Having been a staple player in the music video business as a director for over 15 years, one gets to be more attuned to what's coming around the corner. Usually what I would hear or see coming is some new style of video, a new aesthetic, a new gear that becomes popular and so on and so forth. So what is it that I "hear" or "see" now? Nothing! Yep... nothing! Music videos are dying!
Let's start from the beginning, on why it was necessary for music videos to exist in the first place, this way we can perhaps understand why they might be obsolete today.
Early music videos existed in the form of a simple performance video with a very basic approach. It usually consisted of the artists lip-syncing the song at one location. It simply existed to have a visual so that songs could be played on TV and therefore have another platform to exist besides the radio. It was necessary back then because that's all there was for artists to promote their music. But it was still a novelty and nothing that was necessary for the promotion of songs since radio was still big back then.
Seeing a big gap in the market for something of this nature, a new channel in August 1st, 1981 emerged... MTV (Music TeleVision) and the first music video to be aired was prophetic to what would follow. (and also the inspiration behind this blog's title)
Yes! one tv station literally changed the way the music industry functioned. It was as revolutionary to the music industry then as to what YouTube and Spotify was, and what TikTok is now! It was a essentially a radio station... but on TV! That was when the idea of creating a visual to accompany your song really took off! And boy did it take off! Being played on MTV was as important as being on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine (when magazines mattered)! That's when you knew you made it as an artist! That's when you knew you were famous! In fact, It not only became a huge success, but it became a staple in the music industry and youth culture in general. There were even pop songs mentioning MTV in their lyrics!
Soon enough, music videos started becoming more and more lavish, with higher production values and amazing cinematography. A far cry from those basic performance videos in the pre-MTV era. The king of music videos was of course Michael Jackson who was not only the first Black artist to play on MTV with his song "Billie Jean" but also the one that made to this day, the most expensive music video for the song "Scream"
But it was "Thriller" that really opened the gates of creativity in music videos. The idea of the artist just performing in a fancy backdrop paled in comparison to what the true potential could be. It wasn't just a visual that accompanied the song, it was now PART of the song! I mean honestly, when you think of Thriller, you always think of zombies and choreography! In fact, one could say that The 14 minute short movie "Thriller", set the blueprints to how music videos are made to this day. A story line, choreography, script and acting were now an embedded part of music videos.
Back then artists didn't need to release a song every month or 2 to stay relevant. They would release an album, select 3-4 singles from that album, and make huge music videos for them. That was enough to last their marketing cycle of the album for the next 2-3 years while they are touring the world and preparing their next album. That was their job! Their latest album, or newest music video was a newsworthy event! I still remember the huge buzz when Michael Jackson was hotly anticipated for his new 11-minute music video "Black or White". MTV, VH1, BET and FOX simultaneously premiered it on American television on November 14, 1991 to set the launch of his new album "Dangerous". When I tell you it was an event back then...I really mean it!
I remember a 12-year old me sitting by the tv with my V.C.R ready to record my favorite songs and music video as soon as MTV played them. That's probably when my love for music videos started. The idea of creating a mini film based on the song intrigued me. It made songs all the more appealing for me, which otherwise I might have not paid attention to. One might even say that MTV is responsible for my career choices!
Pretty much every pop star that started in in the 80's until the 00' owes a big chunk of their success to MTV. Let's not forget the MTV VMA's that set the groundworks for what music video awards look like around the world! MTV has contributed to the musical zeitgeist so much so, that it's absence along with the changing times has created a black hole for all that was culturally relevant.
Today, with all the tools available, the reasons an artist or a label would need a music video are simply not there anymore. MTV has shifted away from music videos nearly 20 years now, because no one watches TV anymore and we are at a point where the arbiters of "what's hot and what's not" is decentralized to a point where we now have scattered bursts of virality from some artists who's shelf life in the music industry is nowhere near to what it once was. When MTV presented a new artist you knew they were here to stay (mostly). Now you hear a song everywhere for a week, then it disappears.
This humorous 10 year old video is perhaps the most honest take on the entire issue.
So where else could music videos exist? Well fortunately around the time (M)TV started becoming irrelevant a brand new site called YouTube popped up! But unlike MTV It didn't filter who could post their music video. Anyone could have their song and music video heard and seen all over the world! At one point it was the view count was a metric for how well an artist was doing. I remember a music video I directed was in the news as the first Greek music video to surpass the 10 million views mark. And just Like MTV, YouTube created a cultural shift where many artists that are now household names such as Justin Bieber got their first opportunity on YouTube. Finally a place where music videos can exist, right? Well yes, for the first years until the honeymoon period phased out.
As the years progressed, YouTube's business model and algorithm shifted into promoting vlogs, podcasts and shows that have a much longer running time than the 3 minutes a music video could offer. The reason for that is simple...the longer a video is on YouTube, the more time people will spend on the site, and the more time people spend on the site the more ads will play on it, and more ads means more money for YouTube. This cant be done with music videos. A music video by a huge pop star can only have one ad in the beginning and then after 3 minutes it's finished! But a youtuber that made a 1 hour podcast can fit many more ads... simple! So essentially youtube's algorithm would prefer to promote some podcaster with a big following than a huge pop stars' new music video. If you don't believe me look at the trending section on YouTube. There was a time that the top 10 was exclusively music videos, but now you'd probably find 1 or 2 and the rest would be podcasts, vlogs and shorts.
So the next logical question you might ask is "where can music videos play?" To which my answer would be "why would you need one?" The only reason music videos existed was to promote the artist and the song. Music Videos are nothing more than "artistic" promotional tools! There was no other reason to do a music video other than to get it played on MTV or on YouTube so people could watch it, listen to the song, fall in love with the artist, go to their concerts and buy (stream) their music where they really made their money. Music videos were NEVER meant to make money in itself. Just like a commercial, the money comes from buying the product you see and not the commercial itself. So I repeat...why make a music video when now there are tools out there that do exactly the same thing....but better!
TikTok is the new player in the game that will most likely be a huge influence on the music industry itself (if it already hasn't) , and even shift it to a new paradigm much like what MTV did in the 80's ,what napster did in the late 90's , what YouTube did in the 00's and what Spotify did in the 10's. The shift is already here, where we now find out about new songs from viral videos on Tik Tok. Just like MTV back in the day, TikTok is where people go to see what's happening in the music industry.
TikTok gives the ability to do small 15-30 second videos, as simple or elaborate as you want and present it to a huge audience to promote your song... and yourself. It's software and filters are nothing short of amazing and you don't need an expensive camera or a huge crew, you can do all that simply with the phone in your pocket. AI and algorithms take over and determine whether what you did is "hot or not"! A litmus test of how well your song is doing! With immediate results and feedback! From a logistics perspective this is any artists or label's wet dream! The ability to predict how a song will fair at a fraction of the cost and time, to determine whether it is worth investing more on it or move on to the next song!
Beyoncé never released a music video for her latest album "Renaissance"...this didn't go un noticed , so much so that the #BeyonceWhereAreTheVisuals started becoming a slogan her fans posted. Her songs basically took off from TikTok. Perhaps her marketing team saw the writings on the wall and understood what's coming. And to top it all off her album did extremely well, and as I'm writing this, she is in the middle of a very successful world tour.
One can argue that Beyoncé is a well established superstar and can afford to do that, but if a new artist that's just starting out asks me about paying for a music video in 2023 to promote themselves, I would genuinely have no reason to justify its cost in relation to the return on investment compared to what Tik Tok can deliver. If getting people to hear your music and find out about you is the aim, then I'm afraid music videos are no longer it! Especially in the current way the music industry works were one would need to release a song every month to be able to stay afloat the "ocean of relevancy", it would require a small fortune to do a music video for each one! Spending the same amount of money and time on building and curating your TikTok to gain followers and fans would probably yield much better results than the "2000 views" your expensive music video would probably do on YouTube. Even if it does amazing numbers, it's shelf life is very small compared to a music video 25 years ago where it would be in rotation for a good 6 months until the artists next one! Now it's only until the next person releases the next viral song... next week!
Record labels have understood that and would now rather sign a less talented singer with a high following count, than a talented one with little social media presence. Having worked with them in the past 15+ years I have seen them steadily reduce the budget they would invest for their artists' music videos. In 2007 when i first started, the average budget for a music video was double of what it is in 2023 and that's not even accounting for inflation!
Even though based on www.verifiedmarketresearch.com shows that by 2028 there will be a 7.8% increase in the amount of money globally spent on music videos , it fails to mention that the actual budget PER music video is actually in severe decline. I have certainly seen over the years a clear shift from quality to quantity! So much so that the quality would be so bad that it would harm the artists image rather than enhance it. There have been many times when I suggested to artists that had a small budget for a music video to rather spend that on a creative and great lyric video than on a poorly made music video.
In fact all that I'm telling you is nothing new. There are already independent artists that are focusing solely on succesfully promoting themselves on TikTok, as well as many videographers/directors and artists that are talking about the death of music videos... on TikTok!
Even the Atlantic has an insightful article about the matter (disclosure : The similarity in the title is purely coincidental, I had not read the article until halfway through this blog) It just shows that the idea that music videos are dying is already in the ether for quite some time now, and I'm certainly not the first person to see this.
But as someone who spent over 15 years building a career making music videos for artists from all over the world, and that has only the fondest memories of this journey, I felt that I would also write about this matter. If anything it might be an obituary to a "former lover" !
I understand many of you reading this will disagree and claim that "music videos will always be around". But guess what, I've had the same exact conversation 20 years ago about the CD! And by the time they became irrelevant the only artists that released their album on CD where doing it for "prestige" which they soon stopped that too. It's only a matter of time that music videos drift into irrelevance much like the once almighty CD. And Just like how one day record labels and artists simply stopped distributing music on cd's, we will also see music videos exiting our collective cultural consciousness!
It might happen in the next few months or the next few years, but until then it's only a matter of time that we fully realize that investing thousands in music videos would be like buying an expensive 70 inch high end flat screen... just to watch MTV!