Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TMFW 128 - OK Go Foils its Record Label (Kind Of)

At the end of the US version of the rock band OK Go's 2005 album Oh No, the band included the track "9027 km."  The song is a nearly 35 minute recording of muffled, ambient noise, and it was a cause of some confusion when the record came out.  Fan theories were that it was two people having sex, or maybe a guy out for a drive.  But it was neither; as Wikipedia explained in 2006, "9027 km" was "a 35-minute track of singer Damian Kulash's girlfriend sleeping, included on the US version of the album. He says there is good reason for it, but as of now, fans do not know why."  (They DID know the reason for the name - the band recorded the album in Malmo, Sweden, which was 9027 kilometers away from Kulash's girlfriend in Los Angeles.)
The "good reason" for the track's inclusion came out not long after: "9027 km" was on the US release to stick it to the band's record label.  More specifically, it was included to prevent the record label from sticking it to OK Go's fans.  
In the early 2000s, record companies were still reeling from the rise of Napster and trying their best to prevent digital piracy (on that front, see TMFW 30 for some creative subterfuge from Barenaked Ladies).  So labels started introducing "DRM" (digital rights management) protection in their digital files, to stop people from easily sharing purchased music with their friends.  Though DRM was fairly rare in physical CDs, it was not unprecedented, and in 2005 several labels were actively discussing adding software to their discs to limit how record buyers could consume CDs.  By contrast, artists (who since the invention of the record industry have been hosed by labels) were typically on the side of record buyers.  DRM interfered with their relationship with fans, and artists resisted it
Against that backdrop, OK Go was determined to prevent DRM on their new record.  Without any economic leverage with the label, they decided instead to get creative.  The band tallied up the running time of the songs on their album, and then decided to artificially fill up the rest of the disc with one long "bonus track."  The length of "9027 km" was designed to push the record out past 74 minutes, the limit for music CDs.  As the record was being mastered, Damian Kulash recorded his girlfriend sleeping and insisted on the band's artistic license to force the label to include it on the album.  With all of the space used for music, there was none left for DRM.  
All of this is a good TMFW: a band makes a last minute, 35-minute recording to run out the clock on their CD and foil the big bad label that would otherwise stick it to their fans.  Except, their attempt was almost wholly meaningless.  CDs no longer are limited to 74 minutes: the newer standard is 80.  So the band left several minutes of space on their record for the label to play with.  But even if every minute HAD been used up, there are around 100 MB available elsewhere on the disc where a nefariously-minded label could have applied DRM.  (In the case of OK Go's album, EMI didn't.  But despite the band's trickery, it wasn't because they couldn't.)
Still, credit to OK Go for trying.  Good on you, fellas. 
BONUS FACT:  Only a few months after the release of Oh No, the issue of DRM on physical CDs got national attention when it came to light that Sony/BMG had included some particularly nasty DRM on over 20 million CDs. Discovered in fall 2005, the software automatically installed (and then hid) itself on user computers, and it "phoned home" with private listening data of users.  Sony responded to the controversy by denying any wrongdoing, and then released an "uninstaller" that collected user e-mail addresses and did even MORE monkeying to their computers.  OK Go's fears were well-founded.
BONUS FACT 2:  Did you ever wonder why the CD is 74 minutes long?  As the story goes, when Sony and Philips (the joint developers of the technology) were negotiating on the standard format of the compact disc, Philips pushed for a disc that was 115mm.  That would hold just over an hour of music, which was considered a good length because a standard-cut, extended play vinyl record holds about 26 minutes per side.  So you could put a full record on CD and still have some time left.
But despite the practicality of one-hour discs, Sony pushed for a slightly larger CD that was 120mm.  That would hold an oddly-specific 74 minutes of music.  Why 74?  Well, the Sony executive who was in charge of the project (Norio Ohga) and the wife of the Sony chairman Akio Morita were classical music fans, and they felt that it was important that the entirety of Beethoven's 9th symphony should fit on a disk.  Performance times for that symphony ranged from 66 minutes to (you guessed it) 74.  So Ohga enlisted the support of Herbert von Karajan, the superstar conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic who recorded for Philips' subsidiary Polygram Records.  At von Karajan's urging (and with his promise to promote the new standard in the classical music community), Philips came around to 120mm discs and CDs as we know them were born.  So a guy born in 1770 was responsible for the size of a technology born in the late 1970s.
BONUS FACT 2.5:  Like the today's main fact, it turns out that the Beethoven's 9th story is probably too good to be true.  According to an engineer who worked on the project, the Beethoven story makes for nice advertising copy, but Sony's insistence on 120mm was driven at least in equal part by their knowledge that Philips already had the means to mass produce discs at 115mm.  To avoid being left behind in the manufacturing of the new technology, Sony insisted that 115mm was the wrong number and got Philips to cave.  Money over art: that's always how it goes.
BONUS FACT 3:  I can't imagine many TMFW readers NOT knowing that OK Go is most famous for making amazing music videos, but just in case: OK Go is most famous for making amazing music videos.  Starting with their "treadmill video" "Here it Goes Again," the band has consistently one-upped themselves with bolder, more elaborate videos.  Try out the intricate Rube Goldberg stylings of "This Too Shall Pass," the optical illusions in "The Writing's On the Wall," the car-as-musical-instrument "Needing/Getting," the dog trick extravaganza "White Knuckles," or the recorded-slowly-then-sped-up choreography of "I Won't Let You Down."  
Just last week, the band debuted their most ambitious video yet, for "Upside Down and Inside Out."  It was recorded in "zero gravity" on a Russian "vomit comet."  
BONUS FACT 4/FROM THE ARCHIVES:  All the way back in 2013, TMFW 3 told the story of OK Go's brilliant music video with the Notre Dame Marching Band.
BONUS FACT 5:  As this Reddit comment points out, the reference on Wikipedia for today's anti-DRM fact is this post on a comics site, which states only "[i]t has been rumored that the track was added to pad out the CD so that their label could not use the extra space to add DRM."  To support that statement, the post cites back to the Wikipedia page in question.  That's a fun but of "citogenesis," where Wikipedia cites a reference for proof, and in turn that reference cites back to Wikipedia for that same proof, creating a nice tight loop of faux-authority.  (In this case, though, the band's motive is almost certainly true: Kulash confirmed the story during a concert Q&A session and has repeated it since then too.)

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