Five years ago, conventional wisdom said that a band's exposure to 100 million eyeballs via YouTube would translate to a couple of nice yachts and a house in the Hamptons. Saccharine-sweet pop act OK Go almost single-handedly ripped the horns out of that bullish notion.
OK Go Sasquatch! at the Gorge Amphitheatre, George, Wash. Sold out. Sat., May 29.
The video for "Here It Goes Again"—yes, the treadmill video—off their 2005 sophomore album, Oh No, fetched more than 50 million views, and follow-up videos didn't fare too shabbily either. But the videos didn't turn the album into a runaway hit: Oh No has sold 271,000 units, according to Nielsen/SoundScan, just 75,000 more than the band's self-titled debut, an album not aided by a viral hit video.
Regardless, videos became the vessel for OK Go to reach a significant audience, whether they bought CDs or not. And when their label, EMI, restricted their videos, preventing them from going viral—and with sales of their new record, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, hovering below 40,000—Damian Kulash & co. negotiated an "amicable" exit from the label that had financed what Kulash called a "start-up" band.
An extended version of this conversation can be found on Reverb, our music blog.
SW: The last time we spoke was right before the video for "Here It Goes Again" dropped. You told me you guys had never made money from record sales or touring, and subsisted on licensing fees. Is that still the case?
Kulash: Mostly. We can make money off of touring at this point. Subsist is probably the wrong verb. Yes, we make most of our money off of licensing.
Do you think the reason that views of videos like yours haven't transferred to sales in the same way as they did in the MTV era is that when people want an OK Go fix, they get it free online?
That might be the case. I think people who love the video watch the video. They're not people who buy records. The people who watched MTV, you could call them a self-selecting group, or you could call them a Viacom-selected group. That's not 60-year-old women, but 60-year-old women do love treadmill dances.
Considering that the way you guys were reaching your fans and growing as a band wasn't translating into big album sales, can you really blame EMI for saying "Hey, let's put a stop to this. This isn't the way we're going to be able to recoup our money"?
I don't blame EMI for anything they did. They're acting in what they believe is their best interest. It just wasn't in our best interest. We weren't headed in the same direction as they are.
When people talk about OK Go, the conversation's usually about one of your videos, not your music. Is that something you want to change?
It feels kind of like [someone saying], "Man, everybody's talking about the release of your new album, why aren't they talking about your live show?" The videos are the story right now because they are the story. There isn't anybody else making videos like this out there.