Career Move of the Year: Videos Go Viral
Their clever, innovative clips are getting seen, but are bands like OK Go getting heard?
If you diagrammed all the move-ments of all the trained dogs that saunter and woof through OK Go’s “White Knuckles” video, it would look like a cross between Glenn Beck’s blackboard and a bowl of spaghetti. The band, too, have taken an incredibly indirect route, going from cute-rock okeydokes to Grammy-winning international video stars. But do all bands now have to jump through similar hoops to get noticed?
OK Go, whose backyard-dance video and treadmill video broke the band big five years ago, topped even themselves with 2010’s jaw-droppingly complex one-take “White Knuckles” and “This Too Shall Pass” (the Rube Goldberg–contraption video), as well as the staggeringly time-crunched “End Love.” Together, they have racked up tens of millions of YouTube views and set the platinum standard for low-down, high-concept music clips. In October, the band performed at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum as part of the YouTube Biennial. The following month they debuted “Last Leaf,” a collaboration with graphic artist Geoff McFetridge and MIT students, who animated characters on thousands of pieces of toast.
“It feels sort of like a fantasy to have things actually go right,” says singer Damian Kulash. “When we signed to a major label a decade ago, we knew we were tiny fish in a big pond, and we learned to always feel embattled, to always be scrabbling for five or ten percent of the resources you needed to succeed. Now we get to make decisions, and they work like they are supposed to. I wonder when we’ll wake up on the other side.”
OK Go began the year on Capitol/EMI, which put out their third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky (as well as their earlier ones); they left the label in March after it sought to curb the free distribution of the band’s videos. Even before the split, OK Go were exploring sources of financing beyond EMI. State Farm Insurance underwrote “This Too Shall Pass” in exchange for choice product placement: A toy State Farm truck tips over that first domino that sets off the action. “Last Leaf” was financed by Samsung, which also provided the camera used to shoot it, and the band recently partnered with Range Rover. According to Kulash, corporate sponsorship has been better than label support for ensuring quality: Firms want their name out there, attached to innovative projects; labels want to hedge their bets, holding on to money until you can prove you have a hit. “It becomes a gigantic game of Risk played in the cultural sphere by people who control your rent,” says Kulash, who admits the band’s mission in 2011 is to get people to care about the music as much as they do about the videos.
Kulash says the band went broke making “White Knuckles” themselves, without a sponsor (their clips now cost “low six figures”). So for all their homemade appeal, these videos don’t necessarily provide an inexpensive model for other bands to follow. But that hasn’t stopped others from trying to make similar magic. “Americanarama,” a $4,000 single-take stunt from Canadian indie poppers Hollerado, simulates eight-bit video games with handheld cards on a makeshift Hollywood Squares-style set (and has garnered more than a half-million YouTube views at press time). “We sent out a call for directors with ideas,” says frontman Menno Versteeg. “Our mandate was to do something that was cheap, borderline impossible, and ridiculous.”
But can a video be too cheap and clever to be believed? New York-based dance rockers Atomic Tom became the victims of an online beatdown by influential blogger Bob Lefsetz over their low-budget “Take Me Out” video (3.4 million views and counting), which shows the band in a subway car, performing the song on iPhone apps after their equipment was purportedly stolen. Lefsetz blasted what he saw as a cynical attempt to cash in on the viral-video phenomenon: “If something explodes in a day, it’s fake, it’s being worked, it’s a publicity stunt.” (Atomic Tom’s manager maintains the video is “100 percent authentic.”)
“It’s not the number of views, it’s the number of fans” that matters, he wrote. With marketers, such as somany-mp3s.com, touting their ability to boost YouTube views for a fee, he may have a point.
Except when he doesn’t. Consider the original video for Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” (7.5 million views), the one that was more Atari than Xbox, the one you got sent a dozen times the week it came out. Its gimmick was its lack of one — just animated lyrics on a changing colored background. Green says his label, Elektra, was “in on the joke” and spent on the clip about what “lunch for one” would cost. “It’s very primitive, but it’s profound at the same time,” he says. “There’s action in those words. It’s still more or less a motion picture.
“You have to be your own government,” he adds. “You have to live by your own law and order, and demand more from your art and from your artists. And the Internet is a platform to do so.”
So is this new government, or art form, or calling card, or whatever it is, a viable way to make a living for bands besides OK Go? Kulash — whose Of the Blue Colour, which the band reissued on their own Paracadute Recordings, has so far sold around 80,000 copies — isn’t so sure. “It’s complicated,” he says. “We are the result of a crazy shell game of inputs and outputs that today you would have to duplicate by using newer technologies or newer, stranger niches in the world of consumption and art.”
Or perhaps the road to success is simpler than that. “Maybe it’s that people have to stop seeing the music industry as the business of making recordings,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you have to go as visual as we have gone or that it’s all about the Internet or anything else that defines our success. But labels and the music industry at large have failed to realize that when you have something of cultural value, there are many ways of paying your rent with it. You just have to figure out what they are.”
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