Great article about the changing landscape of the music business. Article is from Globeandmail.com
Music videos go lo-fi as cash dries up
NEW YORK — The music video is shrinking.
With the music industry in crisis from falling sales and file sharing, labels have less cash to subsidize elaborate videos that will mostly be seen in miniature on computers. The result has been a major shift in the art form, as artists increasingly embrace the YouTube esthetic with cheap, stripped-down, low-production videos.
The shrinkage of the video will be obvious Sunday at the MTV Video Music Awards, where grandiose, ambitious videos will seem like an exotic species facing extinction.
“The business is changing radically. It does feel smaller, cheaper,” says veteran music video director Samuel Bayer, whose many clips include Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Blind Melon’s No Rain and Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, which won six awards at the 2005 VMAs.
Even Kanye West — one of the most video-conscious artists in music — experimented with a small, quirky clip for his new hit Can’t Tell Me Nothing. Instead of the flamboyant rapper, the video stars the bearded, disheveled, unmistakably white comedian Zach Galifianakis.
Pimping an orange tractor on a country farm, he lip-syncs: “Homey, this is my day.”
When MTV’s award show kicked off 24 years ago, the network was ushering in a new era where the video was king: a branding tool and an art form rolled into one. Today, the channel broadcasts mostly reality shows while YouTube, iTunes, MTV.com and various other online destinations have become the dominant viewing platform for videos.
Directors are gradually adapting to the smaller-sized medium.
Chris Applebaum’s video for Rihanna’s Umbrella is nominated for five VMAs, including video of the year and best director. It’s a sleek, beautiful creation, and Applebaum was conscious of where it would be most watched.
“I had a lunch with Rihanna and Jay [label head Jay-Z] and we talked about the fact that most people are going to watch things on their laptop,” said Applebaum. “It’s important to be bold and simple and to find the elegance in simplicity.”
Bayer’s video for Justin Timberlake’s What Goes Around … Comes Around is nominated for numerous VMAs, including best video and best director. Starring Timberlake and Scarlett Johansson, the video has a distinctively cinematic feel, complete with a car chase and end credits.
In this way, What Goes Around feels old-school — like a rebellion against the new aesthetic. Instead, Bayer aimed for an experience more like Michael Jackson’s landmark 1983 Thriller video, directed by John Landis.
“I said, ‘We gotta go big,’” says Bayer. “‘If I’m going up against an OK Go video with four guys on a treadmill that plays-millions of times on YouTube, how can I do something that is the opposite of that?’”
In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, budgets and ambition ran high. Mark Romanek’s 1995 video for Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream is considered the most expensive ever, at an estimated $7-million. There have been many videos in the $2-million range, including Brett Ratner’s Heartbreaker for Mariah Carey, Hype Williams’ clip for Busta Rhymes’ What’s It Gonna Be?! and David Fincher’s Express Yourself for Madonna.
What Goes Around cost approximately $1-million, but Bayer thinks it could be one of the last big-budget videos.
“A comet hit the earth and the dinosaurs are dying,” says Bayer. “There’s a new age coming. I think those days are over with.”
Stavros Merjos, founder of HSI Productions and a long-time producer of videos for acts ranging from Britney Spears to Will Smith, doesn’t expect to ever see another $2-million video: “The record industry as a whole has shrunk. There’s not as much money to throw around.”
Merjos sees the effect particularly in hip-hop, where sales declines have been the steepest and extravagant videos by the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Diddy and Jay-Z used to be commonplace.
“You were expected to have a big video if you were a top-flight or a serious up-and-coming hip-hop artist,” says Merjos. “They’re not doing the size that they were doing in the heyday.”
Many artists and directors are now creating videos knowing they’ll have to compete for eyeballs on YouTube. OK Go’s famous treadmill-choreographed video for Here It Goes Again was perfectly suited for viral distribution, but the power pop band is far from alone in its reconsidered methods.
The Decemberists and Modest Mouse both asked fans to fill in the background to a video shot in front of a green screen. Jessica Simpson did a version of A Public Affair composed entirely of fans dancing and lip-syncing to the pop song.
Last year, Death Cab for Cutie sponsored professional videos for each of the 11 songs on their album Plans. For his album The Information, Beck personally created a video for every track. The silly, lo-fi videos — which ranged from puppet versions of the band to someone dancing in a bear mask and poncho — were posted on YouTube and many copies of the album included a bonus DVD.
And perhaps no one has taken more advantage of the freedom of the Internet than R. Kelly, whose absurd and expansive Trapped in the Closet series is ideal for the Web (though it has also run on cable TV).
None of the aforementioned videos will wow you with special effects or giant yacht parties, but they are all refreshingly unconventional.
“The new aesthetic is that it’s very low-budget, lo-fi, very do-it-yourself, not at all dedicated to the old style of music video which was always bigger and louder and more explosions and more money,” says Saul Austerlitz, author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes.
“This is more a punk-rock esthetic,” he adds. “It’s very exciting.”
Applebaum wouldn’t disclose the budget for Umbrella, but said he voluntarily did the video for free. Like many music video directors, he’s increasingly making most of his income through commercial work.
With budgets slashed, being a music director doesn’t pay like it once did — which could threaten music videos’ status as a breeding ground for directing talent. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Romanek and Fincher are just a handful of video directors who have gone on to become acclaimed filmmakers.
And for a languishing industry, turning the page on one of its most successful promotional tools would be a mistake, says producer Merjos.
“In the end, even if you spend a lot on it, a video is a cheap way to get a band out there,” says Merjos. “There have been groups that have built their whole record sales on videos, not touring.
“You’ve got to put a face on an act.”