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OK Go’s Damian Kulash Talks About the Band's Split With EMI

It’s been a dramatic few months for OK Go: In January, the pop-rockers released their third album, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, and their front man, Damian Kulash, wrote a Times op-ed calling out their label, EMI Music, for making their YouTube videos un-emebddable. Earlier this month, they released a video for their single “This Too Shall Pass” that was seen 6 million times in its first six days on YouTube. Oh, and today, they announced they were leaving EMI. We got Kulash on the phone just now to tell us why.

When was the decision to leave EMI made?
It was about two weeks ago. Obviously the structure of major-label record contracts is not particularly generous to the whims of rock bands, so the decision to leave was really them responding to our request and letting us go. For years we’ve sort of been able to steer our own ship, and it’s just been a question of whether they’ll let us do that.

What was the final impetus for the decision?
I don’t know how much insider baseball you want to get into, but the way traditional major-label promotion goes, it’s a lot of effort on radio, and you can gauge the level of interest in you with how hard they’re going at radio. They had agreed to a normal-size radio campaign, and a few days before, we got notice from the label saying, "The record’s not really sticking, we’re not going to do the radio campaign." And we just went ballistic on them, you know, “If you’re not willing to promote bands on your label, can you let them not be on your label please?” It’s something of a gift from them to let us go. We steer our own ship just fine. The way record labels traditionally work, 95 percent of the things they put out lose money, and the other five percent pays for everything else. So when we you have something like us that’s succeeding, it’s in their interest to keep us. But they can see we can do the job best on our own, when we’re able to be nimble and do what we want to do.

What other problems were you having with EMI?
The issue is that they just don’t have any money. The reason a band signs with a label is because they can provide start-up capital, and their business model has sort of collapsed. There was lots of little bones of contention, like when there were chances for us to promote things and they just didn’t have the money to do so. It was a lot easier to be generating the budget ourselves or through corporate partners.

Obviously it’s publicly known that EMI’s in bad shape, but how straightforward were they with you guys about not having money?
We have a project manager, radio-promotions people, and they can see their budgets shrinking, and they’re just saying, “We’d love to do that, that’s just not in the budget.” All the rest of the budgets are shrinking, so you can just see what’s happening. Labels make their money off their ownership of a particular commodity and that commodity just had the walls around it blown apart. Owning the masters, the money is not from physical sales. Some of it is from digital sales, but you have to drastically rethink your business plan.

What was the mentality when you did the op-ed? Were you just not concerned with pissing off the label at that point?
I grew up in D.C. listening to very DIY punk rock, people who are extremely politically outspoken, and it’s in my rock DNA to want to be understood with respect to the way we do our business, the way our creative project gets out into the world. The op-ed had less to do with a specific attack on the label or YouTube or anyone, and more so trying to give a more balanced, insightful view of what’s going on. You go online, you see the vitriolic response from the fans: “Major labels are the worst things in the world!” They’re not. They provide a really needed economic leg to the stool of rock and roll; you need an investment system like that. They did some really onerous things, certainly there were a lot of people there that were less than savory. It’s not like they’re inherently evil. It’s a system that got too big for its britches and fell over.

How were your personal relationships with the staff at EMI?
Just skipping between interviews today, most of the messages in my in-box are from people at EMI: “It’s been great working with you, this is sad, but this is the best thing for you.” You know, six months ago we were all sitting around drinking coffee, figuring out how to make this work, and it has worked, very well. Those people aren’t sitting down with Citibank today trying to figure out how to pay back $2 billion. The people that are doing their day to day jobs, they’re doing the same calculus we are. If you wanna be working in music a year from now, what should you be doing?

I’m not going to try to pronounce the name of your new company …
Paracadute! It means parachute in Italian. It’s my second favorite word.

What’s the next step for it?
We have a pretty good plan in place. We’ve been working with our own team for a while now. That’s why this decision was so easy, seeing the difficulty the label was having pulling off basic promotion. We were already hiring people ourselves to do them, so we have a nice little team assembled right now.

Do you have plans for more videos?
We’re shooting another video next week, and we’re shooting a very ambitious one in June with my sister, who made the treadmill video with us. The next video is sort of — we’re trying to work with time as a choreographic element. And the one after that involves a group of very talented individuals and I can’t say anything more besides that.

Earlier: OK Go Defeats Record Label, Unleashes Another Magical Music Video
The Making of an OK Go Video: Singer Damian Kulash Breaks Down ‘This Too Shall Pass’

Photo: Patrick McMullan