In 2006, OK Go’s video for “Here It Goes Again” — also affectionately known as “the treadmill video” — became a web sensation. By decade’s end, it had been viewed approximately 50 million times — no small feat for a homemade clip. Although the video made its biggest splash on sites like YouTube, many fans embedded it on their personal pages and social networks. At which point “Here It Goes Again” went viral, increasing the band’s exposure on a global scale and boosting the band’s record sales (and the bottom line of their major label, EMI).
Fast-forward to 2010. OK Go releases its newest album, Of the Blue Color of the Sky, still on the EMI imprint. To coincide with its release, the band creates another insanely clever and watchable video, this time for a tune called “This Too Shall Pass.” Rinse and repeat, right?
Not so fast.
Unlike “Here It Goes Again,” OK Go’s latest video has been restricted for embedding via YouTube (at the label’s request), thereby reducing its viral potential. Additionally, EMI has been reluctant to issue licenses for viewing outside the United States. A key difference here is that this time around, the band played by the label’s rules — meaning they got permission to make the video with financing from EMI. OK Go frontman Damian Kulash said in a recent blog post: “We make our videos ourselves, and we keep them dirt cheap, but still, it all adds up, and it adds up to a great deal more than we have in our bank account, which is why we have a record label in the first place.”
Of course, the interesting thing is that the label doesn’t seem to grasp the mechanics of what made those early, self-produced videos so successful — a viral phenomenon fueled by an open internet.
Damian also notes that, “crazy as it may seem, it’s now far harder for bands to make videos accessible online than it was four years ago.” Why is this, exactly? Clearly, labels such as EMI have less leverage these days — particularly in regards to duplication and distribution. Once upon a time, top bands were enormous cash cows. But due to incredible transformative shifts brought on by technology — and yes, piracy is a part of this equation — the major labels’ revenue stream has contracted to what Damian calls “a trickle.” And that trickle isn’t necessarily trickling down.
Still, while Damian points out that “you can’t blame them; they need new shoes, just like everybody else,” he also observes that EMI’s actions are indicative of the fact that certain corporate label chiefs have not fully woken up to the notion that embracing the future — whatever it might represent — is a key to their survival. Damian does note that, while “there are a lot of interesting ideas out there, on the macro level, who the hell knows?” Point taken. But is restricting fans’ ability to lawfully access content really the answer? We don’t think so. And it sounds like Damian doesn’t either.
One thing is clear: music has always been about the connection between the band and its audience. In fact, this is what created the money stream to begin with. Do we need to explore new ways to drum up investment in creative culture? Absolutely. But the bands must be allowed to maintain and leverage their relationships with their fans. This is the crux of Damian’s insanely well-articulated arguments for net neutrality, the latest of which you can read here.
The major labels’ days of happily floating down a deep-channeled revenue river may be over. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep working towards solutions that give all the stakeholders — especially creators — a spot at the stream. Heck, with the right combination of smart policies and savvy partnerships, maybe we can even turn that sucker into a geyser. In the meantime, there is a silver lining: Damian and the boys have seemingly found its own solution to the embedding problem by uploading the video onto sites like MySpace and Vimeo. (OK) Go figure.