Of all the bands experimenting with the Internet and its role in enriching their creativity and commerce, OK Go has become one of the canonical success stories, having produced two low-budget, immensely successful viral videos ("A Million Ways" and "Here It Goes Again" in 2006) that together drew more than 50 million views and broadened their fan base considerably. With their status as the de facto princes of the viral music video, imagine the fans' surprise in seeing OK Go's new video branded with this handy instruction to anyone interested in spreading the word: "Embedding disabled by request."
In a revealing rant detailing the modern woes of a band under the thumb of a major label, OK Go singer Damian Kulash writes:
And, voilá: four years after we posted our first homemade videos to YouTube and they spread across the globe faster than swine flu, making our bassist's glasses recognizable to 70-year-olds in Wichita and 5-year-olds in Seoul and eventually turning a tidy little profit for EMI, 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.
In the letter, Kulash articulates a winding response to fans' complaints about the inability to embed the OK Go video on their own sites, as well as complaints from some international users who simply aren't allowed to view the video. His explanation contains threads that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to the music industry and its contortionate attempts to cope with the Internet. Labels are desperate for any opportunity to make money, and because they only make money when videos are viewed on YouTube (and not when embedded elsewhere), OK Go's label is adamantly exerting controls to force users to view it on YouTube.
The flailing of stubborn major labels against anything associated with the Internet hurts plenty of regular people, but it's particularly stinging to see them holding artists back -- the very people whose creativity they exist to support. When Warner Music Group pulled the plug on their YouTube videos over a revenue spat, a significant body of Death Cab for Cutie's videos hosted on the site and embedded elsewhere went dark as well -- collateral damage in Warner's crusade for a bigger piece of the pie. With drama like this, it's no wonder that top artists like Trent Reznor, Radiohead, and other notables have made headlines for selling and distributing music sans label, and that the market for tools to help artists manage marketing and distribution independently (Topspin or Bandcamp, for example) is growing as well. These shifts are just the most up-to-date notes in a dirge for major label-artist relations that's been sung for years.
At the end of the letter, Kulash provides the embed code for video sharing from Vimeo, then closes on a bum note, resigned to the limitations imposed by EMI:
So, for now, here's the bottom line: EMI won't let us let you embed our YouTube videos. It's a decision that bums us out. 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.
So, the next time you see the music labels pressing for Internet-wide copyright filtering or three strikes laws in the name of protecting the artists, remember OK Go's reaction to their label's methods: "It's like the world has gone backwards."