Viral-Video Genius Damian Kulash, Lead Singer of OK Go, Tells All
On Super Bowl Sunday, the band OK Go released yet another awesome music video, this one for their single "Needing/Getting." Boosted by the broadcast of a two-minute excerpt during the Super Bowl pregame show as well a brief cameo appearance in a Chevy Sonic commercial during the big game, the Chevy-sponsored video immediately went viral. That's no big surprise for OK Go, one of the leading practitioners of the music-video art form and among the most popular bands in the history of the internet, based on its estimated 300 million-plus views to date. Its 2006 band-on-a-treadmill video for "Here It Goes Again" alone has racked up more than 63 million views across YouTube and Vevo.
"Needing/Getting," less than two weeks old, is already up to 13.5 million views.
Today, in the latest installment of Dumenco's Media People -- an occasional series of in-depth interviews with media grandees -- OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash (who also serves as the stunt driver in "Needing/Getting" and co-directed the video with Brian L. Perkins) talks about the reaction to the band's latest release, the genesis of its viral-video vision, the truth about working with agencies and brands, and more.
What follows is an edited and compressed version of a long phone conversation.
Simon Dumenco: I need a ride to JFK on Saturday and I was wondering if you could help me out.
Damian Kulash: I would love to, but I'm in L.A. right now. Also, shit, I don't have a car in New York! If you lend me yours, I'll drive it.
Dumenco: I don't want just any ride, I need you to pick me up in the "Needing/Getting" car!
Kulash: I would love to have that car, but they actually dismantled it. I think they were worried we were going to go for another day of shooting and so they just, like, took the car apart right away. But then for the Super Bowl they wanted it again, so they put the entire thing back together. I don't get to keep the car. Maybe we'll put it in a museum or something.
Dumenco: Yeah, the Museum of OK Go. MOKGo!
Kulash: Fuck, I can't say how many storage spaces are taken up with plywood beams and shit like that .
Dumenco: All your props and sets from past videos? You've kept all that stuff?
Kulash: We kept a lot of it. But there's not enough space in the world for keeping the entire Rube Goldberg machine in a closet.
Dumenco: One thing I wanted to ask you about is the reaction to "Needing/Getting" vs. your earlier videos. You've had hundreds of millions of views for your older videos, but this is something new for you given the Super Bowl connection.
Kulash: It was posted at, I think, 2:30 on [Super Bowl] Sunday. The biggest videos we've had in the past -- like the dog video was a million hits a day for a week, and then it really fell off. It fell off, like, pretty immediately. "Needing/Getting" has kept going, and it's hard to know, but definitely feels like it could be an order of magnitude larger than things in the past.
Dumenco: I first saw it on Reddit Sunday afternoon before the Super Bowl. It hit the Reddit homepage before the Super Bowl and as I noted in the post I did last Monday, I thought it was remarkable that there was so little backlash online about the fact that this is a Chevy-sponsored video. Were you worried at all going into this that you'd get blowback from fans?
Kulash: Sure, we were worried, but it's more a generalized anxiety of existence as a band in this period vs. the one I was in school for. I was in high school in the early '90s and the thought of a band doing something with any commercial association, it was so toxic, that was like the ultimate third rail for a rock band. The world has changed so dramatically since then that it's amazing to see how that dynamic has slipped.
We were on a major label for eight years, I think it was. We have greater creative control and freedom and, for the most part, way better funding now than we ever did then. And it makes me realize that the music industry was extremely stable, but only for a relatively short period of time -- from maybe the '50s and '60s through the '90s. There were incredibly robust systems, but that 's also when music was at its most commodified and capitalistic. It's strange that the period during which music was most controlled by corporate interests is also when we had the greatest fiction of there being a bubble in which artists and musicians were free of commercial concerns. EMI, our former major label, has a lot of -- or it certainly had a lot of -- pretty onerous corporate ties, but, like, because their function was to sell music, the big corporate money thing wasn't so much of a problem, at least in the public eye. What that led to, unfortunately, is a system so reliant on its own set of rules and metrics that it refused, and to a large degree, still refuses to adapt to the change in the culture at large.
Dumenco: And so you're bypassing the system and directly connecting with the culture at large. Talk to me a little bit more about how going from major label to indie has changed things for OK Go.
Kulash: You know, we've never particularly wanted to chase radio chart position or record sales. I mean, as much as we would love to have a massive radio hit and sell more records, the idea of making art to try to chase those indicators is just awful. Nobody wants to sit there trying to figure out what K-Rock is going to play -- what a horrible fucking way to live.
It's genuinely more freeing to go do what I like -- and I want to make it for other people who will also like it. YouTube does offer us a chance -- and the internet in general offers us a chance -- to make something, share it with people, and then have our bargaining power as a band come from the number of people who like our shit. In the past, that 's what radio track position was supposed to be an indicator of . You had bargaining power in your deals because clearly people liked you. But now when record labels still want to chase those metrics, it's like trying to figure out how the communications industry is doing by fax machine sales numbers.
Dumenco: Meanwhile, you have companies outside of the record industry, like Chevy, that are actually paying attention to your real engagement metrics. And now that the supposedly "pure" era of music is over, you can actually work with them if you want to.
Kulash: Look, we all wish we lived in a world where your ideas were pure and you never had to make a deal with anyone. The thing is that in that sort of "pure" era, bands had a pretty serious corporate overlord. Yes, maybe if you were one of the chosen few, if you happened to be Bruce Springsteen or Bob Marley, you didn't. But the other 99% of artists who ever got signed failed and got dropped. You were completely at the whim of whoever decides to push you through the radio system and how much you're doing to spend on marketing and all that kind of stuff. Now we have to get our hands dirty by actually dealing with the business ourselves -- but we also get to define what our business deal is . We retain creative control and if we don't, we don't do the fucking project.
The good thing about being a band and not an ad agency is that when this deal is done, when this project is over, what's important is that we get to do another project, not that we have saved face with a particular corporate partner or sponsor. Obviously what we all want is for the project to do well, but ad agencies at the end of the day always have to say yes. I just remembered I'm talking to Ad Age here -- I should probably shut my fucking trap. [laughter]
Mr. Dumenco: No, please -- bring it on! [laughter]
Mr. Kulash: I mean, if we make something shitty, the people most fucked are us. All we have is the final product and so if it seems over-branded, if it seems cheesy, if it seems, like, in some way compromised by its relationship to any corporation, then we're the people who lose. Our No. 1 job basically is to make sure that the thing is good.
By contrast, a few years ago Berocca, a subsidiary of Bayer, called us and asked if they could use our treadmill video as a commercial, and we were, like, "You can't just take our existing video and call it your commercial!" And they turn the numbers up and up and up and up and at some point we're, like, "You know what? The amount they're willing to pay for this would pay for our entire next album. Maybe we should do this." So we started actually having talks with them in earnest and then one day the phones went silent, we didn't hear back from them for six months and they put out a treadmill dancing video [in the U.K.] with a vaguely sound-alike song and doing all the same moves on treadmills. If you look at the comments on the internet about the Berocca video, the world knows a fraud when they see it, and people were just shredding them for ripping us off.
Dumenco: Did you think of taking legal action?
Kulash: Oh yeah! I wonder if we're outside of the statute of limitations now. I'm probably losing some leverage by saying this but it would be in British courts. And the lawyers that we consulted, who are heavies in this world, thought we had about a 60% chance of winning, which they said is about as good you'll ever have in a case of that sort. But the fact of the matter is Bayer's pockets are infinite and ours are pretty limited, and it would have meant three years of our lives dedicated just to trying to win back some self respect or some money.
Looking at the world's reaction to a commercial people made ripping us off vs. a commercial where people just came to us and said, "What do you guys want to do?" -- I mean, look at what the huge difference is in terms of public reaction. It makes me optimistic for the way things could go.
Dumenco: Your treadmill video is five years ago now, shockingly enough. I still remember people sharing it -- that was a big inflection point for the concept of social sharing -- and it was obviously also a big inflection point for the band. Did you realize right away when that happened that you'd be transitioning into becoming as much kind of a visual-art collective as continuing on as a band? I mean, lots of bands have done one great video -- or they lucked out and they worked with the right director one time -- but there aren't that many bands that keep the awesome videos coming, and in the process become visual-art icons.
Kulash: The way you describe it all sounds sort of familiar, but to be honest, it's very hard for people to ever live their lives by some grand master plan. I think what happened was more like we leapt into the moment where suddenly there was a lot of opportunity to do things the way we wanted to do them. Which isn't to say that we set out with this type of video-making in mind, but rather that Tim and I, the bassist and I, had known each other since we were 12 years old and have been making stuff together all along. And I think our connection has to do with a shared excitement about chasing our wildest creative ideas.
We've always wanted to chase our ideas together -- and I don't limit that , of course, to just Tim. All of us, that 's what we get up in the morning for is to chase our creative ideas. And it felt more than, like, a new strategic, Machiavellian move we could make. It felt more like a creative door had opened, like there was a new plane on which to play and one, really thrillingly, that nobody had colonized and put the sheriff in place in, you know?
In terms of what it meant to us to have this open up, the moment actually right before the treadmill video we had made a backyard dancing video, which unbelievably we hadn't even thought of as a video. It was a practice tape that was so funny, and we started sending it around to friends. This is before YouTube even existed or maybe it was the same year that it came into existence, but we didn't know who they were yet. We put it on iFilm. I think at one point it hit like 250,000 downloads and we realized that was the same number of records we had sold to date. We were, like, these are definitely our nerdiest fans, the geeks sitting online all day long and they're our most connected fans and these are exactly the people who aren't watching MTV and don't care about radio chart position.
We assumed that that was all of them -- that 250,000 people had downloaded our shit from the internet, and we had saturated what our fan base could be online. But that said, now we had a direct connection to them -- like, there's no label between us and them, there are no rules. We make something and if they like it, they get it. So we make the treadmill video, thinking that this time it will go to the same people but much faster. It's not going to take months this time because they all saw the last one, so as soon as they see our name again, they'll watch it.
Dumenco: And suddenly you realized had a bit more than 250,000 fans.
Kulash: The first day it got a million hits. Fuck, we were so wrong about saturating.
Dumenco: To circle back to the "Needing/Getting" video, I wanted to say that one great thing about it is that , even though you and your bandmates are literally in the product -- the Chevy -- the video doesn't beat viewers over the head with branding. It's not like there are Chevy logos on your faces or all over the place.
Kulash: That's the part of this that I'm most comforted by , because I can't tell you how many hours I've spent on conference calls with potential sponsors of one project or another and sort of , like, singing the gospel of a new type of brand association. Because everybody in every ad agency hears this and repeats it and knows it, but it's so hard to convince people that it actually may be true -- and I think we've finally proven it to some degree. Having the wisdom to let your brand lay back and be part of the story rather than the surface of the content is so much more valuable to the brand, and also allows you to do what everybody wants to do -- which is to have genuine content that people want to be engaged with, rather than crassly sticking your product into something.
I really can't praise Chevy enough for having the balls to do this because yeah, we've had a lot of hits on YouTube and everything, but we're also a fucking rock band and maybe I go on a fucking heroin bender and all your money is gone. It's scary for brands to do stuff like this. We had total creative control and they let us run and do our thing. We're not shoving any logos in your face and, yeah, it is a much subtler thing, but look at what it's doing for their marketing. That's why 10 million people will watch it in four days and that 's why you're talking to me on the phone.
Dumenco: Speaking of heroin benders, can you take some time off soon? Will you have time for a heroin bender?
Kulash: I'm on one right now! [laughter]
Dumenco: Of course! [laughter] OK, so after the heroin bender, what are you doing?
Kulash: Right now we're working on a project that we'll do with "This American Life," and it won't be 10 million people in a few days, it will be the people we love. And I am making a record for Lavender Diamond. [Lead singer] Becky Stark has, I think, the most beautiful voice I've ever heard. We recorded for two months before this whole video thing started, and her record has been sort of sitting on the shelf waiting to be finished, so the first thing we're doing is finishing that record and our label hopefully will be putting it out this summer. I don't know if there's room for that in this.
Dumenco: There is . It's the internet! OK, one last question: I'm guessing every time you have a new viral-video hit, brands and agencies and everyone else comes out of the woodwork wanting to work with you. How inundated have you been since the Super Bowl?
Kulash: I've seen the word Cannes like 60 times in emails in the last couple days. As for brands, it usually takes a while for stuff to filter up through the marketing ranks, although with the Super Bowl, maybe it'll move a lot faster, I don't know. If you see any of those people tell them to put some extra zeros on the end of the check.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.