Now that OK Go has detached itself from its major label, the band's next job is finding a way to stay solvent. That won't be as difficult as it would have been on EMI, according to Kulash. "In the most traditional sense," he says, "it takes a lot fewer records sold to pay for our small operation to survive than it does to support an international distribution company."
Kulash and Nordwind peg the number of employees working (both full- and part-time) under the OK Go/Paracadute umbrella at around 20, including the four band members, Kitman and his assistants, two Internet consultants, two booking agents, a radio-promotion rep, a lawyer and a publicist. (For the moment, at least, the band doesn't plan to sign outside artists to Paracadute.)
But it's not just about a reduction in overhead. Kulash says he and his bandmates-experienced dabblers in left-field marketing, from their early gig as the house band on NPR's "This American Life" to their recording a fight song for the Chicago Fire soccer team-have made their living "entirely on licensing" for the last several years, and he expects that to continue to be the case. Why? "We make music that is accessible but not overplayed and generally sort of upbeat," Kulash says. "So it fits behind a lot of stuff. Also, we own our own publishing, so we don't wind up in a three-week debate with some lawyer at a publishing company trying to figure out whether or not it's worth it. We OK things in 30 seconds."
"The band's fans are basically a combination of teenage girls, music supervisors and advertising creative directors," says Kitman, who says that OK Go has notched more than 450 synchs. "That's the reason they're still with EMI's licensing department-because they've made millions of dollars on OK Go." Kitman points to the band's inclusion on last year's "New Moon" soundtrack as among its most lucrative licensing deals, though he declined to specify how much the band earned.
According to Kulash, licensing "follows success: When the treadmills video broke, we got more licensing requests for everything on our second album."
"And the first album, too," Nordwind adds.
"It calls attention to and raises your profile," Kulash continues. "Our admittedly naïve business plan has always been 'Make good stuff happen and people will give a shit.' "
With nearly 10 million views at press time, the video for "This Too Shall Pass" has brought even more attention OK Go's way, and not just from fans. In a deal brokered by EMI's brand partnerships division, insurance giant State Farm funded the production of the complicated clip (which various sources say cost somewhere between $160,000 and $190,000 to make) in exchange for a brief logo shot at the end. Kulash says the band is "certainly" interested in pursuing other such corporate alliances.
"There's lots of kinds of advertising, but the kind that suits us best is good old-fashioned patronage of the arts," he says. "It's a high-minded game-it doesn't get your product in front of billions of eyes. But it can associate your brand and your product and the thing you do with real awesomeness. I mean, the Rube Goldberg machine truly is inspiring. I watch it still and get this incredible sense of-"Hell-yeah-ness," Nordwind says.
"It's such a triumph and an achievement for all the people involved," Kulash says. "And State Farm looks so much cooler having just allowed us to do it rather than interfering with the art of it."
"We're in conversation with dozens of corporations right now that want to work with us," Kitman says. "It's definitely a new model."
Touring figures heavily into OK Go's plans for the rest of 2010 as well: The band launches a seven-week U.S. tour April 13 in Salt Lake City that includes two sold-out shows at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg and winds up at the Sasquatch Music Festival outside Seattle. It's also scheduled to play Bonnaroo and a number of European festivals this summer, as well as make upcoming appearances on "Late Show With David Letterman," "The Colbert Report," "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
Kitman even stresses the prospect of old-school record sales, pointing out that "Blue Colour" has only been out for a little more than two months. "Based on previous experience, we usually sell more in the second year than in the first," he says. "There's nothing inherent in the construction that you have to have a big opening weekend or else your artistic project's dead. That's a uniquely corporatist view based on a system that worked adequately when 85% of the things failed miserably. And that's not the business we're in."
Bringing the Paracadute outline back to the form that originally built OK Go's buzz, Kulash says he anticipates earning at least a few bucks from plays of the band's videos on YouTube, now that he and his bandmates own the new record. "How EMI monetized videos was only known to us insofar as it affected what we were allowed to do with those videos," he says. "But look, we're not total morons-everything will get reviewed. A year from now we'll see what's working and what's not, and though I have faith that we'll get some money from dealings with YouTube, if we don't, then we'll look for it somewhere else."
VIDEO KILLED THE MAJOR-LABEL DEAL
So will this cobbled-together model of music-business bits and bobs actually work?
Kitman thinks so. " 'This Too Shall Pass' is the third time OK Go's had a viral hit," he says. "No one's done that before, and it undercuts the argument that they're a flash in the pan, that it's something purely accidental. Some have tarnished it by saying, 'Well, it's just a video.' But that was true in 1983. You could just as well say, 'The singer just has a great voice,' or 'They're just really pretty.' I don't think it's too fanciful to say that this is what a hit looks like in the 21st century."
Still, Kitman is quick to point out that OK Go's story "doesn't have an awful lot of application to bands that don't already have an audience and a history of licensing. It's not a way to develop a baby band into a major international act."
"They're obviously doing something that's resonating with people," one current EMI insider says. "Unfortunately for us it's their videos, and we're a music company. Now they have the freedom to monetize anything they want and channel their creativity into whatever it is they think they can do really well at the moment. And if they find the model that works, please tell us. We don't care where it comes from."
"We're starting our new company specifically not as a record company," Kulash says as he and Nordwind prepare to head home for an early night. (Tomorrow they start shooting a new video for the song "End Love," the latest step toward their goal of making a clip for every track on "Blue Colour.") "I mean, it will be our record company. But we want it to be the home for all the creative things we do in the future. And we're trying to keep that as unconstrained by conventional definitions as possible, because the conventional definitions just don't matter anymore."
"Damian's talking about my space ballet," Nordwind says.
"You think he's joking," Kulash deadpans. "But I have something to show you."