OK Go’s Damian Kulash On YouTube Embedding: “You Pick Your Battles”

[show=okgo size=large]In the drama over embedding music videos from YouTube, recently the band OK Go (who broke into the mainstream thanks in large part to their 2006 viral treadmill hit Here It Goes Again) played a starring role. After I called them “morons” last week over issues surrounding the fact that the embedding on their latest music video, This Too Shall Pass, was disabled, the band not only made the video embeddable through Vimeo, but released an open letter explaining where their videos fit into the current state of the music industry.

To get more details, I spoke with lead singer Damian Kulash via phone (the band’s currently touring Europe), discussing OK Go’s relationship with record label EMI, how the marketplace for music videos online has evolved and how Kanye West can change everything.

NewTeeVee: So I wanted to start off by apologizing again for calling you guys names.

Damian Kulash: Oh, it’s ok. It’s the internet. It’s what people do.

NewTeeVee: How would you describe fan reaction to the issue of embedding?

Kulash: It never seemed vicious to me at any point. There’s a lot of comments about it, but while most of our fans may not understand the politics behind these things, I haven’t generally felt like [they] think we’re screwing them. They’re just sort of annoyed that the corporate controls are starting to set in.

NewTeeVee: How have the fans reacted to the videos going out on Vimeo?

Kulash: Well, the people who want to actually see the video of course know where to get the video. And so mostly it’s third parties, who want to stream the video on their blog. Our video for WTF was on Kanye [West]’s blog, and something that goes on Kanye’s blog suddenly gets like 100,000 hits, but it wouldn’t have been there had it not been embeddable. I recall there being some little scuffle with EMI because they were mad that those hits weren’t going to the YouTube version. But [Kanye’s] not going to embed something that can’t be embedded.

OK Go – WTF? from OK Go on Vimeo.

NewTeeVee: So you’ve made public statements both in blog comments and now via this open letter. Why have you decided to speak out publicly? The only reason I ask is because it seems like a lot of other artists haven’t felt comfortable doing so.

Kulash: I have always had the opinion to disagree with my label and that has never wound up being completely poisonous to my career. But I try to slam the label as little as possible. I mean, they’re in a completely impossible position. They were incredibly slow to react and definitely dug their own graves to a large extent, but that doesn’t mean that the people who are actually working at the desks at our label right now are bad people or doing the wrong thing. Most of the people we work with at the label are disgusted with their embedding policy. But it’s a big massive system that takes a long time to turn around. It’s just such an easy way to get pissy about corporations or to get righteous about protecting artists. The record begs to be set straight a little bit.

NewTeeVee: And you’re very fair to EMI in the open letter, it’s worth saying.

Kulash: I didn’t want to run the risk of seeming like we want it both ways. I’m not, you know, in any way celebrating the f—ing evil sons of b—-es who run things and the awful contracts they gave people. But the truth is that to tour internationally or to afford to work in the kind of studios we want to work in is not even close to within the range of of our own pocketbooks. Basically major labels are and have been, for a long time, essentially big gambling banks. Lots of tiny bands got a shot because major labels are basically big aggregators of risks.

Our label is sensitive to things, but they’re dealing with a lot of screaming people on all sides. Obviously we think we’re right — in fact, we know we’re right — but that doesn’t mean they’re going to listen to us. You pick your battles. From our perspective the difference between our videos being embeddable on YouTube versus other sites that are embeddable is really just a question of numbers. You have to adjust your expectations of what a very successful video is.

NewTeeVee: What’s been EMI’s reaction to the videos going on Vimeo?

Kulash: Uh, they’re not particularly happy about it. Luckily the label doesn’t call me to bitch about where our videos are, so I don’t actually know what their response is. The only thing I know is that I heard third-hand that there was some grumbling after the Vimeo version of the WTF video got a lot more hits than the YouTube did, because of the fact it was on Kanye’s blog and a whole bunch of other high-profile blogs which YouTube just couldn’t beat.

Our main contact at the label wants as badly as I do for it for it to be embeddable. Because that’s what everybody wants. It’s just that 17 people up the chain, there’s somebody who can’t make it work on paper.

NewTeeVee: If you were to guess how long it will take for us as a collective industry to figure the embedding problem out, how long would you say that would be?

Kulash: Uh, a year and a half. I mean, that’s a total guess. I have no idea. Really what we’re talking about is a shift in the way advertisers see the context of their advertising. Look at how many years it took for people to believe in keyword advertising. Eventually people realized that it was a fairly stable idea and you’re not going to catch on fire and your head’s not going to explode simply because your ads are connected to a concept instead of a specific physical space.

As I understand it, the thing that’s keeping YouTube from allowing that type of advertising on embedded videos is the advertisers themselves. You can understand that it is just scary as hell for them to not know where their ads are going to show up. But that’s just sort of a mass cultural change. So my suspicion is that shift will happen slowly over the course of a few years, but there will probably be some some leaders who deal with it pretty quickly. But you’re asking a f—ing musician; I have no idea.

NewTeeVee: Something you mentioned in the open letter is that the original 2006 videos turned “a tidy little profit” for EMI. Can you comment on what that profit was?

Kulash: By the end of that record cycle, we were in the black. Most of the money was not made off of our record, though, but movie trailers and movies and commercials, stuff like that. They also sold several hundred thousand copies of that video online for two or three bucks a pop? So, especially for a video that cost 5,000 bucks to make, they’re not losing money on OK Go. And the proof is in the fact that we’re still on the label.

NewTeeVee: One other detail I noticed in the letter is when you said “We make our videos ourselves” — does that mean you make the videos out of your own pocket?

Kulash: We try to get the label to pay for them, and we usually are pretty successful at that, but it’s just a matter of productive haste. In general, getting approval on these things takes forever, so we make them anyways and then make them pay us back if they want to use it. Luckily our label recognizes how important the videos are to our promotion and career, and we have a long enough track record of doing it well that we don’t have to prove ourselves over and over again. We still have to fight for every dime if we want to do something expensive, but they’re not total a–holes about it.

NewTeeVee: How much did the video for This Too Shall Pass cost?

Kulash: I’m not sure I’m allowed to say, but it’s in the tens of thousands. We had a crew of about 12 people, which was hilarious because we were staying in this one tiny house. I was actually sleeping in the closet for the entirety of that shoot. So 12 people working at about half of their normal professional rate, for about a week. If you want to do that math, that’s about how much it cost.

OK Go – This Too Shall Pass from OK Go on Vimeo.

NewTeeVee: Last question — have you heard anything about a lawsuit that EMI filed against Vimeo for encouraging users to make lip dubs?

Kulash: I’m not familiar, but all of this stuff gets a little bit like staring into the sun. Everything sort of falls apart. It was understood, until quite recently, that music was something privately owned. People paid for it to be made and they owned it in discreet quantities and they could reproduce more of those discreet quantities and they could sell them. It actually was a physical commodity, but that is just not the case anymore. It requires such a huge rethinking of the chain of production. It’s no longer discreet chunks of music, it’s a cloud, everybody can access it, and it’s taken some people longer to get that than others.