Dustin McLean, Literal Video Mastermind,
on Writing, Legal Woes and his
Go-To Karaoke Song
[The Wall Street Journal, 28 July 2009]
By Richard Morgan
BONUS: See The Videos
What if you had thought up the lucrative wonderland that is Guitar Hero before anybody else, but couldn’t get the music companies to get on board? You’d know how Dustin McLean feels.
About a year ago, McLean, 29, who works at Current TV’s “SuperNews!” as an assistant director, began watching cheesy music videos on YouTube and riffing on lyrics with colleagues Steve Olson, an animation producer, and Jonah Ray, a writer.
The result? The first “literal video,” a music video stripped of its original lyrics and replaced by a narrative of what’s happening in the video, sung to the tune of the song.
Now, we’re no stranger to literal videos, but little has been written about the man behind them. He might be the biggest thing to happen to music since Daisuke Inoue invented karaoke.
McLean -– who is known online as Dusto McNeato — says he gets about half a dozen emails a day thanking him, complimenting him, or offering to help him make money off his wildly popular idea. MTV, VH1 and CMT — all seeing a possible revenue stream for thousands of dead-weight, unwatched music videos of yesteryear — have all approached him to develop his material into a full-fledged show, he says.
But he adds that legal hurdles have scared off most developers. And, “I don’t have the time or concentration to deal with the legal nightmare stuff,” he says.
His first foray, in October of last year, a send-up of the classic ’80s video “Take On Me,” got two million hits in two months. But then Warner Music forced its removal from YouTube. Ditto The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under The Bridge,” another Warner property.
Literal videos are a natural extension of McLean’s karaoke hobby (“my go-to is Stray Cats’ ‘Stray Cat Strut’”). He can bang the songs out quickly, two this past Monday night. He sings them himself and against background instrumentals provided by karaoke tracks he downloads legally from iTunes; but it’s little fun to do work that only invites more scrutiny and legal hassle, he says.
That might be changing, though. FunnyorDie.com, the viral video humor factory, has become a kind of asylum for McLean and his videos. “There are great people there helping to sort things out for me with record labels,” he says. “It feels great to have that kind of support, people going out on limbs.” The idea would be to partner with, say, Universal Music and agree only to use songs to which the company owns rights.
It has encouraged him to hasten his production pace; he’s continuing his work, building up his stockpile and expanding beyond ’80s kitsch, to Weezer and Beck. “But videos today,” he complains, “Beyonce stuff, Justin Timberlake stuff, Coldplay stuff, they’re so slick, so much about just showing off, looking good, intense choreography; it’s not as full-on crazy as the stuff they were making in the ’80s when nobody really knew what to do with music videos.”
Then again, nobody really knew what to do with air guitar until Guitar Hero came along.
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