Rolling Stone story: ‘OK Go and embedding music videos’, April 2010

Rolling Stone Australia May 2010 coverMy first cautionary tale as a print media journalist: a lot can happen in the time between submitting a story, and the magazine going to print.

In late January, I pitched a story to Rolling Stone. Its focus: the discussion surrounding American rock band OK Go and their open letter to fans explaining why their label had blocked the embedding of latest new music video. Shortly after I researched, interviewed and submitted this story in late February, the band left their label – effectively destroying the story’s hook. It was edited from 800 words to around 200. Damn!

So here’s a treat: you can read the original story I submitted to Rolling Stone. Just pretend that OK Go are still signed to Capitol Records, and it’ll all make sense. I promise.

But first, here’s the (short) story that appears in the May 2010 issue of Rolling Stone (which features Hendrix on the cover). Click the below image for a closer look.

Rolling Stone Australia story by Andrew McMillen - OK Go and embedded music videos

Here’s what I submitted.

EMI Killed The (Streaming) Video Stars

By Andrew McMillen

On the back of a clever, low-budget music video added to YouTube in July 2006, American rock act OK Go’s star went supernova. The original upload of the band’s treadmill dance routine to their single ‘Here It Goes Again‘ has been viewed 50 million times. Nearly four years later, restrictions put in place by their parent label, EMI subsidiary Capitol Records, have made it much more difficult for that level of ‘viral’ success to be replicated, whether by OK Go or any other act signed to EMI.

How? The label now enforces embedding restrictions on content published to the YouTube channels of all EMI-signed acts. Why? The label owns the band’s videos, and the label doesn’t receive ad revenue when the video is embedded outside of YouTube.

It’s a discussion centred around EMI’s apparent shift in values. In the eye of the storm stands OK Go singer and guitarist, Damian Kulash. Speaking to Rolling Stone before the band’s mid-February Australian tour, the frontman reflected on the changing nature of streaming online content.

“Once upon a time it was just amazing that there was a website out there [YouTube] that would help you distribute your advertising,” referring to the long-accepted notion of a band’s music video as a marketing tool. The relationship between YouTube and content owners changed from friendly to adversarial when the latter realised they were missing an opportunity to make a buck from the free online service. Putting himself in EMI’s shoes, Kulash suggests: “[Content owners] want people to see it like: “we paid for that thing, how come you won’t pay us for it?”.

Kulash is far from a clueless musician whining about losing precious YouTube views. Having eloquently opened a proverbial can of worms when he published an open letter to their fans on January 18 , the singer is all too aware of the complexities surrounding this issue, and of the industry’s wider foibles. He bluntly states: “I don’t particularly care if the music industry works, until I make something and it fucks up the way I want that thing to be shared with the world.”

That thing, in this case, was the band’s newest filmed creation for single ‘This Too Shall Pass’, which was uploaded to YouTube in early January. [Vimeo version embedded below.]

Like the treadmill video, it’s another monster one-take effort involving the band:this time, they’re assisted by 200 extras. Brilliant though the video is, it didn’t catch fire like ‘Here It Goes Again’.

After being “flooded with complaints”, the band realised that the video couldn’t be embedded on external sites, since the software that overlays texts ads onto YouTube videos is configured to only work on-site.

Hence Kulash’s apologetic letter, and the band’s decision to upload the video to ad-free competitor Vimeo. In the letter, Kulash explained that years ago – post-treadmill video – the major labels “threatened all sorts of legal terror, and eventually all four majors struck deals with YouTube which pay them tiny, tiny sums of money every time one of their videos gets played.”

While in Australia recently, Kulash again commented on the issue, this time with a piece entitled ‘WhoseTube?‘ that appeared in the opinion pages of The New York Times. Estimates of those “tiny, tiny sums of money” range between US$0.004 and $0.008 per stream of an ad-overlaid video. By Kulash’s math, EMI’s gross for streams of ‘Here It Goes Again’ is capped at around $5,400.

Since the no-embed rule was enforced, the band has seen only small change. “Our last royalty statement from the label, which covered six months of streams, shows a whopping US$27.77 credit to our account,” Kulash wrote.

When speaking about his parent label, he suggests that “clearly there hasn’t been a very clear-eyed assessment of that shift in music videos from advertisement to product, or in general, of the attempt to blur promotion and monetisation.” He concludes: “The value in music from which we derive money can no longer be generated by limiting access.”

On the national front, it’s difficult to judge whether EMI Australia’s policy mimics that of the larger North American body. At the time of writing, some videos by EMI Australia artists – uploaded to the label’s YouTube channel, account name ‘musich3ad‘ – can be embedded, like Tina Arena, Something With Numbers, Kasey Chambers, You Am I, and Miami Horror. Some can’t, like Keith Urban, Angus & Julia Stone, The Cat Empire, and Operator Please.

Empire Of The Sun content lies on both sides of the divide: ‘We Are The People’ is embed-friendly, while ‘Walking On A Dream’ is not.

EMI Australia’s digital media department repeatedly denied requests to comment on their embedding policy, though their publicist arranged the interview with Damian Kulash for this story.

To further confuse this already-complex discussion, consider that EMI Australia was unwilling to publicly address whether their position on streaming online content has shifted from a platform of free marketing to a mere revenue-generating device, while simultaneously allowing Rolling Stone access to one of their most vocal dissidents.

On the upside, it was great to interview Damian Kulash, OK Go’s singer, who is easily one of the most business-savvy and eloquent musicians I’ve spoken to. I’m not surprised that they left Capitol, and I expect they’ll be a stronger band for it.

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