In 2005, three former PayPal employees — Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim— launched a little video-sharing website called YouTube. That same year, power pop band OK Go, who were about to release their second album for Capitol Records, gathered in lead singer Damian Kulash’s Los Angeles backyard to have a little fun and record a “practice tape doing a ludicrous boy-band dance.” The lo-fi result, “A Million Ways,” became one of the first massive viral music videos.
The stunt completely changed not only OK Go’s career, but also the way bands made and promoted music videos, period. In fact, Samuel Bayer, the director of Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, later told New York magazine: “If Nirvana ushered in the grunge generation, it seemed like OK Go ushered in playing videos on the internet.” And now, this week OK Go are embarking on a concert tour on which they will live-score their many famous videos — including, of course, “Here It Goes Again,” the famous “treadmill video” that won a Grammy and has racked up more than 100 million YouTube views to date.
However, back in the pre-YouTube, pre-social media age, OK Go had no idea what a game changer their silly backyard camcorder choreography would be. And neither, clearly, did Capitol Records, which tried to stop “A Million Ways” from spreading over the interweb.
“There was something ridiculous and funny about [the “A Million Ways” clip], and we sent it around to some friends as like a Christmas card, like a ‘look how stupid we are’ kind of card,” Kulash recalls. “And someone posted it on a site called iFilm.com, and it started getting tens of thousands — and then hundreds of thousands — of downloads. And we were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a music video. We accidentally made a music video.’”
OK Go then urged Capitol to officially release the “A Million Ways” video, which was directed by the band and Kulash’s sister Trish Sie. But they were told, says Kulash, “‘That’s not what a music video looks like. MTV will never play that.’ … I’m allowed to say this now, I think, because we’re not on that same major label.” OK Go went rogue, secretly screening the DIY video for media outlets and encouraging tastemakers to share it with friends. “We’d go to Yahoo and be like, ‘You did not get this homemade DVD from us, but…’” Kulash says, laughing. (Below is a screenshot of the email with some very archaic links that sadly now go to 404s, but were widely shared at the time.)
Word eventually got back to Hurley, who was looking for content to populate his growing YouTube database. “Because of that first thing, the backyard dance, the founder of YouTube, Chad — Chad@YouTube.com — wrote like, ‘Hey, I’ve seen your stuff everywhere on the internet. Please put it on my site too.’ There was kind of a lot of that then, everybody sort of starting up their own thing,” Kulash recalls. “The internet could be all these different things. And so my best friend from Chicago, Jorge, was our webmaster at the time, and he actually was who decided where to put our next video. And he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s try this YouTube guy.’”
“A Million Ways” may have been the video that started it all, but it was “Here It Goes Again” that was the real game changer. “After we accidentally made a video, we decided, ‘If we can make one by accident, we should do it on purpose.’ And we made the treadmill video,” Kulash says. The one-shot clip, which took a week of practice and 19 takes to perfect, featured the band performing an elaborately choreographed dance routine on eight treadmills set up in director-choreographer Sie’s house. More than 1 million people viewed “Here It Goes Again” during its first six days on YouTube, and it eventually became YouTube’s seventh-most-“favorited” video and the No. 1 most favorited music video of all time. In 2011, it was named one of the 30 best music videos of all time by Time magazine.
It marked a true changing of the old music-video guard when “Here It Goes Again” trumped big-budget videos like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” and the Killers’ “When You Were Young” to win Best Short Form Video at the Grammy Awards. But the Capitol staffers still didn’t quite get it. “It was a slow transition. The first thing that they did was try to get it taken down, because it was people playing my music for free,” says Kulash. “They did eventually realize that it was a good thing, but it took a few years. And the first thing they did was, they were like, ‘We get paid more every time people play it on the YouTube page proper than when they play it off a blog,’ so they tried to get it taken off all the blogs first. And I was like, ‘Well, that’s not a great idea.’”
OK Go eventually amicably parted with Capitol Records and have been independent ever since. And they’ve since become the “video band,” racking up three MTV Video Music Awards, three Webby Awards, two YouTube Awards, and six other Best Video Grammy nominations, all for their increasingly ambitious videos. “When we stumbled into this thing of making videos, we certainly weren’t like, ‘OK, let’s go to film school.’ It was just like an opportunity for us to do more fun, creative stuff, and as that grew and morphed in this weird way, it sort of became part of what we do as creative people,” says Kulash.
Among OK Go’s videography highlights, which have amassed hundreds of millions of views, are “White Knuckles,” a one-shot clip starring 14 adorable rescue dogs (including Kulash’s dog, Bunny Carlos) and one goat performing tricks, which took 126 takes; “This Too Shall Pass,” featuring a giant, intricate Rube Goldberg machine; “Upside Down & Inside Out,” with the band performing aboard a reduced-gravity aircraft; and “The One Moment,” a single-shot clip of a 4.2-seconds-long series of 318 events shown in superslow motion.
“We get ourselves painted into a corner where I think it’d be pretty hard for us to go [back to] dancing in my backyard,” Kulash says with a laugh, describing the band’s internalized pressure to keep topping themselves.
One way OK Go are topping themselves is by bringing their videos on the road with their new synchronized-video concert revue. They also do question-and-answer sessions with their audiences, which include many young kids who appreciate the educational, creative aspects of OK Go’s visuals. (OK Go recently cofounded a nonprofit organization, Sandbox.org, that provides teaching tools for teachers to use OK Go’s videos in classrooms.) “It’s amazing because so many kids now have learned our stuff, like 6-year-olds whose parents sat down and said, ‘This isn’t too bad for you, this is creative, watch this,’” Kulash says, marveling. “We get people telling us, ‘I love you because my 4-year-old watched your videos’ or ‘because my physics teacher told me about you.’”
As for the next generation that will take video creativity to an even higher level, Kulash realizes much has changed since the Wild-West early days of the internet, and that concerns him. “I testified before Congress a few years after [the release of ‘Here It Goes Again,’] actually, because it was one of the first net neutrality fights. At that time, it was possible for a bunch of dorks like us to set up a video camera in my backyard and, essentially, break the internet. That would be more or less impossible now,” he says. “The idea was that everybody should be able to do this, and that you shouldn’t be able to buy a faster channel into people’s brains because you are AT&T — we’re still fighting that fight. You kind of can’t avoid it on some level, because the technology is so much better and so much faster that there’s now these major Madison Avenue agencies who specialize in maximizing all these things. So, it’s pretty hard for a kid in their bedroom to win that war.”
Because so much has changed in the short time since Chad Hurley was just an ex-PayPal employee with a dream, Kulash realizes now what an impact OK Go’s backyard and treadmill choreography had on internet culture. “‘We are ‘the Treadmill Guys,’ which is what my tombstone will say: ‘Damian Kulash, Treadmill Guy,’” he says with a laugh, adding as a joke, “Our guitarist just moved … and he uncovered the video camera which we recorded [‘Here It Goes Again’] on. I feel probably the Library of Congress should have that. I would imagine that video is probably the only thing for which that camera was ever used, so the tape is probably still in there.”
Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app, on Volume channel 106.
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