, hurrying to get their 3-year-old daughter, Pippi, to preschool; their 6-year-old son, Jupi, schooling virtually today, remains asleep upstairs. “Don’t forget, the dryer vent guy is coming!” Juliana shouts on her way out, leaving Mann to begin his workday.
He shows me into his studio, where a desk hosts two giant computer screens, a piano keyboard and a microphone. Mann, 38, sports a hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and Crocs, and is eating a bagel. “From Goldberg’s in West Hartford,” says the songwriter, who arrived in Connecticut last year from New York City. “The only good bagels we’ve found.” The room contains numerous guitars and ukuleles. Mann’s parents are both psychologists, and on one wall hangs a line drawing of a head filled with spaghetti-like thought strands, one emerging through the mouth, over the slogan, “Talk it Out.”
Mann settles down in his command-and-control center. His job today is to write a song, record it and put it on YouTube. That’s his job every day — and has been ever since New Year’s Day 2009, when he picked up a ukulele, recorded a wistful ditty called “In the Time of the Gods” and posted it. What began as a month-long challenge morphed into something way larger, and a dozen years later he’s still at it: day in, day out, well over 4,500 songs and counting, an oeuvre that has won him 70,000-plus YouTube subscribers. A framed certificate from The Guinness Book of World Records lauds Mann’s Song a Day effort and attests to his status as world record holder for consecutive daily songs.
I ask what today’s song is. “No idea,” he says. He still has 16 hours, after all.
As a child growing up outside Burlington, Vermont, Mann “couldn’t carry a tune,” and his family wasn’t particularly musical. Still, at 12, obsessed with Bob Dylan, he decided to become a songwriter. “It would be 10 p.m., and I’d burst into my parents’ room with my guitar and play a song I’d just written.” His parents were amused and baffled by their son’s prodigiousness. “I was an alien to them. You know, in a good way.”
But his musical mission really took off in 2005 with the advent of YouTube. Living in Berkeley, an unemployed 23-year-old who loved video games and music, Mann found himself captivated by an early YouTube show called Game Life. “The two guys who did it were really funny. And then it got picked up by MTV, and I thought, holy shit, this is crazy.” He recalls the dawn of YouTube as a heady time. “It was incredibly exciting to make stuff people could see, anywhere. It was unfathomable not to want to be a part of it.”
And so, in 2006, he posted his first YouTube video, as “Game Jew.” The unlikely format involved interviewing people — and singing songs — about video games. After two years of Game Jew came a short-lived show called Rock Cookie Bottom, in which Mann gave listeners creative assignments. “You know, make a puppet show about sadness, or draw what you dreamed last night. They sent in their results, and I’d show them and sing a song.” The through line in these early YouTube efforts was singing, and finally it occurred to Mann to ditch the incidentals. “It was so obvious! Just make songs!”
Mann uses Song a Day as a kind of musical diary, a bulletin board where he sticks daily musical Post-it notes about whatever interests him. In fact, he has a song about Post-it notes — No. 88, “I Am Just a Little Post-It Note.” His song titles, listed on a vast spreadsheet, track the grazings of a cultural omnivore. Mann has posted songs about Jews who celebrate Christmas; about World Emoji Day; about the world’s oldest tortoise. He has sung about The Great Gatsby; the yuckiness of smog; the birth of his first child; about fortune cookies, and George W. Bush’s painting hobby, and making a cheese sandwich for his father. He is the troubadour of whatever is on his mind.
Today, one thing on his mind is GameStop. Congress is holding hearings on the stock runup, and Mann plans to watch. He frequently mines politics for song material; one of his first songs (No. 84) was “My Obama Neurosis,” and a later entry is the raucously hilarious “Let’s Get Rick Santorum Laid” (No. 1155). His interest in today’s hearing lies in one witness: the trader Keith Gill, whose bullish posts about GameStop galvanized the Reddit-based run that drove the stock sky-high, wounding some hedge-fund giants. Mann is an admirer, and wants to hear Gill speak. “Maybe he’ll comment on the absurdity of being called into Congress. If there’s something good there, I might use it.”
Meanwhile, there are other things on his plate. He has a Zoom meeting with an artist in London, and he’s waiting on a call from Mark Cuban. As in, the NBA owner Mark Cuban? The songwriter grins. “Well, I did an NFT of a remix of Cuban that I made, which we sold on the blockchain for 7 ETHs, and now he wants to do more.”
“Come again?” I ask. Mann laughs. “This is gonna get very meta very quickly,” he says.
For the past year he’s been pushing a “blockchain collectible project” based on his songbook. Blockchain is the digital ledger that facilitates the cryptocurrency bitcoin, but its other uses include the creation of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, encrypted digital assets created to be verifiably unique. “NFTs allow for anything digital — a photo, a song, a video, a tweet — to be scarce in a way it couldn’t before,” Mann explains. “If I’m an art collector, when I own a painting, it’s one of a kind, right? Digital, on the other hand, has always meant you can copy and paste. Now imagine a world where you have something digital and you can prove it’s the original, the only one.” What provides proof is the object’s encryption, via a number called the “hash.” “That’s really what you’re owning. A 64-digit number on the blockchain.”
Pumping value into internet memes, tokenization has sparked a boom that combines gaming, investing, collecting and gambling. Mann has become fascinated by the digital collectibles known as CryptoPunks, headshot hipster figures generated through computer code and originally given away for free. The market for them, he says, has become “extremely frothy.” He clicks on his computer. “See this guy? CryptoPunk 2890. He just sold for 605 ETHs.” Ethereum is a cryptocurrency akin to bitcoin. “That’s $751,000!”
The NFT craze led to Mann’s Mark Cuban thing. The brash, intensely self-promoting NBA owner is obsessed with blockchain commerce, and recently undertook to sell personalized video messages as NFTs. “He did one reading a poem some guy wrote about CryptoPunks,” Mann says. When Mann saw the video, he decided to play around with it. He tweeted the resulting song (No. 4428, “Mark Cuban Raps About CryptoPunks”), and Cuban messaged him within the hour. “He says, ‘Can we sell that song as an NFT?’ So far we’ve sold 352 copies at .02 ETH each. That’s $13,000. We’re splitting it three ways — the guy who wrote the poem, Mark Cuban, and me.” The songwriter chuckles. “It’s a mindtrip, isn’t it?”
For a web-centered artist like Mann, such innovations as NFTs open up new ways to earn a living. That’s what he’s Zooming about this morning, with a British graphic artist known as Defaced Studio. To tokenize his songs, Mann has broken them down into component categories such as Instrument, Topic, Location and Mood, and is hiring artists to produce images to go with the tunes, turning each into a bundled — and collectible — entity.
“For me, it’s a potential way to make Song a Day self-sustainable,” Mann says. “Basically I’m making each song into a unique digital object you can own.” His hope is to sell his first year of songs for .1 ETH each, or $190. That’s a year of songs for about $70,000 — with a dozen more years in the arsenal.
The Zoom meeting starts. “Sorry about the mess you’re seeing in my studio,” Mann apologizes. “Hey, I realize I don’t even know your name!”
“It’s Kane,” the artist says in a slight Cockney lilt.
After praising the artist’s work, Mann describes the project, and he and Kane go through the different visual components. “Does that all make sense?” Mann asks.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Kane says. “I’ll get going on this pronto.”
“Cool. I’m happy to send you the three ETHs up front.” In addition, Mann has agreed to pay his artists 40 percent of whatever the tokens end up going for. “Once your things are ready, I’m gonna do a launch. Let’s talk soon.”
Around midmorning the cleaning lady comes, and the family’s sitter appears, with Jupi in tow. It’s hard not to think about how precarious a basis Mann’s career must be for starting a family. Juliana, who serves as remote office manager for her father’s law firm in Maryland, provides some income; as for Mann, he works hard to monetize his songwriting — entering video contests for cash prizes, putting songs up for sale on Patreon, creating online advertising jingles, doing personal commissions for birthdays and other occasions.
Another gig involves corporate conference work, for clients ranging from Dr. Pepper to Novartis. “I attend a conference, then do a song at the end, singing back everything they heard over two days.” At a 2012 TedMed Conference, Mann’s closing song listed 50 health care challenges the group had prioritized. If you’ve never heard anyone sing about optimizing childhood diagnosis, well, now you can. As a freelance songwriter — one with kids to feed — Mann can’t afford to be selective. Does he ever say no? “Only once. It was to create a song for a horse race betting app. I was like, I’m drawing the line!”
Some of his songs have gone viral — like “Baby Yoda Baby Baby Yoda,” (No. 3980), posted in late 2019 after the opening of the Star Wars spinoff, The Mandalorian. At more than 9 million YouTube views, it is Mann’s most popular Song a Day effort. “That one song has kept us afloat in the pandemic,” he says. “Going viral on TikTok meant ad revenue and, in effect, a streaming royalty. It drove views on YouTube way up. And it drove listeners on Spotify.” All in all, “Baby Yoda” has netted $60,000, and counting. Not bad for a two-minute piece of work.
I ask Mann what his hopes for Song a Day were at the start, how clear a vision he had of where it might go. “None,” he says. “It was a month-long gag. Honestly, everything good in my career is the result of complete whim. Even if I think about planning, it’s not gonna happen. There’s like, a weird Zen state, where I’m just doing it, on a total lark.”
At noon, Mann drives to pick up Pippi at Montessori preschool in Hartford’s North End. On his kids’ unusual names, he explains that once he and Juliana had picked “Jupiter” for their firstborn, they felt committed to the same level of uniqueness. Thus “Epiphany.”
Pippi waits at the curb with a teacher, and Mann gets out and bearhugs his daughter. “What did you do today? Did you play with slime?”
“Nope!” she says in her tiny voice. “No slime at school today!”
Back home, after a stop at Starbucks, Mann grabs a bowl of leftover stir-fry for lunch and heads back to his studio. He checks his computer screen. “Look at this — CryptoPunk 4156 just sold for a million dollars!” He shakes his head in amazement. “People are assuming this is normal. We’ll see.”
Checking his watch, he turns on C-SPAN. The Senate committee is taking GameStop testimony from the CEO of Robinhood, the trading platform most famously used for the run on the stock. Mann listens to him ramble about payment-to-order flows. “This is purposefully opaque,” he complains. “Maybe I should get a song done right now, in case this whole thing doesn’t work out. Let’s go to Plan B.” It’s Song a Day time.
Deploying two microphones, Mann positions his phone on a tripod in front of him, using his smartwatch to align the video angle. His cue for today’s song is a dream that Jupi had recently. “He dreamed I made him a smoothie, and it was really gross because there was a head in it.” Strumming his guitar and singing, improvising as he goes, Mann records a melody; when it’s done, he dives into editing it. “Gotta fix my vocals here,” he says, adjusting. “I’m always pitchy!” He adds a synthesized drumbeat, then a bass line, using another guitar. After that, a harmonica bit. Piece by piece, in a little over an hour, Mann assembles a jaunty, easygoing ditty about the sweetness and considerateness of family life (No. 4438), entitled “Take My Bullshit.”
There’s a head in the smoothie, there’s a unicorn up the hill,
And we’re going to the movies, ’cause we got time to kill.
I never knew how much you could take my bullshit, could take my bullshit…
“That’s about as fast as it goes in Song-a-Day land,” the musician comments, after posting to YouTube. He’s satisfied with the song. “I’d say it has a ‘Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’ meets ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ vibe,” he says, citing two Dylan songs.
Bob Dylan was Mann’s first music hero. But Mann’s inspired goofiness — a Dada-like sense of absurdity, sparkling with exuberance — owes less to Dylan than to singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, the Boston punk rocker who took a leap into droll faux-naïvete with such songs as “I’m a Little Dinosaur.” Mann reveres Richman, emulating his childlike curiosity and uninhibitedness. “Jonathan has no shame in using songs to express his love for things. Just like Pippi — she loves unicorns, so she’s gonna sing about them. She doesn’t think twice! That’s what I try to do musically. Like, who would think to write a song about a chewing-gum wrapper?”
Or, say, about Paul Krugman. In Song a Day No. 77, “Hey Paul Krugman,” Mann fashioned an ode to the liberal economist and New York Times columnist. The song went viral, and Mann was invited to perform it on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC — as Maddow wielded a child’s soap-bubble ring, blowing bubbles to Mann’s zany song. Afterward, Maddow asked him about his stupendous output. “My basic idea,” Mann told her, “is that the more songs I produce, the better chance I have of writing some that are really good. You know — Do it, do it, do it, do it — and something good will happen.”
It often does. One day after Mann posted a song dissing the new Apple iPhone 4 (No. 565, “The iPhone Antenna Song,”) he got a phone call from Apple, requesting permission to use it for their press conference. Grinning hugely, Mann shows me a clip of a smiling Steve Jobs coming onstage as the song plays — the Apple founder visibly bopping to Mann’s melody. Mann confesses to playing it over and over.
“Check that off the bucket list,” he says. “Making Steve Jobs dance.”
Humans are creatures of both habit and inspiration. Jonathan Mann’s accomplishment with Song a Day has been to make the creative act as routine as brushing your teeth.
I ask him, does he ever feel like just … stopping? He laughs. “Totally!” In a talk a few years ago at the XOXO Festival — an annual convocation of web-based artists — the songwriter described his recurring nightmare that “the internet is a great gaping maw, and I’m frantically shoveling in songs. ‘Content creator, FEED ME!’ ” Recompense comes from listeners who post grateful messages telling him how much a song meant to them. And after 12 years, he says, it would be hard to stop. “The momentum is huge. Part of my brain is wired to do this now.”
Song a Day has allowed Mann to assemble his life story in songs — an autobiography that fans can piece together. In No. 816, “Vegan Myths Debunked,” he and his then-girlfriend, Ivory King, sing a jokey colloquy about her veganism (“Isn’t vegan food just bland and gross?” “No, it’s yummier than most!”). Jump ahead 625 songs — two years, in calendar time — and you land on No. 1441, “We’ve Got to Break Up,” with the pair singing a funny-sad ballad about their decision to split. A bit later, “Hey, You Found a Boat” (No. 1458) marks the start of Mann’s romance with Juliana. And skipping ahead another 500 songs yields “To the Asshole that Stole $5000 From Me” (No. 1965), in which a now-married Mann, blasting whoever skimmed his credit card, holds a newborn Jupiter and sings: “Come meet my son, he’s eight days old / Even he knows you’re an asshole.” And in “A Duet with My 14 Year Old Self” (No. 1875), Mann uses home video from 1996, showing a longhaired ninth-grader playing a guitar and singing — offkey — in a Dylanesque mode, then delves further back to footage of him at 6, dancing deliriously in the family’s living room. Mann adds himself today, commenting self-deprecatingly; the deft anachronistic remix offers a joyful retrospect of his own musical roots.
Mann didn’t set out to write a musical memoir. But he thinks about it more and more as time passes. “Fifty years from now, when I’m 88, hopefully I can look back and see the life-story aspect of it. And my kids and grandkids too.” He recently calculated that if he were to keep Song a Day going until he’s 100, his spreadsheet will list 23,440 songs. Can he imagine doing it the rest of his life? Mann shrugs. “There’s no endgame. Honestly, I think I’m bound to do this as long as I breathe air.”
Toward the end of my visit, a strange thing happens: I suddenly recall that a decade ago, I knew who Mann was — briefly, anyway — when I read about some guy and his girlfriend who broke up in an online song, and some culture writer for New York Magazine who mocked it, whereupon the guy wrote a song about him. For me the episode was a moment’s nibble from the shelves of the internet, a brief snack eaten during a break from whatever I was doing that day. For Mann it was, and remains, part of his M.O.
Mann belongs to the first generation of creative types who came of age completely on the web, and who succeed by attracting eyes, hoping to land a spark of attention in the tinder of whatever they have to offer. It is the ultimate “throw things on the wall and see what sticks” kind of creative life. Do it, do it, do it — and something good will happen.
For a YouTube songwriter, maximizing output is an adaptive behavior, one that boosts the chance of someone noticing. It helps that Mann spurns perfectionism: “I’m just not built for it,” he confesses. Over seven-plus decades, his hero, Bob Dylan, has written 500 songs; a little over two years from now, Mann will have written 10 times that number. I ask what he thinks of that comparison, and he laughs. “I think that if any of my songs is 1/54th as good as anything by Dylan, I’ll be lucky.”
Mann notes that every song of his that has gone viral over the years did so because of “some Zeitgeisty thing”—piggybacked on whatever’s trending online and in social media. And the relationship between a song’s quality and its popularity? “Absolutely zero,” he says.
When I ask if he finds this discouraging, the songwriter cites a remark once made by Martha Graham to her friend and fellow choreographer Agnes de Mille. De Mille had complained that of all her creations, the one that people liked most — the Broadway musical Oklahoma! — was one she herself despised. “Graham told her that it wasn’t her job to decide what gets to be popular,” Mann says. “The artist’s job is to keep the channel open. Keep making stuff.”
Graham, he notes, liked to talk about an artist’s restlessness. “She spoke to de Mille about ‘the queer, divine dissatisfaction, the blessed unrest that keeps us marching.’ ” The Song a Day maven smiles. “I take such comfort from that line. It crystallizes something I’ve always felt — a feeling I’ve had, my entire creative life, that no matter what I do, I’m never satisfied. And she’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to be, dude. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.’ ”