While many know him for dancing on treadmills alongside his band, OK Go singer Damian Kulash is also a vocal critic of the music industry's aging business models. He has written op-eds about major record labels' short-sightedness for the New York Times and The Washington Post, and in 2010, his band left its label and began working with brands including State Farm, Samsung, Flip Camera and Range Rover. He says these companies have filled the role OK Go's label once played, investing in the band's videos and tours and allowing them to keep "making the thing we want to make." Currently at work on a new album, Kulash spoke with us about this alternative business model and about the future of his industry. He also offered some advice for making videos that people want to share. (Hint: "Nobody goes, 'God, this thing made me so anxious and angry and want to vomit so I want to show this to my mom.'")
A few years ago, you guys left your label and started working with brands instead. How did you decide to go in that direction?
We started working with brands because it was a more direct way of making the thing we want to make. In the early 2000s, when we were signed onto a major label, we had a perfect on-the-fence type of success. We did well enough that you'd be a dumb label to drop us, but we weren't such a resoundingly huge commercial success that they had to throw Coldplay-style resources behind us. For five years or so thereafter, we were in a little bit of limbo. We were in the system, but not riding the tallest waves. When you're in that place, you get a pretty clear look at the economics of the music industry. I remember thinking, even then, This is not a sustainable model. Something big is going to change in the next few years and I don't know what it is.
Around the same time, the stuff we were making — little home videos we'd made to amuse ourselves and our friends — started to take life online. The dots started to connect that the music industry had defined its sources of value too narrowly, and yet all of these other things we'd made seemed to have value somewhere else. So there we were, three or four years ago, going, 'How do we take all this stuff and make a career out of it instead of just trying to sell records to pay the bills?' That's where the brand decision came in.
Why do you think more musicians haven't gone that route after seeing how it's worked out for you?
There are some high barriers to entry with that, unfortunately. One is that you have to already be kind of successful. We were lucky enough to be making online videos when no one else considered that to be a valid creative space, much less a commercial or marketing space. But probably even more of a barrier to entry than that is that you have to put a vast amount of energy and time into this crap. For every idea that gets made, there were 10 that were pretty seriously considered by some potential partner out of 100 that were pitched. It's just incredibly resource-intensive — mostly time.
You've said that record sales in general 'aren't particularly relevant today.' Why not, and how can you judge an artist's success now?
Record sales are less relevant because they're not an accurate indicator of how much people care about a band anymore. They're still totally relevant in the sense that every time we sell a record, that's five or six dollars in our pocket, and that's really important to a band like us. But you're right to ask the question 'How do we judge success?' because that's not the only way anymore.
The thing is, to whom does it matter how successful a band is? We judge our success based on whether or not we're going to get to keep making stuff we feel like making the next day and whether or not our opportunities tomorrow seem as exciting or more so than our opportunities today. For the public, generally I don't think it matters all that much how successful something is. The people to whom it matters are the middlemen who have to make a business out of all this. On a record label, you have to be able to look at who's successful and who isn't. In terms of meaningful metrics, that is a great deal harder now because the sources of value change all the time.
So how do those middlemen, the record labels, stay relevant?
It would be a shame if being successful in music required an MBA. Not that I have one, but certainly we're a band that takes on the business part of our job with some gusto and some competence. If you needed every musician to be able to do that, you'd really be missing a lot of great musicians. We don't see our project as being, 'What can we make with guitar bass and drums?' Our project is, 'What are the best ideas we can have and can we make them happen?' That's awesome for us, but if you just want to hear a virtuosic guitarist that's a whole different universe.
To keep that universe afloat — and to keep most music afloat — you basically need aggregators of resources and risk. That's what labels were so great for. Twenty bands are going to get a shot for every one that's going to succeed. If you were a betting man, betting on your own career would be stupid. If it's going to take $100,000 or whatever it is to figure out whether or not a band or a record or a set of ideas has a shot in the world, if that's the only $100,000 you ever see in your life, spending it on a one in 20 chance is pretty stupid. However, if you are a label and you can spend that on 20 bands, then all 20 of those kids get to go back to their jobs afterwards without having put themselves in horrible debt for the rest of their lives. That function is important for labels and that's how labels need to continue to exist if there's a value to them at all.
Of course, embedded in the question How do labels stay relevant? is the assumption that they should or that we need them. The problem with record companies is they are record companies. They have to start being music companies or artistic financiers and bankers. As much as I personally want to sell lots of records and love when people buy records, everyone knows it's not the future of music. So if record labels want to be relevant they have to stop seeing that as their job.
What do you see as the future of music?
Any answer I give you now is going to be full of shit. Who knows. The thing that excites me right now is that the boundaries around music are changing and dissolving. What music was in the 20th century was pretty well defined. Recorded music made it possible for the joys of the ephemeral experience of music to be bought, sold and traded in a way that made an industry out of something that was extremely hard to commodify before that. That is starting to dissolve. It was the case, at least for me, in the 1980s and '90s, if you were to mention the name of a band or song, I would picture the album cover. It was an actual object. Now, if you say, 'Have you heard that new Cee Lo song?' I don't know what the album looks like. I don't even know what the video looks like. Music is back to being this experiential, ephemeral thing. I think that's pretty exciting.
If you look back in time, about every 10 years people are playing with the medium. Now our medium is ones and zeros, and the medium of ones and zeros is also the medium of filmmakers and also the medium of journalists and also the medium of people starting cults in the woods. Everyone has ones and zeros as a medium now, so the definition of what music is is now an arbitrary thing. Some people still think music is what you can make with a guitar, bass and drums. Some people think music is still only a set of sounds that makes you feel a certain way. But music almost never comes without a visual component these days. Now music is theater and music is filmmaking and music is all this stuff including guitars, bass and drums. I think the future of music is people picking their own sets of boundaries and making awesome stuff in it.
As someone who had an early and substantial viral video hit with "Here It Goes Again," do you still see viral videos having the same power they did when yours came out?
I don't know how to slice it because on the one hand, the size of those successes is ever larger. "Gangnam Style" is not just bigger than our bigger treadmill video, it's bigger than everything we've done combined by factors of tens or maybe hundreds. But maybe that's not the best example because it's the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of viral videos that aren't the biggest thing out there that have still traveled the world orders of magnitude more than our treadmill video did, so viral success is clearly still alive and well. But it's not that novel now.
For a band to be on the VMAs and get a Grammy for something they made in their sister's backyard was, like, front-of-USA Today-style news at the time. Now maybe Gangnam Style is news just due to its sheer volume. But a band makes a cool video with their iPhones somewhere and it gets 20 million hits and that's a huge success for them, but it's not a news story anymore.
Then there's the fact that young bands, or bands who are less successful than the White Stripes or something, look at this as part of the machinery of their career now. Some look it as a creative outlet the way we do, some I think look at it as a promotional necessity. Nobody's releasing a record these days without some idea of what they're going to do for YouTube.
I'm sure you've been asked this too many times already, but do you have any tips for people who want to make a video that will go viral?
Obviously if there was a real one-sentence answer, everyone would be doing it. The thing I think people overlook the fastest is just that it's about pleasure, it's about creating a sense of joy or wonder or some great feeling that people want to share with each other. I run into people all the time that are still trying to make things that are cool, and they think about what it says about them as makers. As with any art, I think you have to consider the condition people are in when they're engaging with it. If you're trying to make something viral, make sure it's something that will bring people some joy. Nobody goes, 'God, this thing made me so anxious and angry and want to vomit so I want to show this to my mom.'
OK Go has been called 'the first post-Internet band.' What new technology or apps are you into these days?
I have never been on social networks very much, mostly because I am already so bad at answering my friends' emails that it's one more way at which I can fail all my friends by not responding. But I've gotten really into Instagram just because it's a little dose of making as opposed to telling. Twitter scares me because first of all, you can tell by the way I answer questions, I can't keep anything to 140 characters. But also if you open the floodgates to, What do you want to tell people? It's super daunting to me. A picture tells a little bit about where you are in your life and what's happening, but it's also contained — it's one little moment of making something in a day.
Photos provided by Paracadute