OK Go, the indie rock band known best as an Internet sensation for its series of viral music videos, is also gaining a reputation in the business world for its partnerships with Range Rover, Samsung, State Farm and other brands (see Sidebar for a couple of examples).

In fact, the Grammy-winning act has become an outspoken proponent of mutually beneficial relationships between corporations and bands.

IEG SR recently spoke with Damian Kulash, OK Go’s lead singer, about those relationships, what the band looks for when striking corporate deals, his thoughts on exclusive content, and other topics. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

IEG SR: What role do you see brands playing in supporting and/or breaking musical talent?

Kulash: In a perfect world, art could get made without money, and people could spend their lives being creative without worrying about bills. But in the real world, we need funding from somewhere, so when investments from record labels dry up and the public allocates more of its money to iPods and broadband connections and less to recordings and the people who make them, we have to look elsewhere for our daily bread.

Corporate sponsorship is an attractive route. The roles of brands in the music industry can be as varied as the corporations themselves, so it’s easy to imagine a lot of good situations, as well as a lot of bad.

In general, musicians stand to gain a lot if they are clear-eyed about what they are getting into and careful to maintain control of the parts of their business and their creative process that are most important to them.

Mostly, however, corporate sponsorships make sense for bands who have already established fan bases. Most corporations don't have much to gain by supporting unknowns, so it’s harder to think of scenarios that make sense for actually breaking acts.

I'd love to say sponsorship can replace what they used to call artist development, but I haven't seen much evidence of that. Sponsorships can certainly help fill in a lot of the holes along the way, but I haven't seen them generate the startup capital or early exposure that major labels once provided to new musicians.

IEG SR: Given those rapidly changing economics of the music industry, has the need for brand partnerships taken on increased importance from an artist's perspective?

Kulash: The logic of marketing has dramatically shifted in the last decade. No matter what the industry, the public has dramatically more access to information and choice, so marketers can't just spend more money to get more attention any more.

There is infinite competition for that attention now. All of a sudden, the people who make interesting things have a lot of leverage that they didn't have ten years ago. We have people's attention. We have people who want to engage with us and the things we make.

So it's correct to say there is a need for brand partnerships, but there are also a lot of new opportunities. In the old economy, musicians had the skills to make recordings which could be sold directly. In the new economy, we have the power to aggregate attention, which has a similar, but slightly different value.

This means that when it comes to earning a living, it's now less likely that our income will come from selling recordings and more likely that it will come from brands who want an audience with our fans.

IEG SR: What else can corporate partners bring to the table beyond cash? In other words, what do you look for when working with a corporate partner?

Kulash: There are a lot of interwoven factors when we’re considering a corporate partner. A big one is transparency. We’re not interested in trying to trick our fans into buying something, or sneak advertisements into our work.

We want to spend our lives chasing our creative ideas, and if a corporation will help make that possible, we, and our fans, are grateful for their support.

Tied in with this, of course, is creative control. We make our music, we make our videos, we put on our shows, etc. We're not going to tell State Farm how to structure its rates, or Samsung how to engineer a camera, and by the same token we aren't going to let them meddle with our art.

And of course there are the intangibles that make a partnership seem consonant rather than dissonant. The brands we like and respect in our own lives tend to be the ones we're most comfortable working with.

There's a basic sniff test: Does an association with this brand feel respectable? More to your question, there's the balance of resources that the corporation is offering. Besides just cash, the advertising and promotion that the right campaign can offer can be very valuable. Televised commercial campaigns have been the major driving force for quite a few musicians' careers, but once again, it has to be the right fit. Not all exposure is good exposure.

IEG SR: Do you have any concerns about commercialization?

Kulash: Sure. It's always scary to have outside agendas tied, even distantly, to our work.

But paradoxically, that's much more the case within the record label world than outside it. Record labels are in the business of music, so they care a great deal about how that business runs—where money comes from, who is successful, how success is measured, who controls what, etc.

Outside corporate partners, by comparison, can be very hands-off. They tend to care only that we, the creative types, are demonstrably good at what we do and can deliver the attention they're paying for.

Cisco doesn't care how many records we sell; they care how many fans we have, and how passionate and connected those fans are. And in a good corporate relationship, the marketers for the corporation realize that what's good for the musician is good for the brand. If a band comes off fake or fraudulent because of the association, then the brand loses doubly—they have soured something for an engaged listener and actively pushed away the people they were hoping to bring in.

IEG SR: What companies has OK Go been working with recently?

Kulash: Last month, we held a Range Rover-sponsored event in Los Angeles—an eight-mile musical street parade that spelled out OK Go. The project was funded by Range Rover as part of its City Shapers program. Range Rover has picked a few dozen culture influencers in cities around the globe and is sponsoring art projects and other events. We made a video clip that documented the event and invited fans to make similar journeys.

(Editor’s note: To read more details about the Range Rover program, click here.)

In February, we'll play a block party in San Francisco sponsored by Yahoo. Yahoo will outfit bus shelters around the city with interactive screens on which people waiting for the bus can play games. The neighborhood that racks up the most points will get a block party featuring a bunch of interactive booths and a performance by OK Go.

Cisco's Flip asked us if we had any good ideas for a 15-second homemade spot, and we ended up making two, both of which will wind up as TV advertisements.

We've been on billboards and in print campaigns for clothing companies and for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and of course licensed our music to dozens of advertisements over the years.

We're collaborating with the Pilobolus dance company on a project that will include videos as well as performances in New York next summer. We’re actively looking for sponsorship for that.

IEG SR: Many marketers are partnering with talent to access exclusive content. What's your take on content? Has or would OK Go provide content to a corporate partner?

Kulash: Generally, we dislike exclusive content. We want the things we make to have the biggest audience they can. That being said, marketers are often interested in working with us specifically because we can drive traffic to their sites, so sometimes we have made exclusive behind-the-scenes footage so that once people have found their way into our universe, they have a good reason to visit our sponsor's page.

I think there are probably plenty of exclusive content models that could work for musicians and brands, but as a general rule, it's wise to embrace the openness of the net, not try to fight it.

IEG SR: What would your advice be for companies that may be interested in working with a band or artist?

Kulash: I think the advice is basically the same for people on both sides of the bargaining table: Understand your partners' objectives and be as open-minded as possible in thinking about how your side can be valuable to the other.

When you're dealing with a musician, you're dealing with someone who has put their passion before everything else; there aren't many jobs with such low success rates and such poor job security. So don't expect musicians to care about marketing your corporation, expect them to care about making their work. If you can make this easier by providing funding, exposure, or promotion, deal-making should be pretty easy.

Also, forget about the old rules of marketing. They're about as relevant as a fax machine these days—still functional, and every once in a while even useful, but most of the time less efficient and effective than newer options. Worry less about hammering home specific branding details or getting the maximum possible footprint from a passive audience, and more about giving people something they care about.

The most powerful thing about musicians' connections with our fans is that our fans already like us. They're motivated and engaged, the perfect audience for your message if your message isn't competing with the music, but enabling it. The one sure way into their hearts is to give them what they want: us.