ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Is a rock video on the Internet free advertising? Or is it a case of giving away the store? When is a loss leader just a loss? Well, for the rock band OK Go, those questions became so contentious that they have broken with their record label.
OK Go makes very clever videos that have gone viral. When they appear on YouTube, the label makes some money. When viewers embed a video on other Web sites and people see it there, it's a freebie. So before OK Go's most recent record came out, the label, EMI, told YouTube to stop letting people embed the video. It's for this song, "This Too Shall Pass." And it's a video that's been watched by an enormous number of people, six million in one week.
(Soundbite of song, "This Too Shall Pass")
OK GO (Music Group): (Singing) You know you can't keep lettin' it get you down, and you can't keep draggin' that dead weight around.
SIEGEL: The attraction isn't just the music. With the help of a team of engineers, the band created a two-story tall Rube Goldberg contraption. And in one utterly precise take, the song times out to umbrellas unfolding, pianos falling, paint spraying.
And here to talk about the video and the dispute with the record label is Damian Kulash, singer, songwriter, guitarist with the band. Welcome back. We've been following your career in music and video for several years now.
Mr. DAMIAN KULASH (Band member, OK Go): Thanks very much.
SIEGEL: First, I want you to talk about this dispute. How do you view a video that several million people see of your group doing something to music for which nobody makes any money?
Mr. KULASH: Well, for us, it's - I mean, it's what we make. We make our songs. We make our videos. We make our concerts. And this is all sort of part of the creative project for us.
I mean, the animating passion for us is to get up and chase down our craziest ideas, and sometimes those are filmic, and sometimes they're purely sound. The videos for us have always been a creative outlet, and when the industry saw them as advertisements a few years ago, it was really easy for us because they were happy for us to distribute these things wherever.
But now, of course, the industry needs to find revenue everywhere because it's shrinking so fast, and so they need to see these as creative products now.
SIEGEL: They want to get paid for people looking at the video of the song that, in theory at least, they've invested in.
Mr. KULASH: Exactly, and you can't really blame them. I mean, they put a lot of investment into bands, and in fact, there's a good reason for that. It's because about one out of 20 bands that even gets to the level of being on a major label really succeeds. So they've got to pay for the other 19 somehow.
SIEGEL: Now, let me just say that there are two videos that you've produced for "This Too Shall Pass." The Rube Goldberg is phenomenal - and if people haven't seen it yet, they should. There's another one that involves the Notre Dame marching band, which is also terrific. They're both out there, and I gather the label had said one of them can be embedded but not the other.
Mr. KULASH: Yeah, we made the Notre Dame version of the video about three months ago, and we put that one up. And following the label's sort of standard procedure at that time, it wasn't embeddable, and we just got a lot of response from our fans, people really upset that they couldn't put it on their sites, and they couldn't blog about it, and they couldn't sort of include it in their Internet. It had to be done the way EMI wanted them to.
So before we made our next video, we looked for corporate sponsorship, which would allow us to roll out the video the way we wanted to, and to be fair, EMI helped us find corporate sponsors, who turned out to be State Farm. And State Farm agreed to cover the cost of the video if we would thank them at the end of it, and they left the creativity entirely to us. And it was sort of - it's kind of like, you know, 17th-century patronage of the arts. We got to do what we wanted to do, and we put a thank you on the end, and that's it.
SIEGEL: Ultimately, this led to you and the group deciding you're going to create your own label, and I gather you've had a - is it an amicable parting with EMI?
Mr. KULASH: Unbelievably, it is a very amicable parting. The metric of success that the label uses is record sales and specifically physical record sales. Our fans almost all buy our record online, and a lot of what we make has nothing to do with record sales. So we sort of are headed off in the direction that makes more sense for our band, and I think the label is, frankly, happy to watch us go and be successful doing our thing and not have to sort of fit into their box.
SIEGEL: So you've created your own label, Paracadute, parachute in Italian. You've left off the crashing plane that is the record industry, I guess, and you're in your Italian parachute.
I want you to tell us a little bit about the making of the Rube Goldberg video for "This Too Shall Pass." How many takes did it take you to get this whole thing done in a complete take?
Mr. KULASH: It took us just over 60 takes, but we only counted a take as a take if it got significantly into the machine because the machine starts with some dominoes and then a table with ball bearings rolling on it, and those were so incredibly flakey that I'd say the success rate of getting to that point was probably 40 percent or something. So we just threw away all those takes and didn't even count them.
SIEGEL: I guess the secret of making a Rube Goldberg machine is to put some really flakey stuff at the beginning so you don't have to go through the whole machine, have it break down when you're two minutes into it.
Mr. KULASH: Yes, the machine was designed definitely to get more and more stable as it went, and you know, we designed the machine with initially about 15 people from a group called Syyn Labs in Los Angeles. And by the end of the project, it was up to about 60 engineers, and these are people who have day jobs at NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs. And the guy who designed the most recent Coke bottle was one of the set painters. I mean, it was an amazing, amazing group of people, and everyone really working out of a labor of love.
If we had tried to do this the standard way to do a rock video, which is to hire out, you know, the best people you can get and then pay them what they're worth, this would have been a $10 million video, at least.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: So now that OK Go has left EMI and you're your own record label, Paracadute, what are you going to complain about all the time?
Mr. KULASH: Hopefully, there won't be that much to complain about. I - you know, we see this as such a big opportunity. Everybody looks at the sort of shrinking of the industry as this horrible, horrible thing because nobody knows where to make money, but it's also the dissolution of a whole bunch of creative barriers.
Now we sort of get to make whatever we want. And you know, we've had good luck so far in being able to pay our rents with that.
SIEGEL: Well, Damian Kulash of OK Go, the group that makes such incredible videos and now no longer with EMI but with its own label, Paracadute, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KULASH: Thanks for having me.
(Soundbite of song, "This Too Shall Pass")
OK GO: (Singing) You know you can't keep lettin' it get you down. No, you can't keep lettin' it get you down.
SIEGEL: And you can see the Rube Goldberg-style video for OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" at nprmusic.org.