It all started with four treadmills and a dream.
Chicago power-pop foursome OK Go was just another rock band scraping by, successful in some regions, virtual nobodies in others. That is, until the self-made video for "Here It Goes Again
" – the second single off of their eponymous 2005 release – was all the rage on user-generated video sharing web site YouTube. In a flash, OK Go went from slugging it out in dive bars across America to performing their goofy choreographed treadmill dance at MTV's 2006 Video Music Awards.
Soon, tribute videos started showing up on the net, and a phenomenon was born -- all made for about the same amount that it costs for a few blank videotapes.
While OK Go's story by no means perpetuates the belief that simply posting a video on YouTube will equate with rock 'n roll superstardom, it does, however, signal the very beginnings of a trend; one that has trickled through music scenes across the nation, and touched down right in the heart of Detroit's indie music community.
In the wake of OK Go's minor online success, now more than ever, Detroit artists – including the Silent Years, Child Bite, Obie Trice, Slum Village, Mason Proper, Tally Hall, and ex-pats like Saturday Looks Good to Me -- are taking full advantage of YouTube (as well as other video sites like Vimeo and MySpaceTV), and producing homegrown, shoe-string budget music videos that are not only having an impact locally and abroad, but are also pushing the artistic limits of self-promotion and creation.
"Someone To Keep Us Warm" by The Silent Years
Indeed, bands are hardly just about making records and playing gigs anymore. And long-gone are the days of adventurous MTV programs like "120 Minutes"
and "Alternative Nation," where some independent bands were given the
chance for their videos to see the light of day (or, rather, the dark
of night, as most of these shows only aired in the wee hours in the
With the advent of social networking sites like MySpace, and the feeling of immediacy that comes with YouTube, Detroit artists are hardly worried about their videos seeing the light of day on media giants like MTV and Fuse.
With the surge of YouTube and all its cousins, however, it's anybody's game. And who needs the big guys anyway, when uploading a video is as simple as a few clicks and some coding? Or as Augie Visocchi, guitarist and vocalist for explosive Detroit rock trio the Hard Lessons
puts it, "All of these Internet channels have given bands more a reason to make a video, because they can instantly upload to a place where their fans can see it, and there is at least a chance someone else will see it."
Viscocchi's comment brings up a solid point: Why make a video in the first place? Ask any one of the Detroit artists surveyed here, and the answer is simple: "Because, why not?"
Slum Village, "Multiply"
As Fred Thomas – lead auteur of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ypsilanti-based band Saturday Looks Good to Me, explains, "Everyone knows making music is one of the most amazingly fun things you can do with your time, and making a video is just another part of that. It might be vain or silly or hard to justify in terms of how much it can cost and where it actually pushes a band's career, but that's all shifting and negligible anyway."
But where is it shifting? Some would argue that the time, effort -- and sometimes, money -- spent on a video deserves more than just an upload to YouTube. Others would say that making a video is not about promotion, and is instead, to paraphrase Thomas, an extension of an art form.
Both the Hard Lessons and Saturday Looks Good To Me have made slick, professional looking videos, and have gotten national attention – the Lessons' premiered "Scene and Be Seen
" on Spin.com and SLGTM's clip for "Money in the Afterlife" was heralded on Pitchforkmedia.com
But Josh Epstein, singer and guitarist for Detroit's the Silent Years – whose intricate diorama-esque video for "Someone to Keep Us Warm" also garnered attention from Spin.com – sheds some light, and says that making a video, "has to be an extension of creativity. Producing something to be a promotional tool is transparent as hell. I think that it's a great way to close the gap between band and audience because a video is the band in person. It's very human and inviting."
"Bone/Sleep" by Child Bite
With that in mind, many of Detroit's most exciting and appealing indie bands are running with this concept, letting not money or time get in the way of artistic vision.
One such example is Child Bite – an art-punk quintet based in Ferndale, infamous for seeing through any crazed idea that sparks in their brain. For the release of it's remix album, Exquisite Luxury, Child Bite – doing production themselves, or with the help of their friends – produced a video for each of the seven songs featured on the CD; all of which are uploaded to YouTube.
"We wanted to add value to the release, and including videos is a good way to do that," says singer/guitarist Shawn Knight. "It was also interesting, because even though they are our songs, the tunes had been reworked by the remixers to a point that we could approach them from a fresh perspective. It was sort of like doing videos for someone else as opposed to us. It was a good opportunity to get various friends and band members involved with shooting/illustrating/animating/editing them."
Another visually oriented group is Ann Arbor's Mason Proper, who sports a hefty total of five videos under their belts. They also exemplify the type of local act who aim high, but are happy to have a place on the net to showcase their work if MTV passes. Of their video for "My My (Bad Fruit)" singer Jonathan Visger says, "The song is sort of vignettes of the apocalypse, and the director, Don Tyler, interpreted the lyrics into this kind of drugged out shotgun wedding in the Garden of Eden thing, orchestrated by a maestro with a head made of cotton." Try explaining that to the suits at a big record label, and some strange looks might be exchanged. However, considering Mason Proper's do-it-yourself mentality, anything – including a head made of cotton – is possible.
"Deja Vu" by SSM
And the adventurism doesn't stop at there, as bands like Ann Arbor's Tally Hall
, which played this year's CityFest in New Center, are pushing the limits of video hosting Website's even further, and now have their own YouTube channel, and are currently in the midst of developing their own Internet-based variety show entitled, simply enough, Tally Hall's Internet Show.
But other bands, like Ann Arbor's the Pop Project, and Westland's Javelins – both a part of Ann Arbor-based label/collective Suburban Sprawl Music – like to keep it simple. Javelins' singing drummer Matt Rickle explains, "We actually had no aspirations to do one, but someone came to us with a cool idea that was free, so we said yeah." Or as the Pop Project's Zach Curd puts it, "The Pop Project likes jokes, so we [made a] video to showcase that."
And that, in a nutshell, sums up the Detroit-style music video philosophy: Whether making a grandiose statement, or simply producing a clip for mild amusement, YouTube and their ilk are connecting fans with bands on a level that simply could not exist without the such accessible technology. With that said, here is a collection of Detroit's most YouTube-able videos, no treadmill required:
Ryan Allen is a freelancer and music writer. Reach him here