The Music Video:
Its Relevance and Importance in 2017
RANKING alongside the album cover…
IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Jackson, during the shoot of Thriller
I wonder how important the music video is to today’s artists. By that, I am curious whether it is simply another part of the marketing plan or an expression of their art and personality. I raise this because, on social media, occasionally there are comments about a new music video – how good it is and why more artists aren’t trying things. The visual side of music is something I am extremely keen to promote.
I feel, with the digital revulsion, there is less need to focus on the looks and physical nature of music.
Of course, most new artists record music videos at some point but my argument rests on two stalls: are they are as good as they used to be and how affordable are they? If one thinks of the ‘classic’ music videos – more on that later – they are all made by the big acts of the time. I guess, at a certain point in music history, there was a mainstream and few other artists. Now, there seems to be less celebration and focus on the video. It is a shame because the finest of the breed are works of art in their own right. Let’s get to that first point and whether the quality is up there. I have recently seen the video to Liam Gallagher’s new single, Wall of Glass and really like the concept of it. It is visually-arresting and sticks in the mind. I will not go into the details but it is a well-thought-out concept and looks like Liam actually enjoyed filming it. Perhaps there is so much pressure on new artists they can’t really think of videos – or are swamped for time. Many will bring in directors to conceive a pitch whereas others have something fully-formed. Depending on the song, the video can either be quite simple or have real ambition. I always enjoy a mix of the two but feel every artist should expend real effort when conceiving a video. Every artist I review/feature has videos out there and so few actually lodge in the mind. Recently, there have been a couple of really good attempts that employ thought-provoking messages, stunning visual or a real cinematic flair – one or two have used animation which is time-consuming and challenging. A lot of the time, one feels the video is a way of getting the song onto YouTube. People there will want to see something visual.
IN THIS PHOTO: The cover art for Aphex Twin‘s Widowlicker – one of the most successful and popular music videos ever
There used to be polls conducted that ranked the best music videos but one rarely see them these days. Of course, for new musicians, there is that issue of cost. Before I come to those legendary videos and the importance of them, it is worth reflecting on the realities of being a new musician. You enter the world with ideas/songs and have that determination to succeed. Whether you are a confident Hip-Hop act or a stately Folk trio, there is that same agenda. Naturally, one can put their music on Spotify and SoundCloud but the day will come when you need to make yourself visible. That will mean you need to get a crew together and make a video. I say ‘crew’, but, in this modern era, does the musician really need a squad with them?! I have seen artists record videos on iPhones and do a pretty good job. Of course, that does limit you in terms of scope and effects but it is an option many are taking. The main source of revenue for a lot of artists is touring and merchandise: a lot make meagre profits and have to tour endlessly to make ends meet. When the kitty is emptied – deduct for rent, food and all those pesky costs! – how much money is really left?! Artists might get some interviews and earn some money from that – it is very much a case of small victories and collating little sums of money.
Promoting your music is important but the financial barriers are always there. I look on music video websites – where artists and directors try to connect with one another – and the budgets usually go from £200 – £1,000.
In fact, if you can afford a four-figure video, you are doing quite well for yourself! £200 is probably a realistic sum for most and would allow for some level of creativity and ambition. For that, even if one had friends assisting, you’d be limited in terms of location. Once you arrive, how much can you afford in terms of sets and bangs?! You are limited in terms of composition and storyline; perhaps sticking with something a little simple but effective.
IN THIS PHOTO: ‘Milky’ from Blur‘s video for Coffee + TV
I see many artists working on tight budgets who can produce a really interesting and memorable video. The more musicians we have coming in, the tougher it is to stand aside from the crowd – the harder it becomes to finance videos big enough to grab those big YouTube figures. One might argue why does it matter if you don’t have a big, flashy video?! My point is that all of them should be ground-breaking and iconic: it should be easier for artists to get funding to make music videos. Sites like this are good if you are working on pitches, but often your detail and depth is dictated by budget.
There are a lot of acts who think the music video is a burdensome necessity and they’d rather get it over with.
I appreciate there are more important things to consider but if you want to sell you and your music; the video should be taken seriously – it is only a day or so out your life and not a huge rigmarole. The majority of artists enjoy the process of filming a video and can allow for a bit of dramatic acting and a chance to visually represent the song. The easier it becomes to create huge, evocative songs – filled with details and scope – the harder it is to match that in terms of visuals. It can be frustrated because, unlike production a lot of the time, there is a great expense associated with filming. I have spoken to some artists who feel the only ways they can record a viral-worthy video is slaving and saving money for months or doing something controversial and cheap. The big artists, as I will explain shortly, have record companies and labels fronting the video bills – it is nice and easy for them to do something filmic and impressive. Some would argue restraints enforce a D.I.Y. ethic which ensures the video will be original and organic. Minus the big effects and gimmicks; you get a more natural and honest thing. That is true and, as I said, a lot of musicians are happy to record this way.
IN THIS PHOTO: A shot from All is Full of Love by Björk
Music is a completive and online thing these days that is as much about streaming figures and YouTube views as it is the music itself. In the past, a band/artist would record a song and it would be promoted with radio plays, T.V. appearances and traditional sales. Now, that side of things is minor compared with Spotify, downloads and streaming. Gigs still account for a large slice of the pie but the way a song is marketed and promoted has radically altered. Because of that, YouTube is a vital portal every new artist needs to get involved with and master. The music video is the best way to get new fans in. Not only does it involve the song itself but a visual aspect that will appeal and, hopefully, appeal to that special part of the brain. I see so many lazy and insipid videos from artists that either have (deservedly) low viewing figures or bafflingly high ones.
Maybe there it not a link between a video’s popularity and quality but, perhaps, that is part of the problem.
We all see huge Pop stars like Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber present these massive, jam-packed videos that have vivid scenery, wonderful costumes and are, in essence, an extravaganza. They might have multiple dancers, speeding cars and panoramic vistas. I guess the hype of a song is responsible for the multi-million-views on YouTube but, if you have a bold and bright video; that will bring many more views in. These big acts have a lot of money behind them and, what with advertising and corporate endorsements, one feels they do not have to struggle for funds. It seems unfair the mainstream acts have a great budget to film whatever they want whilst smaller artists have to make do with a limited wallet. It makes one wonder what is to be done but it seems like there has to be reapportionment. If there was a way of financing music videos for new artists then we would see a greater number of fantastic new promotional videos that would help the musician gain new fans and big views.
I have stated how important visuals are and how enduring they can be. If we are losing a sense of physicality and the visual with music which is being replaced by the digital and faceless.
I worry there are few opportunities to make those enduring and timeless videos.
Maybe there is a sense of exclusivity. My favourite videos have been by the mainstream acts but that does not mean new artists have limited potential in this area. If I had to select my five favourite videos I would go for Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out); The White Stripes’ The Hardest Button to Button; Lucas’ Lucas with the Lid Off; Beastie Boys’ Sabotage and Björk’s All Is Full of Love. Between them, you have some of the best music video directors of all time taking to the camera. I love Björk’s video because of the beguiling and entrancing love story between robots. They are not your crappy old-style robots but modern and sleek designs. It is a strange and gorgeous video that takes the breath away. Lucas’ Lucas with the Lid Off, directed by Michel Gondry, is a genius work of wonder that sees the creation of a music video within a video. It is shot in black-and-white and all done within a single take/shot. One follows the camera around a studio and focuses on the hero, Lucas. He is seen, in the chorus, at the decks, laying his vocals down. As the song progresses, the camera pans as he moves between locations – a Tube train and station; a cinema where he watches his own music video and a couple driving a car – and it has this charming film noir/French cinema quirkiness to it. It is impossible to describe just why it is so special so suggest you watch it in the playlist below. Gondry directed The White Stripes’ best video and follows the guitar and drum beats of the song by duplicating (and multiplying) Jack and Meg as they play through New York. It seems like a simple idea but executing that took so much hard work and planning. It is an eye-opening and mind-blowing film that takes us through the streets, down into the Subway and manages to squeeze Beck in, no less!
IN THIS PHOTO: The legendary film and music video director, Spike Jonze
These videos not only took a load of time and effort but would have required a heap of money into the bargain. I love the shoot for Blur’s Coffee + TV and all its charms. It follows the band (minus Graham Coxon) playing in a small studio/room whilst a milk cartoon (‘Milky’) is dispatched, with Coxon’s picture attached to track down the missing guitarist. We follow his plight and adventure as he navigates snarling dogs, a brief crush with a milkshake – she dies in rather gruesome circumstances – and eventual success. It is a fantastic concept and a video that has regularly featured on the list of greatest music videos of all time. There are so many other terrific videos and everyone will have their favourite.
I wonder how many of us look at today’s videos and compare them to the ones we grew up to – the ones that lodge in the brain and showed what the music video could be.
Maybe the fact stations like MTV are less relevant – more about documentaries than music videos these days – accounts for a slight fascination withdrawal. I would argue the music video is important now as it ever was and should not be underestimated. Perhaps, with the volume of artists out there, it is harder making that truly unique and enduring video; maybe people are interested in easy visuals and something quite simple. Certainty, the new videos from mainstream’s best do not tackle the brain and appeal to minds who want something quite bold, colourful and engaging. There is little depth but there is plenty of arresting visuals and ambitious concepts. I wonder whether people have the patience to watch videos because, as I see it, they are not only important marketing tools but a way for an artist to give their songs a skin and personality.
IN THIS PHOTO: Michel Gondry, who is often regarded as one of the most innovative music directors ever
For new artists, there is ambition and desire but they are limited by money and reality. Even if they write a great, original song, they might never be able to provide a video that matches the song’s scope and strength.
A lot of new musicians have to settle with something quite modest, which does restrict the imagination.
That said, there are a lot of terrific music videos from all around music. Even if the budget is a couple of hundred; it does not mean the end results has to be simple, unchallenging and dumbed-down. I have seen many artists create something intelligent, engaging and nuanced with a very slender budget. I would like to see a couple of things happen in music. For one, it would be great to give musicians the chance to make something exciting and larger-scale without breaking the band. Whether that is some form of funding or loan, that would give them the opportunity to push their minds and put something onto YouTube that can rival the most-popular videos from the biggest acts. I am seeing so many acts not really concerned with the video at all. They apply the same attitude to photos and their websites – no real effort and skating by on the music alone. That is not good enough and, if you want to remain in music, you have to understand the importance of every single stage. The music video is the perfect way to promote a song; the track is the way to highlight the artist: fail to see that connection and you are risking an awful lot. It does not mean videos have to be epics that blow the brain out but there are so many visual and conceptual options available. Whether shooting on an iPhone or with a small team; doing something charmingly low-fi or, in the case of the wonderful promotional for Sabotage, a parody – there is a world of choice out there. In the ever-competitive and busy music industry, I feel we should put a focus back onto the traditions that build the industry. From the album cover and vinyl through to ground-breaking music and fantastic videos. It has been many years since a music video really made me stand back but that need not be the case. I fear finance is going to be that ever-present drag that prohibits so many potential directorial genius and visual wonder. If we fix that, and find a way of affording musicians the chance to do something great with the music video format; that could result in…
IN THIS PHOTO: Björk, during the making of Big Time Sensuality
SOME of the best music videos of all time.