Forget VHS: How Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff Has Updated Michael Jackson’s Distribution Model

Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff’s dad took that famous photo of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival. So, yeah, he knows a thing or two about the visual component to music.

Forget VHS: How Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff Has Updated Michael Jackson’s Distribution Model

In just a few short months since Korean pop-sensation PSY launched his epic “Gangnam Style” music video online, it’s rocketed to 827 million views to become the most watched video ever on YouTube. But PSY’s success can’t all be chalked up to the video’s explosive visuals and addictive horse-trot dancing. Modern access to music videos–via YouTube, Xbox, iPhone–has given artists like PSY unprecedented distribution opportunities online.


One of the leading drivers of that music distribution is Vevo, which is often referred to as the Hulu for music videos. The service, which is available on platforms ranging from iPads to Google TV, is rapidly becoming a significant source of revenue for artists and labels, which are looking to capitalize on music videos like they never could before in the age of MTV. In September, Vevo became the most popular channel on YouTube, and earlier this month, CEO Rio Caraeff launched the service overseas, where it’s now available in Spain, Italy, and France.

FAST COMPANY: Have you always loved music videos?

Rio Caraeff

RIO CARAEFF: I grew up on MTV living in New York in the 1980s. I remember watching The Box; I remember later watching Martha Quinn and Pop-Up Video and TRL. In the 1980s, the one video that’s burned into my cerebral cortex from such an early age was probably “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Later, in the mid-1990s, I had started a special-effects company, and we did a lot of work for music videos, TV commercials, and some feature films. One of my favorite videos of all time was one I worked on then with Michael and Jacket Jackson called “Scream,” which took place in outer space on very fun sci-fi sets.

Why the interest in the visual component of music?

For me, pairing music and pictures or video is really an evolution of the album cover. My father was a photographer and art director. He produced over 500 album covers in the 1960s and 1970s. So I grew up in that era of beautiful photographs and the big, physical gatefold LPs. Pairing artwork and music was really a part of the experience. Music was not just something you listened to. And over time, I think video has become another way that you experience music, not unlike how it used to be that you’d buy an album, unfold it, and listen to it while you looked at all the pictures. Pairing videos with music is just another way of pairing 30 pictures-per-second with music.

What’s your favorite album cover?

Photo by Ed Caraeff

My father’s most famous photo was of Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. But he did every Steely Dan album, every Elton John album, every Van Morrison album, and others like Marvin Gaye and Jim Morrison. The most iconic album cover for me was Steely Dan’s album “The Royal Scam.” I love the fusion of photography and illustration–there’s something fantastical and surreal about it. It adds something to the music–it’s not just a photo of the band.

You’ve worked in the music industry for a long time. Tell me about your first gig at Capitol Records.

It was my first job at a record label. There was no ethernet, Wi-Fi, or Internet access in the Capitol Records tower at that time. I think I just made up a title, which at the time might’ve been New Media Architect or something pretentious like that. My job involved everything from building websites for artists like Paul McCartney and Radiohead, to setting up the email system to handing UNIX administration and our servers. I think the most innovative thing we did at the time was sell the first digital download, which was Duran Duran’s “Electric Barbarella.” The Wall Street Journal cited that as the first digital download sold by a major label before iTunes.

It sounds a bit antiquated now.

Well, I remember in the mid-1990s building one of the first artist websites out there–certainly the one with the largest budget at the time–for Michael Jackson. This was before I worked at Capitol. His double album was called “HIStory” and I remember building it all and having access to his company’s archives–all his photos and videos. We built this great website and I remember sitting there with my partner and saying, ‘Okay, we’re done. Should we just launch it?’ I remember him saying, ‘Well, we should probably show it to them to get their approval.’

Okay, but how do we show it to them? Cause they didn’t have Internet access. So we called them up and they told us to make a video tape of it, and messenger it to them. So we sat there trying to figure out how to do that, and ultimately, I had to surf the site while my partner stood over my shoulder with the camera video taping the screen. Then we made a bunch of VHS copies and messengered them to Epic Records and Michael Jackson’s people. It took a while to get the approval. But yes, there was a time when you’d video tape websites and send them around for approval.


What is Vevo working on currently?

Right now, we’re continuing to expand the footprint of distribution and embed Vevo in as many places as possible. So how do we get Vevo on Amazon? On every TiVo box? How do we get them into this particular carrier and this particular platform in this country?

Before Vevo there were no HD videos. There were no videos available on smartphones or tablets. There were thousands of low-quality copies all over YouTube that created a really muddy environment–the signal-to-noise ratio was out of alignment. We really wanted to improve the quality of the experience by creating our brand on our own site that stood for high-quality video, but we also wanted to put those videos on YouTube and Xbox and Yahoo and smartphones and tablets.

Are there lots of music lovers like you working at Vevo?

Certainly everyone is always watching music videos or listening to music. We actually just moved into our new offices in New York, and we have an open-floor plan. It’s been an interesting experiment to see how it’d work–there are a lot more headphones. Not everybody can be playing music really loud at every cube simultaneously.

But I think there’s a level of self-selection in our industry. I wouldn’t hire someone who doesn’t love music. And I wouldn’t hire someone who sees no difference between working at our company or working at a insurance company. You have to be passionate and excited about music to work here.


[Image: Flickr user Juliana Luz]


About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.