When the battle cry of "I want my MTV" debuted 30 years ago, MTV was the only major network offering fans a consistent stream of music videos. Fast forward to 2002: that battle cry had been replaced by a whimpering "Where can I get my MTV?" as music videos played a diminished role in the channel's programming. Today, there is a music video renaissance well underway, and it is not tied to network television. It's clear the medium has been transformed thanks to new online distribution outlets, lower technology costs, potential revenue for labels, and a new generation of artists who understand the necessity of making creative videos to market their songs.
"So much of what you see on MTV is really tedious and has no heart, and you think that's what people must want — but then you create something that pushes the boundaries and people jump for it," says Natasha Pincus, who created, directed, produced, and edited the video for Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know," which has generated more than 278 million views on YouTube, plus a handful of parodies.
Gotye and Pincus got lucky: Their video went viral — a magical, elusive concept that is an outgrowth of music video's transition to the Internet. In 2006 OK Go! proved a band could brand itself with a single, catchy video with the single-take, treadmill-choreographed GRAMMY winner "Here It Goes Again," which has more than 14 million views on YouTube.
Nowadays, creating a video that does more than merely showcase the artist — one that can carve out a brand for a band — is akin to the medium's holy grail. So much so that bands will push the creative envelope with the hopes of going viral. Frontman Eytan Oren came up with the concept for Eytan And The Embassy's "Everything Changes" video, which is also a single-take affair despite Oren going through 18 costume changes.
"We were hopeful people would share it," Oren says of the video, which in less than one month has racked up nearly 500,000 views on YouTube. "Most artists that are doing fairly well these days are savvy on that level; it’s not how it used to be back in the day. Rock stars used to be distant and hard to access, but now you have to create a personal connection. I have no misgivings at all about marketing our music or doing whatever helps get it out there."
Music video's creative flowering hasn't occurred in a vacuum. Given new technologies, labels can now make videos that look expensive for a smaller investment and are now looking for creative ways to market their artists.
"What's really changed and helped the landscape for videos in the past few years is thinking outside the box in terms of how to market them and present them," says Sandi Borchetta, vice president of creative for Big Machine Label Group, who oversees videos for artists such as Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts.
"We use videos as a setup tool," says Kevin Monty, director of online marketing for Razor & Tie Entertainment. "We'll build whatever video it is around a band's promotional plan. Lately we've been building pseudo-videos, where it's just the audio with a fixed slate, a photo of the band or promotional copy, or lyric videos where there's a treatment based on album artwork and the lyrics."
Some videos are accompanied by their own making-of videos, giving labels twice the content. Veteran director Peter Zavadil created a 30-minute standalone short out of footage shot for Eric Church's "Springsteen," which featured clips from the short. "We're inventing new ways to market our technology," says Zavadil. "Maybe they'll run this 30-minute film on CMT without commercial breaks a couple of times, or then you can see it on the Internet."
But the bottom line still remains. Even with the extra content, music video budgets are now in the double-digit range, rather than triple digits. Professional-quality videos can now be made for less than $50,000 given lowered technology costs for cameras, special effects and editing. With smaller budgets, music videos now have a chance to recoup money for labels through product placement or click-through ads on various sites.
"[Return on investment] definitely goes into the process when I'm thinking about making music videos," says Deborah Klein, general manager for Prospect Park, a label representing Smashing Pumpkins and Ice Cube, among others. "Labels know it's a great promotional tool, and that's why they created Vevo — to monetize something they were giving away for free."
Since launching in late 2009, Vevo has all but taken over the territory MTV once claimed. Vevo streams content on its own site and through partners such as YouTube and Yahoo Music, delivering nearly 60 million unique visitors each month. Scott Reich, Vevo's vice president of original content and programming, says the company paid more than $100 million to record labels in their first year.
"From a viewing standpoint, the fans win," says Reich. "On the business side, artists win because we're monetizing all these music video plays, selling ads against that and distributing the money we receive from ad sales back to the artists and labels."
Whether all of these changes will continue to result in more artistic music videos remains to be seen. Ocean MacAdams, general manager at the Warner Sound, believes artists are now creating videos for Web and mobile consumption, rather than TV viewing, and as artists attempt to distinguish themselves from the crowd, he feels the playing field is open to new ideas and fresh approaches.
The director/producer partnership of Mihai Wilson and Marcella Moser created the striking animated video for Of Monsters And Men's "Little Talks," which has surpassed 10 million views on YouTube. The pair is dedicated to making an impact that lasts longer than four minutes at a time.
"We strive to make art," says Wilson, "and we strive to make our music videos as art films. Having a hands-off relationship with the client … that's beneficial to us. So far, it's worked out great. We have yet to see an unhappy customer."
(Randee Dawn is a New York-based entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Emmy magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and on the podcast "Well Told Tales," and she is the co-author of The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.)