The Chicago band OK Go has forged a nontraditional path in music: It's dropped its major label, embraced the Internet, signed up corporate sponsors and launched YouTube sensations such as the video for "This Too Shall Pass," which features a massive Rube Goldberg machine.
"Major labels were sort of the only conduit to the public for musicians before," OK Go lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash tells NPR's Neal Conan. "You had to play the game their way or not play it at all. That's just not the case anymore."
OK Go spent nine years on a major label, EMI, and Kulash says "it was basically a pretty good relationship, as those things go." But the band didn't make the money EMI needed from it, even though OK Go was "technically in the black." Kulash says the record industry used to work on a 5 percent success ratio.
"They bet on 20 bands and hope that one of them is wildly successful," and then that band's profits will pay for the remaining failures, Kulash says. So unless a band makes enough to support 19 flops, "then that's not really a success to them."
OK Go gathered its things and plotted a path to a different kind of success.
"As creative people, we may not even know where we're headed," Kulash says. "I wake up in the morning wanting to chase some crazy idea, and it's about a song or an album or a video or all of these things combined."
Much of OK Go's success can be attributed to the band's mesmerizing videos. Kulash says the industry's take on the importance of music videos has changed dramatically in the last five years.
"When we made our treadmill video... they were amazed," he says. "They were like, wow, these kids made their own video and it's like billions of free eyeballs."
But when the band wanted to put new videos on YouTube, "they saw that as giving away our product for free all of a sudden," Kulash says. "So in that five-year period, it went from being like 'Look, free advertising' to being 'Anything you make has got to be monetized.' "
Another old-model chestnut is that tours promote albums. But Kulash cites a Georgia musician named Corey Smith who never sold records. He just posted songs online, which has since enabled him to book tours that make millions of dollars.
"I don't have some new model that everyone should be following," Kulash says. "People are sort of adapting to the new environment, and all sorts of interesting things are happening."
But that's a problem for big labels, which have to be able to predict how much revenue they can expect from a band in order to invest in it. In this experimental environment, Kulash says, "they have to already know the endpoint if they want to bank money on it."