In the early 1990s, a teenage punk fan named Damian Kulash wanted to release a compilation CD of songs from his favorite Washington bands.
But Kulash, a Washington native and disciple of the city's DIY movement, needed cash to fund the project. He went to Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye, the figurehead of the Washington punk scene, and asked for a loan. MacKaye agreed to give Kulash $2,000 — but not before laying a guilt trip on the kid.
"He said, 'If you don't pay back this money, I won't have it to lend to somebody else, and you will singlehandedly be the person who shut down the D.C. scene. Do you want to be that person?' " Kulash recalled.
Kulash carried the DIY spirit with him when, years later, he moved to Chicago and formed the rock group OK Go. He always thought the band would live or die by its own ambition, and said he never expected a record deal to make or break the group.
After a series of low-budget, eye-catching music videos (one featuring the group dancing on treadmills) made a huge splash on the Web, generating countless millions of views, OK Go became Internet sensations and parlayed the online buzz into record sales and live shows (including a gig at Rams Head Live Sunday).
In March, OK Go split with its longtime label, EMI subsidiary Capitol Records, and founded its own label, Paracadute (Italian for "parachute"). EMI refused to let bloggers, critics and other fans embed OK Go's videos on their personal websites. The videos could only be viewed on YouTube, which made the label money, but it also meant far fewer people saw them, the band said.
In turn, OK Go asked to be released from its contract, and EMI granted its wish. Kulash was relieved. Separating from EMI won't change much in the band's day-to-day operations, but it will free them from the label's bureaucratic hassles.
"It's not a huge change for us, except we have to oversee the distribution side," he said. "For that small amount of work, we get a lot of freedom. … From a business perspective, we don't have to worry about political infighting."
Without a label, OK Go, will have to find novel ways to make money — which is nothing new for the band. They've sold USB copies of their records at concerts for some time now, and sales of USB drives have outnumbered CD sales in the past, Kulash said. Each show is taped, and live recordings of that night's performance are available at merchandise tables minutes after the band's set ends.
The same goes for the band's music videos. They shot two videos for their latest single, "This Too Shall Pass" — one with a complex Rube Goldberg-style machine, and the other with members of the Notre Dame marching band. Both videos were smashes online, especially the Goldbergian device, which featured paint cannons, ping pong balls and a falling piano. It was sponsored by State Farm and has been viewed more than 12 million times.
After the videos were released, the band started selling props from them, such as the uniforms used in the marching band video. They even rounded up all the pingpong balls left over from the Goldbergian machine, signed them and are preparing to auction them off to fans. All this would have seemed like a crass cash-grab five years ago, Kulash said. Now that the band is on its own, he's not as concerned about that.
"We don't care what's keeping the rent paid, as long as we're chasing our creative ideas," he said. "We're not going to take endorsements from weapons manufacturers."
OK Go isn't the first band to walk out of a major label deal with big plans for the future. Many others have done the same thing, with limited success.
"We could be the next in a great tradition of people who jump off the building thinking they're going to fly," Kulash said. "I hope that's not what we're doing. We do have a pretty solid thing going on. It may not last. Who knows? But right now, the lights are on."
What about that $2,000 loan from MacKaye in the 1990s? Did Kulash make good on his side of the deal?
"Oh yeah," he said. "I paid him back in, like, three weeks."
OK Go might be fine on its own, after all.
If you go
OK Go performs with Earl Greyhound and Robert Francis on Sunday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 7 p.m. $20. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.