There’s been another ongoing beef, though: with the folks who whisper, like a playground taunt, that maybe a band famous for its videos isn’t much of a band at all. “It never ceases to amaze me that people think that we should feel embarrassed that our videos are successful,” Kulash says over decaf in a Los Feliz, California, bistro, not too scorched from their slo-mo day in the sun. He thinks that such snobbery is a holdover from the days when label chiefs were video auteurs and the art form was defined by MTV instead of DIY. “It seems like a universal that people think the success of a video is at odds with the success of the song musically. I understand that comes from the old model of videos being a distinct advertisement for the song. And when looked at that way, if an advertisement for a car is more powerful than the car itself, yeah, you’ve got a problem. But these things are part and parcel for us and all part of the same art project. I really do wonder how people can so uniformly miss that basic point.” Anyway, he adds, “there has been no a-visual rock since the mid-fifties. What is Elvis without his hips?”
Kulash’s methodology is to come up with the video idea first, then pick the right song to be a soundtrack. That happened with “This Too Shall Pass”; they’d already made one video for that song, featuring the Notre Dame marching band, but didn’t shy away from using it again when the Rube Goldberg idea came up. The video’s series of levers and pulleys have a relentless percussiveness that feels both choreographed and anarchic, graceful yet violent, witty but epic—in other words, like rock and roll. Sixty engineers worked on it, mostly for free, often till two or three in the morning, over a period of five months. And after all that planning and preparation—and two days and 85 takes to get a keeper—it still feels like Jerry Lee Lewis kicking his piano stool or Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire or, sure, Elvis’s pelvis.
Capitol didn’t see it that way. Sources in the OK Go camp say the label told them that because they’d delivered the video a week late, the window of opportunity for promoting the single to radio had passed, and they would have to wait at least until June for another shot. That, more than the controversy over embedding, may have been the last straw for the group. When you can get 10 million sets of eyes and the buzz that comes with it, it’s hard to put that immediate gratification off in favor of the increasingly faint hope that a few modern-rock stations might begrudgingly add a single in response to a promo campaign months down the line.
It wasn’t the first time the label had poured water on some visual scheme or other. “OK Go used to do a dance routine in their set, but it made the label cringe,” says Kitman. “As marketers, they thought that stuff might come off as kind of gay.” When they filmed themselves doing a choreographed dance routine in a backyard for their 2006 breakout video, “A Million Ways,” “the head of digital marketing at Capitol said, ‘If anybody ever sees this video, you’re sunk,’ ” says Kitman. “The band promptly leaked it to a fan, and it was all over the Internet immediately. Within a month, it probably had a million views, and we were getting offers to play in places where we’d never had a record out.” He says the situation reached “this apogee of irony when the EMI digital overlords would come over from England and pick our brains about how to make viral videos for other bands. They’d haul us into label presentations with all the managers and lawyers to talk about EMI’s digital presence. This happened for months, with us sitting quietly, hoping they would eventually do something for OK Go.”
Now that they’re on their own, the band plans to make money the same way they did when they were on a major. “Labels have done a great job of preparing bands for their own demise, because there are almost none that make money off record sales anyway,” says Kulash. “So we’ve learned how to survive without them.”
State Farm sponsored the “This Too Shall Pass” video, so tasteful corporate patronage is an option for video budgets. But licensing and touring will be the bread and butter, as ever—and the videos are effective ads for those revenue streams. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to have trouble making money,” says Kulash. “Ideas are flexible, and not to sound like a neocon, but so is the market. It’s not that hard to find ways to monetize your ideas. It’s very hard to find ways to monetize your CDs when people don’t fucking listen to CDs anymore. Music is how we write our identities; it feels like your emotions explaining themselves to you. That’s the connection that’s hard to make—when you’re just a bunch of kids with guitars trying to get people to listen. Finding inventive ways to do that—that’s the golden egg and the hardest part, not monetizing.”
Also more difficult than making money: maintaining a suitable level of shock and awe. When they play their two sold-out shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg this week, don’t expect to see a dance routine. But you will see something that might be nearly as jarring for a label executive: a song done entirely with handbells. “We want to avoid a predictability where people feel like, Oh, now that’s the part where they switch instruments, ” says Kulash. “We were trying to figure out what makes a viral video, and it really is the same as a live show. I think generally it is some kind of sense of wonder, where you go, Wow! If you want to know our business model, it’s basically: Just keep making awesome shit.”