OK Go, Weird Al, and the YouTube Shortcut to the Top of the Charts
(UPDATED) By John Dilley of HighSpeedInternet.com.
Eight years ago, OK Go showed us that with one camera, four treadmills, and a whole lot of creativity you can use YouTube to get a hit record. The band has since built a brand out of interesting videos including the newly released, ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’
“Weird Al” Yankovic recently rode a week’s worth of YouTube videos to a number one album ranking—the first of his three-decade career. These two artist take very different approaches to creating their respective music videos, but their success proves that YouTube is more powerful than ever.
So, how did they do it?
Here It Goes Again
OK Go was already a successful band before embracing the power of the YouTube video. Their self-titled, debut album reached number 107 on the Billboard charts in the United States. Then came the release of the bands second album and the ‘Here it Goes Again’ video. The video received over 50 million views by March 2010. It was then taken down and reposted and has since climbed back up over 20 million views. The success of that video pushed the song into the Billboard top 40.
The video was brilliant in its simplicity. A still camera shot, a few perfectly placed treadmills, and some well-timed dance moves created visuals no one had seen before. The novelty was captivating. OK Go’s ability to duplicate novelty, as oxymoronic as that sounds, is remarkable. From the Rube Goldberg Machine setup of the ‘This Too Shall Pass’ video, to the toasted animations of the ‘Last Leaf’ video, the band consistently creates interesting images to match its music.
Creating videos with interesting and novel ideas is key to creating a YouTube sensation that can increase a songs popularity, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Strategic timing on a release is also important.
Shooting the Moon
Weird Al has been making hilarious music videos for decades, but this year, his creative marketing through the use of YouTube took his success to the highest level ever.
He released one video each day for eight straight days to promote what is rumored to be his final studio album, Mandatory Fun. The album rose to number one on the Billboard charts and proved that an album full of songs that people could hear anytime they want for free on YouTube could become a best seller.
As counter intuitive as giving your music away for free might seem, the exposure that can come from creative videos released at the right time can apparently outperform convention.
Weird Al is the latest beneficiary of the YouTube chart rocket. Will OK Go see similar success with their upcoming album?
The Writing’s on The Wall
In June, OK Go released the ‘The Writing’s on the Wall,’ the first single from their upcoming album Hungry Ghosts, expected out in October. The accompanying music video was also released, of course, on YouTube.
‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ is a natural expansion on the one shot ideas that worked for Ok Go in the past. Most of the band’s early videos were still cam, one shot, choreographed dance routines. The more recent ones, including ‘The Writings on the Wall’ and ‘Needing/Getting’ are still mostly one shot choreographed routines, but with the addition of tons of interaction among the camera, background, and props. Of course, the ‘Needing/Getting’ car video also has the interior shots interlaced, but you still feel the continuous performance. Had that video been done by another band I may not have believed it was actually a single take, but with OK Go’s reputation, I don’t even doubt it. The 2012 Grammy nominated, ‘All is Not Lost’ video holds completely true the still cam, one shot, choreographed form, albeit from an unusual angle.
The successful, single shot techniques OK Go often employs leads some to call their videos “low budget,” but that ignores the time cost that goes into them. While they are not the traditional music video with tons of post-production editing, they are actually packed with visual effects. Those effects just happen to be physical instead of digital. The recent videos mentioned above required an army of people to help set-up, and a decent budget (or sponsorship) to get all the equipment needed.
Regardless of the variation in budget, OK Go is sticking to the basic techniques that have proven to be successful for them.
This Too Shall Pass
OK Go is by no means the only artist to garner huge attention from YouTube. Justin Bieber, Rebecca Black, and, recently signed, Unlocking the Truth are all cashing in on their YouTube success. But, OK Go embraces the power of video much more than other YouTube musical sensations. They don’t just perform the song in front of the camera. They use the video medium to transform their songs into a new artistic experience.
OK Go even has a few songs with multiple videos. That may seem like going back to the well too many times to squeeze every last drop of attention-grabbing potential out of a song, but it’s actually part of the band’s artistic vision. In a recent interview with Nick Murray of Rolling Stone, OK Go frontman Damian Kulash explained the video creation process.
“A lot of times there's an art project we'll want to do and we'll listen to the album and pick the song that will make the best art project. 'This Too Shall Pass' had two videos simply because those were both things we wanted to do and the spirit of them only came through with that song,"
The way Kulash describes the process, it’s like the video chooses the song instead of the other way around. In this way, the video medium is influencing the artist, not in the writing of the song, but in choosing which song will receive a new artistic expression.
How else is YouTube and the video medium effecting artists?
A Million Ways
OK Go and Weird Al are two shining examples of using YouTube to drive popularity. Both artists had success before their YouTube fame, but the visual medium pushed each to their highest points in their respective careers. YouTube even seems to be changing Weird Al’s creative process and distribution methods.
In a recent interview on NPR, the master of parody said, “When I do my parodies, because of YouTube, I'm never the first person to do a parody of a certain song. And all the obvious ideas seem to be taken already, so nowadays when I do a parody I try to think of an angle that might be a little bit different or left-of-center that somebody else hasn't thought of already.”
Weird Al seems to be embracing technology despite admitting that streaming has rendered the traditional album less effective for him. He further explained on NPR why Mandatory Fun is likely his last studio album.
“I don't know that I'm going to be doing any more traditional albums after this point, now that my record label deal is over. I think that digital distribution is more the way for me to go: putting out a single at a time, possibly two or three tracks or an EP. I don't know that putting out 12 songs at once in this day and age is the best way for me to get my music out there, because if I'm waiting that long, chances are a lot of the material is going to be somewhat dated by the time it comes out.”
With his recent success, don’t be surprised if other artists follow Weird Al down that road.
What to Do
If you’re an artist and haven’t considered a YouTube music video as part of your promotional plan, you should change that today. OK Go and Weird Al, each using the video medium in their own way, have proven it can be well worth the effort.
OK Go uses sophisticated staging and choreography to make creative spectacles with basic video production techniques. Their success with this approach shows that a successful video doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be creative.
Weird Al uses sophisticated video production techniques to make videos that match the music videos of the songs he’s parodying—sometimes mimicking them shot for shot. He’s done that for years. But, his decision to make the release of his album a week-long YouTube event gave him his greatest success to date. Following that strategy and releasing your YouTube video to maximize viewership from your target audience could help grow your fan base.
Now that MTV is a reality TV channel, YouTube is the main sourc
e for music video consumption. The success OK Go and Weird Al have garnered through YouTube videos shows the power of the medium.
The music is still the most important thing, but you can improve your chances of success by embracing the video medium. Before recording technology all music was performed live and therefore had a visual component. Singing and dancing have gone hand in hand since the dawn of man, so put on your thinking cap and your dancing shoes and show us what you’ve got. With a little luck, you may be the next YouTube music sensation.