A Rational Conversation: Ambition Returns To The Music Video
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
In 2014 it looks like the music video may be poised to reverse its death spiral. A casualty of the collapsing music industry and the elimination of most video programming on MTV, for more than a decade record labels' video budgets were slashed. Many big name directors peaced out from the medium and younger directors looked elsewhere when trying to build a name for themselves. What videos were still made often looked tossed together, relying on one-dimensional concepts that grew tiresome after 30 seconds. The innovative approaches and techniques that had become a hallmark of the medium began to fade, making things even more predictable. But at the same time, alternate avenues for music videos sprang up (most notably YouTube), the equipment to shoot and edit videos became more accessible, and a handful of interactive projects showed that a viewer's experience could be more than just passively watching a three-minute clip on his television.
Now that the Billboard Hot 100 chart is taking into account YouTube plays — which definitely factored into the number #1 spots that "Harlem Shake," "Blurred Lines" and "Wrecking Ball" reached last year — labels may have a new, monetarily-motivated incentive to invest in videos for artists. Also, the technology seems to finally be at a place where smart, inventive work can be more easily done with interactive videos, as evidenced by last year's great pieces for Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" and Pharrell's "Happy."
Ducker instant messaged with Jennifer Heath, an Executive Producer at Radical Media, about where things now stand with music videos. Heath has worked at Radical Media since 2003, following stints at Squeak Pictures and Partizan. At Radical she represents directors including Timothy Saccenti, Dennis Liu and Chris Milk, who has established himself as the leading force in interactive music experiences following his work with artists including Arcade Fire and Beck.
ERIC DUCKER: For years I've been interviewing directors and director reps who complain about the state of the music video, mainly because of the loss of its primary outlet (MTV) and slashed budgets from record labels. But it seems like music videos might be in a place to make a resurgence for both commercial and creative reasons. Is the climate really getting better for music video makers or am I imagining things?
JENNIFER HEATH: From a creative standpoint we have entered a new age of possibilities. On a budgetary level it has taken years to adjust, going from the glorious days of TRL and the sky being the limit for a high-end production team. The directors entering the business now have no idea what that experience was like, ever. Most of them didn't even grow up watching those types of videos — they were exposed to the downside of the market. So for the new age of directors, the ideas always came from their bedroom with their laptop. They have actually helped me transition to this new world of out of the box ideas and no money. I also believe it's this new type of director that has opened the door for new revenue potential.
When our cushioned world of bigger budget videos came crashing down, we were still working with a group of filmmakers that relied on 35mm and 16mm cameras — directors who only had real exposure to the business through the help of other people giving them access to this type of equipment and support. It was also definitely a situation where the record labels were the last to understand that the formula they were used to and that their artists were expecting was not going to cut it anymore. We saw production companies and directors disappear almost overnight. At the same time I was being introduced to digital cameras by my interns who were bringing them to the office when they showed up on their first day.
It seems that you're saying that there has been a nearly complete turnover in terms of who is directing these videos, and that has allowed a new outlook on how music videos get made and how they're seen to become the dominant perspective.
Exactly. Through this transition there were these kids who were editing in high school on their laptops while we were still trying to sneak in an Avid and Telecine. They were all receiving 5Ds for graduation while we were explaining to record labels that this type of camera would allow us to focus on the idea and give us the ability to shoot in more difficult locations.
Has there now been a similar turnover of who works at the labels where they've re-adjusted expectations about what music videos can do for them and their artists?
Yes, most definitely. We are all coming together again, which has opened up a lot of possibilities. But I believe this comes simultaneously with management taking the step of approaching directors and companies directly, almost getting the creative and budget together prior to including the label.
How does that change things?
Historically it has always been a bit of a push and pull with the record label — during the best economic years for video production there seemed to be more of a team effort in creating great videos together. As the industry felt the drastic changes to the budget, it became a situation where both sides were basically out for themselves. We were constantly defending the budget and balancing how to achieve the vision without investing [our own money] in the videos just to get them finished.
Management stepped in to become that middleman who could help support the vision and work together to support the project monetarily, even if [the funding] came from outside product placement through relationships that the band and management had. And then taking it another step, The Creators Project became another outlet that supported the art and the artist. Now we are back to an environment where everyone is working together to get something creative — but knowing our limitations — and all of us agreeing that good work is being recognized through blogs and other types of outlets other than the traditional resources.
Now that YouTube plays are factored into the Billboard Hot 100 chart, do you think that labels are once again seeing a potential financial upside to videos?
That definitely helps the marketing department when they are trying to get their projects approved at the labels, but I don't feel that it is necessarily helping our budgets. If anything, it is allowing us more potential for small viral type projects that we would be shooting on spec otherwise (i.e., lyric videos and "unofficial" videos). I am hopeful that in the future this money might trickle over on a larger scale.
How much do you think it's part of the director's job to make a music video that will help artists sell physical or digital copies of their music?
It is such a double-edged sword. It has always been the job of the director to help sell albums, otherwise there would not have been a reason for music videos in the first place. At the same time I'm sure all the production companies have had the same conversation with certain directors when a video they wrote and directed became the brand of that artist and the director was paid a flat fee and thank you very much. During the budget boom the payback was back to back half a million dollar videos with no end in sight. Today the ideas are less reliant on a feature film crew and budget, and are more reliant on an original idea at a 10th of the old budgets that creates a need to share the video on every social platform around the world. It becomes more difficult to support a very minimal fee for something that has a much greater value for the record label and artist.
So when you're working with a director, are you hoping that a successful video will lead to more video work with a higher budget or that it will lead to a commercial, a feature, a video project sponsored by a corporate client, etc.?
I find that most directors coming into the industry are aware of the limitations within the music video industry and how important it is to be looking at a much bigger picture beyond just videos. I feel so lucky to be at Radical Media where the digital content world has been in development for over 10 years and has created another outlet for directors in addition to the traditional commercial and feature worlds.
I work with young directors now who have already directed television shows and documentaries. They have traveled the world with just their digital cameras and produced incredible content. We are generally working together to make sure they are fulfilled creatively on all levels and platforms as opposed to just videos.
I'm sure you have come across some of the digital content being created by different clothing lines. I was just speaking with Free People about a possible short film with a band that would help promote their brand. There are definitely some new, interesting directions.
The idea of the interactive music video has been around for a while, but I feel like it's now just getting to a place where the videos not only reliably, technically work on people's computers, but that they make sense for the projects rather than being a shoe-horned in idea. Is that the direction where you're seeing your directors develop?
Yes, we have a few directors that have been pitching these ideas for a few years now. The biggest hurdle is still time and money. A few years ago more production companies were willing to partner up on an interactive idea regardless of the budget, just to be involved. Now that there have been a few successful projects, there is too much at risk to be credited for something that isn't done well. We produced The Johnny Cash Project all in house and it was a big investment for the company, but well worth the outcome. When we tried to budget out a project the second time around with practical numbers, it was still pretty far outside of our budgetary restraints. Even beyond money, proper time management is still the biggest issue when trying to produce these types of projects.
By time management, you mean that these interactive projects take a long time to code and debug and often you're essentially shooting several videos instead of just one?
Yes, exactly. I have never been involved with an interactive project that was launched on the date we had agreed to, due mostly to bugs and last minute glitches. After sitting in some of these global marketing meetings at record labels I understand why it is difficult to have a loose launch, but there will always be a period of trial and error with the interactive projects.
Are more record companies approaching you looking for interactive ideas?
Yes, definitely after the Johnny Cash Project and The Wilderness Downtown, there was a lot of conversations about what was possible
Do they see the budgets and freak out?
Yes, there is usually a lot of explaining the cost and time. And once the labels became more familiar with the process, it became more conversations about a smaller, faster idea. The project we did for Sony and Michael Jackson, "Behind The Mask," was a bit of a compromise between what was possible and what was actually doable for the time and budget. Ideally it would have been an ongoing interactive process that could live on indefinitely; what it ended up being was a one-time interaction and a final version.
Right. I think we're going to see a lot more simple but clever or compelling interactive music videos rather than expansive ones. Directors, labels and audiences will all manage their expectations.
Yes, and the next wave of directors will be coding their own projects.
You think that will become a necessity?
It will be a natural progression of kids wanting to do it themselves and not having to wait for anyone else, much like how they taught themselves Final Cut Pro. They are teaching coding in elementary school now! At the very least the directors who can speak the code language will have an easier time communicating and realizing their vision.
They'll know what's possible and in what time frame.
Chris Milk always seems to surprise me with his understanding.
It seemed to me that in the transition period, there were lots of NSFW videos being made, featuring either nudity or just gross out images. Was that a case where directors and artists finally got to do the videos they wanted because they finally had the avenues (online video streaming sites or their own sites) where they could show them? Or was it just attention grabbing tactics because they had lost all the other potential outlets?
In the very beginning it was testing the waters with what was really possible while stepping out of MTV's restrictions. There was a period early on of producing additional content to use for the band's website or to be leaked online, but it was still pretty subtle stuff. Directors were so used to hearing and reading the long list of what was permissible for broadcast in videos that when the restrictions were lifted, it became an opportunity to create something completely shocking. But I think the personal content on YouTube crossed over the line way before music videos did. At that point it became all of the above.
Do you think we're going to start to see less of those types of videos?
I hope so. I never thought I would hear myself saying that I was disgusted by the shock value of some of these videos, but I feel a responsibility to the children watching what we are producing and it really concerns me.
What are your predictions for the next few years in music videos?
Music videos will continue to cross pollinate with other financial avenues and partners, whether it be through high end clothing lines and pop culture markets in non-traditional platforms or through high tech collaborations pushing new boundaries with artists who also have the foresight to create new directions for their videos.
You're predicting that more third parties will start footing a lot of the bills.
Yes, but in a way that is not as disconnected as product placement. There will be more creative involvement and input from these third parties that can actually bring something to the table.
Most definitely. We are finding that some of these collaborations are looking for a co-production involvement as well as offering, negotiating and bringing in celebrities, depending on the idea. In the past with companies like Intel we were just offered equipment and technology while also needing to ensure that we did not utilize any resources from their competitors (of course).
The next time I read a "The Death of the Music Video" article, can I ignore it?
I have never felt more confident that music videos are here to stay.
They will constantly be evolving (or not). We made it through the storm and came out the other side more creative!! My biggest question is how small do we have to make the content to fit on the wearable digital devices? We have already accommodated cell phone screens!