When OK Go performed at my school, Columbia College, in May for our annual Manifest I jumped at the chance to sit down and chat with them. I wanted to pick their brains about all things related to music business, since it is what I am studying. Read on to hear what Damian Kulash (vocals/guitar) and Tim Nordwind (bass) had to say when I grilled them about their careers as professional musicians in today’s flailing recording industry. I consider myself lucky that the guys even answered my questions – it really got uncomfortable at moments!
1) If you had the opportunity to take lessons for your instrument, who would you want to study under?
Tim: To me, it’s not about taking lessons. Obviously, I’d like becoming a better bass player and guitar player. I feel like with us, generally it seems like it’s more about improving on song ideas and concept ideas. I’m trying to think. I’m sure there is, but…
Damian: It’s kinda weird, because it’s not like…People’s ability to teach very rarely has anything to do with their success. I would imagine David Bowie’s probably not the best voice coach out there, but one of the greatest singers. The people you want to learn from are not necessarily the people you look up to in other respects. I mean, the best guitar teacher I had was Ted Green.
Tim: Which one was he?
Damian: He was a guy out in the Valley. He’s like a jazz monster, but in his whole life he only released one record. But he taught Wendy of Wendy and Lisa fame, you know Prince’s guitarist. He’s taught some of the greatest guitarists that rock has ever known, but you wouldn’t know who he is. In general – in fact, I think I’d like to start taking lessons again. I’ve gotten sort of in a rut with my playing where I’m just used to the things that I do. Again, we’re not like a player’s band. There are people you go see just because you can’t believe they can play like that. The Steve Vais of the world. But even like, the black metal bands are sometimes like that. You can’t fucking believe they can play that fast, and it’s amazing. But it’s more like The Pixies school of music making where it’s more about a certain –
Tim: It’s like about a feeling.
Damian: It’s about a relationship between the people. It’s about something we do as a collective – not about each individual person’s playing. Individual players in The Pixies – like Joey Santiago is not a particularly good guitarist technically, but he’s still my favorite guitarist ever in some ways. It’s their songwriting and that feeling that they can create as a foursome.
Tim: Yeah, but I’m not sure they can teach you that. I think that the way you learn is just sort of by listening and getting inspired by that. But I don’t know, maybe you can do that. We should try.
Damian: Ha, yeah. Call up Joey and be like, “Can you make me awesome like you?”
2) What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from mistakes you’ve made in your career so far?
Damian: We’ve never made any mistakes. We are perfect. I think certainly not trusting the sort of institutionalized successful people? Let me think of the right way to say that. I grew up in D.C. where do-it-yourself punk-rock was the mantra. I always distrusted major labels and I always distrusted the sort of system. And even with that basic backdrop I still sort of figured that there was still sort of magic behind the doors of the industry as if someone back there is pulling strings and making things happen. And the more we have…All of my suspicions as a teenager have been confirmed that there really is no one back there doing any special magic. There’s no reason to trust the sort of suits because they say they can make things happen. I’m not saying it in a very specific way. I’m not saying it in a very lucid way.
Tim: You can’t trust it.
Damian: We’ve been lucky to steer clear of the major potholes of signing away things that we shouldn’t have signed, or getting involved with people that we really didn’t want to get involved with. I look back on periods of our career and I don’t love our first record anymore. But I wouldn’t go back and change the way we made it, I just wouldn’t do it again.
3) What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from other music professionals in the biz who have more experience than you?
Tim: Maybe to shoot for longevity versus a quick success.
Damian: Not to lose sight of why you are doing this in the first place. The reason anyone gets in this business, or the only good reason to get in this business, is because you really like music, you know? And you really like making music and you really like the ideas and you really like the creative process. We’ve seen so many people sort of get side tracked by this thing – at the smallest taste of success. And what they shift into is people who are in the business of chasing success. And that’s obviously an oxymoron. I mean, you can’t be in the business of chasing business. Or rather, it doesn’t make good music. The only people who seem to stay happy at it are still doing what they want to be doing 20 years into their career as opposed to still trying to chase the opportunity to do what they want to do. Does that make sense?
4) As far as commercial music licensing goes, are there any television shows that you enjoy and would like your songs to be placed in?
Damian: Our music’s already in tons of shows. Our operating theory is that if a TV show is bad, that usually reflects badly on the show and not on the music in the show. So we tend to be pretty easy to license from. We will not – we’ll stop things if we really find them offensive. But for the most part we feel like music speaks for itself and if you have to protect your music from it being in a bad TV show, then you’re in the business of marketing again. All you’re really doing is trying to figure out how to game the world to make them think you’re cool, which is just not fun. There are some good shows.
Tim: I’d like to have a song in The Office.
Damian: That would be impressive. They don’t have music, do they?
Tim: I don’t think they have music, so that would be real difficult.
Damian: I think The Wire does a pretty good job music-wise.
Damian: No, not The Wire, I’m sorry – Weeds. They have a different – they have somebody new do the theme song every week. We should tell them we want to do a theme song.
Tim: I’d like to be the ending song on Entourage. They actually pick pretty good music. I’m surprised to hear a lot of Kings of Leon on that show.
Damian: I wanna be in Casino. They’re just gonna have to re-edit the sound. Because the soundtrack to Casino is fucking great.
Tim: I’m sure it’s gonna get expensive as hell if they have to renew.
Damian: Oh yeah, good point. Eventually they’ll have to like, take out Il Divo and put us in.
Tim: Also, that reminds me, it’s the same thing with the TV show the Wonder Years. The reason they haven’t put a DVD box set out yet is because they can’t afford to use all the songs because it’s like The Beatles and every great classic song.
Damian: Yeah, how did they get them in the show in the first place?
Tim: They must have had some sort of limited deal or something. They probably paid for it the first time, but from what I understand it’s just way too expensive for them to do it right now.
Damian: I wonder if TV rights were just a lot cheaper then or something?
Tim: That may have been the case. So we could do the entire seven seasons of Wonder Years, haha.
Damian: I was listening to an interview with somebody, with a filmmaker whose first grad school film has never been released for the same reason. Anyways, onward…
5) What are your thoughts on having your recorded live performances downloaded online for free by your fans?
Damian: Obviously I’m not very good at answering these questions quickly. They’re complicated ones. In general, the short answer is we love people having access to our music. Especially because our business model has very little to do with control of the recordings. We just want people to be able to hear our music. We’re smart enough to understand that if there’s not money flowing through the system, it will be very hard for anyone to make a living in music. We’re not out to see labels and the system implode. Selfishly, all we particularly care about is our own fans getting access to the music. So, yeah I’ll leave it at that.
6) How do you feel about up and coming online music companies that let fans download artists’ recorded live performances for free?
Damian: I think that what you’re sort of chipping away at here is, what is the model of the music industry that we propose? I don’t have one that will solve all the industry’s woes. It’s hard to answer these atomized questions, you know, because I don’t… I think that musicians need to get paid for what they do. I don’t know if that’s the revenue stream that is relevant. For us, it is not particularly relevant. Recordings of our live shows are not a revenue stream that we are trying to Exploit. I think if a big business grew up around selling them and we weren’t getting a part of it, we would be pretty pissed, you know? The macro changes in the music industry I think need to be – it doesn’t make sense for me to sort of think of it and try to take a stance on every micro question. It’s sort of more like, how are we, in a world where music is no longer tied to physical objects that can be commodified and sold, traded, distributed they way they used to be, then what is the revenue stream for music? The sort of obvious top-down solution to me seems to be to have a system like a rights organization that is not necessarily connected to limited access ideas of music. I mean, there’s several people who have proposed models where basically all music is free everywhere, but there’s a monthly tax and it would be pretty easy to track who was listening to what. Or in rough numbers what was successful. That sort of answers all these questions at once, you know? I’m not sure that can be done. Of course it’d raise a whole lot more questions. All the little questions of like, should you be getting paid for this? Should you be getting paid for that? Should you be getting paid for that? Those all seem like corollaries to a much bigger question of like, where does money come from? Because in music, money right now, it all goes to iPod. People spend tons of money on their iPods, but then nothing on filling them, you know? People are happy to spend $80 a month for broadband so that they can download big files, which are of course, movies and music, and of course they don’t pay anything for the files. There’s lots of money in the system right now, it’s just not going to music. Slicing the hairs of whether or not it’s a live performance, or the label owns it, or the publisher owns it, the artist owns it, it’s an independent artist, it’s a major artist… All of these things seem to me like, they’re all tiny facets on the same side of the globe, which is sort of like this entire – like the rug was pulled out underneath the entire system, and so build a new system, you know.
7) Your last album came out in 2005. What are you up to now? Any plans for a third album?
Damian: Um, yes. We are writing now. We will be in the studio by August at the latest. I mean, we’re recording now, but they’re demos. We expect – I’m sure we will not put it out in the fourth quarter of this year because fourth quarter is just a stupid time for anyone but Paul McCartney to release a CD.
Tim: And he does every fourth quarter.
Damian: And every fourth quarter there he is – Oh, look Paul… So we will probably put it out in February, March, something like that.
8 – How do you feel about being known to millions of people as the “YouTube treadmill video band” and for your infamous video versus being known as OK Go and for your songs?
Tim: That’s one way to know us.
Damian: We would be morons if we thought that like, the entire world was simultaneously – like, everybody was going to watch the video and the 35 million hits – “they all bought the album and they all came to the shows and they all read about it in the New York Times and everybody knew everything about us and we were the world’s biggest band!” That is certainly the most conspicuous thing we’ve done. Nothing has gotten more exposure than that treadmill video. We’re not surprised to see that it’s the thing people know us for. Obviously we don’t think of ourselves – like I don’t brush my teeth every night and think, “Well, there you are – treadmill video guy!” It was a video we made, and it was a great video.
Tim: What do you say to yourself?
Damian: Like, “Can I be Tim’s friend?” The way I think, whenever you’re playing to more than your social circle, like your friends… I mean, our first show in Chicago was to about 300 people. I think we probably knew about 295 of them. It was the music scenesters that we hung out with. I would say in that room, probably 150 people were in bands – we knew all their bands. Tim’s roommates were there. My roommate was there. It was your friends. In that world, you know exactly who you are and what you are. It’s all a known quantity. After that, everything is sort of a numbers game. It’s a numbers game that you can engage in if you’re a person who cares a lot about exposure and marketing and numbers. Or if you just want to make music, you hope there’s someone out there who likes it. You hope those people are sort of similar enough to you that when you talk after shows, they’re people you can get along with. Or that you don’t feel like you’re being horribly misunderstood. But when our video got viewed 30 million times, or whatever it is, that exposed us to a whole shitload of new people. And my guess is, somewhere in the realm of a half a percent of them or something, decided to go farther and check out some other song online. Or come to a show, or do whatever. The other 29.99999 million people – they’ll always know us as that treadmill band, presumably. Hopefully those people who gave a shit will like the rest of the music and come to shows and that’s our fanbase, you know? If you think of what it would’ve been like without the treadmills, then you’re dealing with 1% of whoever happened to see the video before that, or hear the song on the radio, or whatever it is. In the small indie world, maybe half the people who come to your show will become super fans. But when you’re playing to 10,000 people in Johannesburg, you don’t expect that 5,000 of them are going to go buy the record the next day. They came for the show, they had a good time, they might’ve known who you were, their friends said you were really cool, whatever. And that might be the last time they ever hear of you. It’s like, when the numbers get bigger you have to sort of assume that you are specifically talking directly to a smaller percentage of them, but they give a shit, you know? Am I making any sense?
9) What do you do on stage to try and win over the crowd when playing to an audience that doesn’t consist of your typical fanbase?
Damian: I think you need to put yourself a little more in the perspective of people who make things because they want to make things. For us, this whole thing is not a strategy to fool people. We hope the people have a good time tonight. We will enjoy ourselves on stage. Our show is mostly sort of about riling up the crowd and getting everybody excited. If people don’t want to have a good time, they won’t. But if people do, they will. There’s been shows where we’ve been like, “Ugh, what a shitty audience,” but for the most part, when people come out to have a good time, they do. So I don’t feel like we have to trick anyone into liking us.
Tim: If they don’t, they’ll just go…haha.
Damian: We’ve played to a lot of big urban audiences and mostly because college festivals like this tend to be us and Common. Or us and –
Tim: Who by the way…raps about us.
Damian: Who by the way raps about us recently. We were dropped – name-checked in the most recent Common hit. And we talked to him in L.A. once. Remember that?
Tim: Yeah, I do.
Damian: And we played with Ludacris a month ago, and Gym Class Heroes. These college festivals are very often sort of like, they try to get one band for each perceived segment of population. So there’s a rock band, there’s like, a girl singer/songwriter, and there’s a hip hop band. The audiences don’t necessarily go ape-shit for…like, the obvious hip hop crowd doesn’t necessarily love us, but they have a good time.
10) With CD sales declining by 25% every year, the record industry is constantly searching for other revenue streams. Do you make more money from CD sales and touring or from licensing and publishing from writing your own songs? How do you see yourselves succeeding financially?
Damian: To be honest, we make our money through licensing – almost entirely. Well, licensing and touring. We’re sort of back to the same thing. I don’t have a magic pill for the music industry. It has been our experience that people who make good music and are relatively intelligent about the business choices they make are still doing fine. It’s not that hard… Music is doing really well right now. Record labels are not. It’s not impossible to make money in music. The model that your money should be coming from a physical object is just outdated. Anybody at Columbia who’s getting into the music industry worrying about CD sales should be picking a fucking different industry. They’re already way behind the times if they’re thinking about CD sales. CD sales have nothing to do with the music industry anymore. The heads of the major labels just figured that out this year and they were supposed to know it ten years ago. Licensing is one thing…
Tim: And that could all go away easily right now too, though.
Damian: Yeah, but that could go away too. No one really knows. I think you have to have a basic faith that people want music in their lives and will spend a certain amount of money to have it in their lives, and that there will be money to be made in music. You have to be flexible enough and intelligent enough to be in the right place to accept some of that money. But again, the reason you should get into music is because you fucking love music. I mean, if you want to make money, go elsewhere. It was never a smart place to make money. 10, 15 years ago, you could into the music industry with the dream of having a hit record that would sell millions and make millions. But you know what? You would have been just as stupid to do it then, because there’s still only one band a year that does that. Maybe five bands a year that do that, and guess what? You’re probably not going to be in one of them. So anybody that wants to make lots of money should just find a different business. There’s more than enough money to go around to make good livings for people who make good music and for people who are willing to work hard for it. People who want glory and riches always go down hard.
Tim: Or go to Law School.
Damian: Or go to Law School. You’ll find very few bands, few big bands, where they guys in the band are going, “You know what? We all sat down, decided we wanted to make a lot of money and this is how we did it.” Every band I can think of, every interview is kinda like, “Yeah, we were playing music for our friends and I don’t know, it kinda caught on.” I mean, there’s no way Jack White actually thought he was going to be playing with The Stones, you know what I mean? He was like a douchebag who could play guitar really well. He’s not a douchebag, I’m just kidding. Anyways, yeah, there you go…