Daryl Peveto/Luceo for The Wall Street Journal
OK Go performs at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, above. The band is known as much for its inventive music videos as it is for its music.
My rock band has leapt across treadmills, camouflaged ourselves in wallpaper, performed with the Notre Dame marching band, danced with a dozen trained dogs, made an animation with 2,300 pieces of toast, crammed a day-long continuous shot into 4Â½ minutes and built the first ever Rube Goldberg machineâ€”at least that we know ofâ€”to operate in time to music. We are known for our music videos, which we make with the same passion and perseverance we do our songs. Our videos have combined views in excess of 120 million on YouTube alone, with countless millions more from television and repostings all over the Internet.
The band OK Go is no stranger to viral video success, with combined views in excess of 125 million on YouTube alone. Lead singer Damian Kulush explains how video works into the band's strategy.
For most people, the obvious question is: Has this helped sell records? The quick answer is yes. We've sold more than 600,000 records over the last decade. But the more relevant answer is that doesn't really matter. A half a million records is nothing to shake a stick at, but it's the online statistics that set the tone of our business and, ultimately, the size of our income.
We once relied on investment and support from a major label. Now we make a comparable living raising money directly from fans and through licensing and sponsorship. Our bank accounts don't rival Lady Gaga's, but we've got more creative freedom than we did as small fish in her pond.
A scene from the music video 'This Too Shall Pass.'
21 million YouTube views (Rube Goldberg version)
- About 50 engineers constructed a giant Rube Goldberg machine that operated in time to the music
- The machine took up two floors of a 12,000 square-foot warehouse
- Insurance company State Farm funded the video
For a decade, analysts have been hyperventilating about the demise of the music industry. But music isn't going away. We're just moving out of the brief periodâ€”a flash in history's panâ€”when an artist could expect to make a living selling records alone. Music is as old as humanity itself, and just as difficult to define. It's an ephemeral, temporal and subjective experience.
For several decades, though, from about World War II until sometime in the last 10 years, the recording industry managed to successfully and profitably pin it down to a stable, if circular, definition: Music was recordings of music. Records not only made it possible for musicians to connect with listeners anywhere, at any time, but offered a discrete package for commoditization. It was the perfect bottling of lightning: A powerful experience could be packaged in plastic and then bought and sold like any other commercial product.
Then came the Internet, and in less than a decade, that system fell. With uncontrollable and infinite duplication and distribution of recordings, selling records suddenly became a lot like selling apples to people who live in orchards. In 1999, global record sales totaled $26.9 billion; in 2009, that figure, including digital purchases, which now represent 25% of sales (nearly 50% in the U.S.), is down to $17 billion. For eight of the last 10 years, the decline in revenue from record sales has gotten steeper, which is to say the business is imploding with increasing vigor.
600,000 YouTube views
- The video features 2,430 pieces of toast (Pepperidge Farms white bread that had gone past expiration)
- 15 still shots of toast were shown per second of video
- The video was sponsored by Samsung and shot on a Samsung NX100 camera
Music is getting harder to define again. It's becoming more of an experience and less of an object. Without records as clearly delineated receptacles of value, last century's rulesâ€”both industrial and creativeâ€”are out the window. For those who can find an audience or a paycheck outside the traditional system, this can mean blessed freedom from the music industry's gatekeepers.
Georgia singer/songwriter Corey Smith has never had a traditional record contract, but in 2008 he grossed about $4 million from touring, merchandise and other revenue, yielding roughly $2 million that was reinvested in the singer's business, according to his manager, Marty Winsch. Mr. Smith makes his recordings downloadable at no cost from his website, and Mr. Winsch emphasizes that they are promotion for his live shows, not the other way around. "We don't look at it as 'free,' " he says. "When people come to the website and download the music, they're giving us their time, their most valuable commodity." Recently, Mr. Smith entered a partnership with a small music company, but unlike a traditional label deal, the arrangement will give him 50% of any net revenue.
Mr. Smith's touring success, unfortunately, isn't indicative of industry trends. Live performance, once seen as the last great hope of the music industry, now looks like anything but. Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the U.S., recently reported that concert revenue is down 14.5% since last year. A report by Edison Research found that in 2010, 12-to-24-year-olds went to fewer than half as many concerts as they did in 2000; nearly two-thirds went to none at all.
A scene from the music video for 'Here It Goes Again'
59.5 million YouTube views
- The elaborate dance routine, performed on eight treadmills, was choreographed by the band and Trish Sie, Damian Kulash's sister
- Out of 21 attempts, they completed the full routine three times
- The band directs or co-directs all their videos
So if vanishing record revenue isn't being replaced by touring income, how are musicians feeding themselves? For moderately well established artists, the answer is increasingly corporate sponsorship and licensingâ€”a return, in a sense, to the centuries-old logic of patronage. In 1995, it was rare for musicians to partner with corporations; in most corners of the music industry, it was seen as the ultimate sell-out. But with investments from labels harder to come by, attitudes towards outside corporate deals have changed.
These days, money coming from a record label often comes with more embedded creative restrictions than the marketing dollars of other industries. A record label typically measures success in number of records sold. Outside sponsors, by contrast, tend to take a broader view of success. The measuring stick could be mentions in the press, traffic to a website, email addresses collected or views of online videos. Artists have meaningful, direct, and emotional access to our fans, and at a time when capturing the public's attention is increasingly difficult for the army of competing marketers, that access is a big asset.
A scene from the 'White Knuckles' music video.