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.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders