Co.Create

Behind OK Go's New Word-Focused App And Its Label-less Model For Success

After parting with its label in 2010, OK Go has explored a new entrepreneurial path, including brand partnerships and, now, a new nonmusical app, Say The Same Thing. We talk to Damian Kulash about the app and the band’s musical model.

“People don’t tend to think about what other skills musicians had in 1985 or '95 or '65, because there was a standard way to measure success back then, which was selling pieces of plastic,” says OK Go frontman Damian Kulash. “Now that those pieces of plastic aren’t our bread and butter, nor an accurate reflection of popularity, it really breaks down the conceptual model that the song itself is where all the value is, and everything else in your career is just promotional.”

OK Go is a band that became famous from the music video portion of that “everything else.” Now, they’re exploring other creative avenues, including a new app that’s about words instead of music.

The band has entered the app space with its inaugural effort,
Say the Same Thing. Similar to the improv game, Mindmeld, Say the Same Thing gives users a chance to play a word game, either with a friend or without (see the new video below for an entertaining demo of the game, which sees players saying a random word then saying other words that connect those two words until they, of course, say the same thing). The app is something of a departure from much of the band-released apps available in the music world, since, rather than being a portal into extra content, it’s more an extension of OK Go’s particular sensibility. The app’s only tenuous relation to music is that it seems like the kind of game a band might play on the tour bus.

Say the Same Thing was created by the band’s guitarist, Andy Ross, who just happens to be a closet iOS designer. It’s just another example of a band using all of its intellectual and imaginative resources to chase down whims as far as they’ll go.

“We don’t recognize as clear a distinction as the rest of the world does between songwriting, video making, and dreaming up the live show, projects, apps, or games,” Kulash says. “There are a lot of creative entrepreneurial ideas in the overlap of all these things, and that’s what excites us the most.”

That multi-platform vision was unleashed when, in March 2010, the band parted ways with Capitol Records, the label that had seen them through their popularity spike on the strength of early YouTube smashes, “A Million Ways” and “Here it Goes Again.” The timing of the announcement was surprising; the band had just put out Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, their first record since a larger audience knew who they were. It was at the lightning-rod hype point in the album cycle. Generally, labels tend to prefer that their bands leave during the silent expanses between albums. Somehow, they accommodated OK Go’s request to be released from their contract.

“As of 2003 or 2004, it became pretty obvious that the major label system was unsustainable--at least not for a band like us,” Kulash says. “I remember thinking it was just a matter of time before we’d have to figure something else out. But I didn’t plan on it being just then.”

Not only did Capitol let the band go, they’d also left them with a parting gift that would define the next stage of their career. The label had brokered a deal with State Farm, which was looking for a band to make cool online content for them. Given OK Go’s previous success, they were a no-brainer for this slot. There was no guarantee that the result of the collaboration was going to be anywhere near as successful as the video for “This Too Shall Pass” ended up being though.

The video for “This Too Shall Pass” features a Rube Goldberg machine writ large. Not only was the video a huge success in terms of YouTube hits (40 million and counting), it served as an example of how nonintrusive the presence of a brand could be. State Farm funded the video, and a title card with the insurance agency’s logo appears at the end, letting viewers know as much. That’s it.

“We were lucky with that video, because it showed you can do tasteful and meaningful partnerships with brands,” Kulash says. “To involve a brand doesn’t necessarily mean holding up a bunch of Tic Tacs next to your face with a giant smile. Instead of the negotiation being, ‘Can this brand buy the cool off this artist?’ or ‘Can this artist con some money off this brand?’ both sides get something they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.” Kulash adds, “It made it a lot easier down the road to show how this works.”

Before that point, OK Go’s videos were successful in a certain context. They had millions of hits, they were bringing the band’s music all over the world, they were increasing the band’s profile. The only problem was that the band’s label, and to a larger extent, the industry as a whole, did not seem to know how to make money out of any of these metrics. After proving that their viral hits were no fluke with “This Too Shall Pass” though, that problem seemed solvable. Hence, the band decided to start its own label.

Paracadute Records is aptly named after the Italian word for parachute, and in its first three years the endeavor has done more than keep the band afloat. Aside from working on their next album and signing other bands, OK Go has continued down the path of getting brands to fund their high-concept art projects. Whether its Google Chrome for the human kaleidoscope “All Is Not Lost” video, Chevy Sonic for the high-profile "Needing/Getting," or Saatchi & Saatchi for a video contest, the band has remained busy, creative, and profitable.

The difference between being a signed band and being a company that bands sign to is that OK Go now has a vested interest in distribution. With their first new album since striking out on their own due before year’s end, though, the band will face its biggest hurdles yet, both on that front and in terms of promotion. They don’t seem to be sweating it.

“We used to think of 100 things to help promote the record. Maybe 10 of them would get on the radar of the label, they might actually fund five, and maybe two of those would succeed,” Kulash explains. “Now, we can think of those 100 things, but we know we can only afford to try five or ten of them, and so we just try those five or ten. And hopefully we’ll have a better success ratio than people who are working at a record label, for whom that’s their ninth priority.”

In the meantime, they’ve continued on with other endeavors like the Arctic Circle Project, for which Sony sent members of the band, along with Paracadute signees Pyyramids, to the Arctic Circle to make music with phones and tablets during the Northern Lights.

The band is also working on making their live shows as much of an event as their videos have become. Although it’s too soon for the band to announce anything concrete just yet, apparently they’re working with a big European robotics research company, so perhaps fans should expect big robotic things.

“The live experience of rock and roll shows hasn’t been truly overhauled and fucked with in decades,” Kulash says. “It’s time to do something really exciting.”

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