Reinventing the Newsroom

A Lesson in Newspaper Economics — From a Rock Star

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Paid Content, Social Media by reinventingthenewsroom on January 21, 2010

In the summer of 2006, the band OK Go unveiled a video for their single “Here It Goes Again.” Even if you don’t know OK Go, you’ve seen this video — it’s the one with the band dancing on treadmills. The video for “Here It Goes Again” became a phenomenon — it’s been viewed on YouTube more than 49 million times — dramatically raising both the band’s profile and that of “viral marketing.” (It’s also catchy as hell, and name-checks the Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa.”)

Picture of the band OK Go

You could learn a lot from a rock star.

Given that success story, this next part will seem insane. OK Go just released a new album and another endearingly DIY video, for the song “This Too Shall Pass.” Obviously, the band hopes its new video also becomes a viral hit. But a big weapon in its social-media arsenal isn’t available: EMI, OK Go’s record label, won’t let the video be embedded on Web sites and blogs. And in some countries, it can’t be viewed at all.

“We wish there was something we could do,” lead singer Damian Kulash writes in an open letter on the band’s Web site. “Believe us, we want you to pass our videos around more than you do, but, crazy as it may seem, it’s now far harder for bands to make videos accessible online than it was four years ago.”

Kulash adds that despite the band’s success leveraging blogs and social media to spread its videos and make EMI a profit, “we’re – unbelievably – stuck in the position of arguing with our own label about the merits of having our videos be easily shared. It’s like the world has gone backwards.”

The problem, as Kulash explains it, is that EMI gets a bit of money when an OK Go video is viewed on YouTube’s site, but nothing when that video is embedded. And so the label won’t allow embeds.

While obviously frustrated, Kulash isn’t completely unsympathetic to his label’s plight: “We’ve argued with them a lot about it, but we also understand why they’re doing it. They’re aware that their rules make it harder for people to watch and share our videos, but, while our duty is to our music and our fans, theirs is to their shareholders, and they believe they’re doing the right thing.”

And Kulash offers a clear-eyed assessment of the economics of the music industry that ought to make journalists and newspaper executives prick up their ears.

“What we’re really talking about here is the shift in the way we think about music,” he writes. “We’re stuck between two worlds: the world of ten years ago, where music was privately owned in discrete little chunks (CDs), and a new one that seems to be emerging, where music is universally publicly accessible. The thing is, only one of these worlds has a (somewhat) stable system in place for funding music and all of its associated nuts-and-bolts logistics, and, even if it were possible, none of us would willingly return to that world. Aside from the smug assholes who ran labels, who’d want a system where a handful of corporate overlords shove crap down our throats? All the same, if music is going to be more than a hobby, someone, literally, has to pay the piper. So we’ve got this ridiculous situation where the machinery of the old system is frantically trying to contort and reshape and rewire itself to run without actually selling music. It’s like a car trying to figure out how to run without gas, or a fish trying to learn to breathe air.”

Kulash is no veal calf — he understands the realities of the business he’s in. And he sees that while things are changing, that change involves a pretty profound dislocation, with attendant difficulties, losses and ridiculousness.

You could learn a lot from a rock star.

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  1. […] old model drags it under, even though no new business model is in place — the industry is, to quote a rock star, a fish trying to learn to breathe air. It’s not the way anyone would choose to make such a […]

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