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OK Go: How video saved the radio stars

You might not know their tunes, but OK Go's viral videos have won the band millions of fans. Tim Walker charts their success

In July 2006, 18 months after the invention of YouTube, the B-list alt-rock band OK Go shot a no-budget, home-made promo video for their single "Here It Goes Again". Lead singer Damian Kulash's sister had choreographed a dance routine on four gym treadmills in her basement, which the quartet performed in a single take. Last week, six years and tens of millions of YouTube views later, the lo-fi viral superstars' new video – which doubles as a commercial for the new Chevrolet Sonic hatchback – appeared during the Super Bowl coverage: famously the most high-profile advertising spots of all. OK Go's story is an object lesson in how a mid-table band can become a sustainable concern, even as the traditional music industry collapses around it.

In the new video, for the song "Needing/Getting", the four-piece piled into a specially fitted Sonic to speed around a track in the desert outside Los Angeles. With its retractable pneumatic arms, the car plays 1,157 instruments (including 288 guitars) as it passes them; Kulash and co sing into headsets and play percussion parts from the passenger seats. The performance took four months of preparation – including stunt-driving lessons for Kulash – and four days of shooting. It has accumulated more than 12 million views on YouTube, to add to its Super Bowl audience of 111 million.

Inspired by pop acts such as 'N Sync, OK Go started doing dance routines on stage as part of their live shows in 2002. The band's first viral video, for the 2005 single "A Million Ways", was a treadmill-free routine in someone's garden, that users worldwide imitated, uploading their own versions to the web. "Here It Goes Again" garnered 52 million views, and a pastiche on The Simpsons, before it was removed from YouTube four years on. Since then there's been an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption in the video for "This Too Shall Pass" (33.5 million YouTube views); 14 impeccably trained dogs for "White Knuckles" (12.3 million); and a single, slo-mo/fast-mo 18-hour take for "End Love" (6.4 million).

This puts OK Go in the unprecedented position of being better known for their videos than for their songs: jaunty, occasionally forgettable shots of harmonised power pop. Most of their "fans" probably can't recall the tracks' names, let alone hum the tunes. They are remembered instead as "the treadmills one", "the dogs one", or "the Rube Goldberg one". In the case of "Needing/Getting", the song – or, at least, this convoluted acoustic version of it – exists only as part of the video. "I like the idea of doing videos that are live recordings," Kulash told Car & Driver magazine. "It helps break down the idea that these are all distinct forms of art."

In a post-MTV age, OK Go have found a way to keep music videos vital – and viral. The formula for their early, micro-budget successes was a "why-didn't-I-think-of-that?" simplicity.

Latterly, they have maintained that conceptual focus, even as their budgets have conspicuously ballooned. Each of their best promos is filmed as a single continuous take.

Now the band have begun to turn their viral formula into genuine profit, by procuring sponsorship for their video schemes from the likes of Land Rover, Samsung and now Chevrolet, which gave OK Go $500,000-plus for the promo – and complete creative control. The commercial is as indicative of advertising trends as it is of music industry ones: advertisers are increasingly producing their own content.

In traditional music-fan parlance, OK Go could be said to have "sold out" by collaborating with the corporate world. But because they have done so with such clear benefits to their creativity, the regular rules of cred no longer apply. It helps that Kulash has had at least one public falling out with "The Man", after the band's then-record company EMI disabled the embedding feature on all its YouTube videos, which allows bloggers and other sites to display them – the very thing that made them viral. Kulash has written a handful of pieces for The New York Times on the topic of web freedom, and in February 2010 explained: "It's decisions like these that have earned record companies a reputation for being greedy and short-sighted. And by and large they deserve it."

OK Go saw the future coming long before their corporate paymasters, and in March 2010 left EMI to form their own label, Paracadute. EMI may not have been too upset to see the back of them, given that their millions of YouTube views failed to translate into millions of sales: Oh No (2005) sold about 200,000 CDs, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky (2010) just 20,000. But then, who seriously makes money from album sales nowadays? Coldplay? Adele? Shifting CD units is no longer a plausible goal for a non-stadium band, so if an act can sustain itself in other innovative ways, it is setting a good example.

Their songs may not be for the ages, but as a business model, OK Go are as groundbreaking as it gets.