Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Package

Every year, after the VMAs, someone I know will mention it is frustrating and insulting that MTV gives their “best pop video” or “video of the year” to the artist rather than the director. Not really, I say, the world is supposed to believe that videos are the direct expression of the artist. The industry needs the world to think that.

Music videos are there to connect the artist to the viewer in a way that will make them want to go and pay money for the record/CD/iTunes file. If the customer believes that the latest Lil Scrappy or Hilary Duff video is straight from their heads to our TV, all the better.

David Byrne wrote a nice piece about this issue, by way of album artwork:
There are those who mourn the vanishing of the nice big cardboard packages that vinyl came in. The format allowed fairly large images, credits, and photos. The usual assumption is that much of this imagery, like music videos, is a reflection of, and extension of, the music creator’s sensibility. As if the packaging and the videos were usually under the direct control of the author. This is absurd. Though pop artists attempted to wrestle control of the way they were presented from the distributors beginning in the 60s, most LPs design, and music videos as well, are directed and designed under the control of the record companies.
Until they started putting the directors credits on the screen along with videos on MTV, most viewers didn’t even know videos had “directors.” Anyone reading this blog (or the mighty antville) does care about who directed what clip – but we are definitely not the norm.

All entertainment has become more process oriented with behind the scenes content on DVDs for theatrical movies, “Making the Video” episodes on MTV and Monday morning box-office numbers. People want more from their entertainment – more info, more secrets.

But the biggest consumers of music (and by “consumers” I mean people who actually pay for music) are and will be kids. Kids like to think that the cars in music videos are owned by the artist and the sexy dancers are their girlfriends. They like to think that their favorite singer picked out the image for the CD cover and the latest video is a home movie. Who are the dream-sellers to reveal that the dreams are less than real?

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Friday, September 22, 2006


Apologies up front for the heavy dose of philosophy.

Is a music video art? Or is a music video an advertisement for a product pushed on consumers by mega-corporations? Like most things, the answer lies in between.

Music videos are certainly art. In fifty years, when curators are looking for art-works that represent the last 20 years, my guess is they will choose lots of videos, commercials and video installation pieces. Moving electronic images will represent who we are now.

Cutting edge artists tend to gravitate to the newest mediums - whether that is oil based paints, new bronze casting procedures, or home based video editing systems. Music videos are every bit as capable of expressing the real and complex themes of art as paintings and sculpture, they just utilize a larger "team" - like architecture or ballet.

But music videos are also definitely commerce. A hot clip on MTV can make or break a career and generate big profits for Sony, or Universal. Labels wouldn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on music videos if they didn’t think they would earn their money back off the promotion the videos provide.

For people involved with the creation of music videos – directors, label types, production companies, artisans and technicians – I believe that music videos are best treated as neither art, nor commerce but as the combination of the two – a craft.

Music videos are a craft. Art is made to express something and that is the only purpose. No audience is even needed and no outcome necessary, just expression. (Please note that these definitions are my own and not necessarily from Webster’s.) Commerce is purely to make money and for music video directors – a career with only dollars in mind will be short and ugly.

A craft is an artistic endeavor with another goal in mind. Building a chair is a craft. The thing built by the chair-maker HAS to keep one’s ass off the floor, otherwise it is not a chair. Once the ass is raised, the chair could be a Louis XIV, a Shaker or even a beanbag variety, and still be a chair. There is plenty of room for creativity and self-expression in a craft, once the main goal has been satisfied.

Stand-up comedy is a craft. The comic MUST make the audience laugh (and by extension buy more drinks) for the comedy club to be successful. When the comic does get the audience laughing, he/she can expound on religion, race relations, politics or even airline food. Some faux-comics seem to take perverse joy in annoying audiences or going over the heads of those paying them, but those comedians will never have much of a career and I believe they are sorely missing the point

A craftsman does both – he satisfies the marketplace and expresses himself at the same time. That is why the music video is a craft – the best work sells records and expresses what the musician and the director want to share with the world. That is the challenge, and in my mind the pursuit of this balance is a noble one.

Some folks believe that only “true” or “pure” art is real and good. These folks like to imagine that satisfying anyone other than themselves is “selling out to the man.” That mind-set is fine for a painter or a poet, but is completely wrong for a music video director.

I talk with quite a few youngish directors – who seem to be bumping up against this issue. They want more creative freedom, but yet they also want the production budget that comes with a record label. Making a video involves a host of compromises – and that does not have to be a bad thing. If it troubles creative types that they have to shoot close-ups of the lead singer or insure the colors are “crispy but edgy” I suggest they imagine themselves as Renaissance artists painting endless images of religious figures at the behest of the church or Dutch Masters doing wedding portraits for their wealthy patrons. Doing something cool for the guy with the cash IS the job.

A video should make the artist/band look cool/edgy/sexy eclectic/funny. A video should make viewers want to go out and by the CD and share it with their friends. Otherwise the director made a short film that they like and scammed the band/label out of the money. making a video that audiences and the label likes is not selling out, it’s being a video director.

That whole thing was a bit too preachy. I’m sorry. Watch this amazingly fun Blur video by Hammer & Tongs. It runs an end-around on all the philosophy I just spouted and puts a smile on my face every time.

Have a great weekend and send me a comment or an email.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The Futureheads - "Worry About it Later"
This video is the model of simplicity. The look is low-key and places the song and the band at the forefront. I like this video alot, but I have always been a fan of this band. I have also, always been a fan of simple videos, but keeping it simple is easier when the song and the sound is this good.

I think more videos should be simple. In my opinion, good videos are about one thing. Not three things, just one. Even hyperactive Dave Meyers/Missy Elliot videos (or classic Hype/Busta jobs) with a new set-up for every lyric are unified by the crazy style and the fact that the one thing the video is about is showcasing the artist's eclectic, free-ranging lyrical humor.

Too many videos take a kitchen-sink approach to try and catch the audience's attention with sheer visual noise. This is a zero-sum game and is sure to leave the viewers wondering who the artist is and what the song is about. Putting more stuff on the screen is rarely the right answer, but it is the easiest answer to come up with.

What is an example, how about the new Janet Jackson "So Excited" video by Joseph "Torque" Kahn. This clip has lots of dancing (good), a flying, semi-transparent Lambo in a color not seen in the rest of the video (bad), and Janet getting freaky in a subway bathroom while her fiancee, JD, shaves somewhere nearby. It looks pricey, but left me wondering what they were trying to say.

This "more is better" ethos puts a strain on uninspired directors as budgets have come down, since with less money, how do you give the label more? Quality is better than quantity, but music video directors are not known for their restraint. To give directors some credit, artists and labels are often pushing for more and bigger, since they too are usually out of ideas.

This "keep it simple" strategy is certainly not always successful, as in this technically impressive but still flat-feeling NIN video for "Only" directed by Fight Clubbin' Fincher.

Once again, much props to antville for the post that started this train of thought.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Split Screens

Music videos are expensive, so it seems logical that record labels would not want to pay for them twice. But yet they do. A couple times a year, labels choose to re-shoot entire videos because they are not happy with the clip they got the first time around. Obviously this happens only for artists and/or songs the labels are really high on. This includes big stars like Kanye and Pharrell but also baby artists that the label wants to support (because they have signed them to big contracts, because they have powerful managers or simply because they like their potential).

Here are two different versions of the video for the song "Angel" by Pharrell of his 2006 solo release. The first version was never finished, as you can tell by the time code in the corner and the unfinished post effects. I believe this was directed by Little X, or Mr. X as he sometimes goes by these days. The clip seems fine, but obviously the label (or the artist or the manager) was not happy. I'm not sure why, since I was not involved in this project, but it could be something major (We wanted dance numbers) or seemingly minor (The artist looks too old/fat/tired). The reason they re-shot this particular clip is even murkier when you see the "new" version they did.

This is the version that got released to music television, directed by Hype Williams. Why go to Hype when you didn't like the X version confounds me. These two videos are not significantly different. The lighting and colors and hoochies are new - but why pay so much more for a whole new one? I don't know. The labels paid big bucks to get Hype, and then the video got very little run on TV anyway.

Up next is a video by "Mr. Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" himself - Kanye West. In 2005 he released a song called "Heard Em Say" and he originally commissioned Michel Gondry to do the video. Kanye pretty much makes his own decisions on videos and I have heard (though I have zero personal knowledge of this) that Kanye spends his own money on videos and then charges the labels to use them to promote his music. (This is actually something I want to write about more, later on.)

Kanye shot the first version with Michel Gondry in NYC and Gondry did his stop-motion child-like wonder thing. Gondry is one of those guys who is very respected, especially amongst the white, film-school kids who comment on websites like antville and other places. There is a cool article here about the process of Gondry making the video. The final video, in my opinion, is an "okay" version of the Gondry thing - not great but certainly in the wheelhouse of what one might expect when you give the Frenchman some money.

Now, while this video is being finished - stop motion animation means a long post process - Kanye decides he wants another video for the track. Why? I dunno. Maybe he didn't like the look of what Gondry was doing. Maybe he thought it was taking too long and radio was already playing the single so he couldn't wait. Maybe he realized that French storybook visuals might not play in the hood (though, who in the hood is into songs with Adam Levine on the hook, I'm not sure). In any event, Kanye does a new version of the clip with a simple b/w performance and animation by Bill Plympton.

When video production companies and directors wonder why the labels cannot come up with more money to do a two-day shoot instead of a one-day rush-fest for some artist - they all remember that the labels spent twice on clips like these.

Are the "new" videos better than the original ones? Are they worth the dough? What do you think?

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fix it in the mix

The Edit

Music Video is the final stage of the process the label goes through when they sign a band/singer/act and eventually put that artist out there with a CD to sell. There may be other decisions the label makes after the video – like buying bus bench ads or newspaper advertising – but MV is the last BIG decision labels make.

Why does that matter? Because that is the last chance the label has to “steer” the direction of the artist. Like adjusting the barrel of a gun, for every tiny fraction of a degree the gun barrel moves, the final destination of the bullet changes greatly. Once the video is out there – it is the last chance the label has to affect the flight of the artist, at least until it is time to pay for a new video.

The process of an artist being noticed, signed and then eventually marketed by a major label is long. More than a year and often closer to three years. In the interim tastes changes, the music industry changes. When Britney Spears became a big hit, many labels were looking for the “next Britney” – but by the time they got those pseudo Brits to record store shelves, tastes had changed and the kind of “fun and youthful dance music” that was soo hot in 2000 became “stale and lame kiddie pop” in 2003.

Right now there are lots of sing-songy hip-hop acts that sound more like nursery rhymes that angry reflections of street culture. Some examples are “Shoulder Lean,” Dem Franchize Boyz and “Chicken Noodle Soup.” That funny, smiling, dancing thing is big in hip-hop now, but just a few years ago rap was in the heart of the G-Unit gangsta periodwhere artists sold records by being hard and menacing, not by sounding like they learned their flow on Sesame Street. Times change and record labels are big, big companies that don’t change directions nearly as fast as the marketplace. If Sony or Universal commits to something in 2004, how can they make it seem like something else in 2006?

The classic movie making expression is “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in the mix/edit.” In many ways, the music video is the “edit” for the record label. You can fix a lot with post production but you can’t change a Western into a romantic comedy. Just like you can’t change a boy band into a sensitive singer-songwriter – or can you?

Labels use music video to promote, but also to tweak and massage the artist’s image. If Nick Lachey is famous for his roots in a depilidated, gay-friendly synchronized dancing boy group and a televised marriage, and you want him to seem older – shoot a moody music video in black and white where he seems anguished and vulnerable. An older, serious female singer wants to up her youth appeal, like Jewel, have her shoot a video where she plays the role of a sexy, Mystic Tanned urban vixen who gets naked in the shower. This definitely does not always work, but for labels it is worth a try. They have already spent money on the artist and the CD that they cannot un-spend, so they try and get one more chance to mold how their new "product" is perceived.

Labels often re-think the concept they want for a video – in the hope that they will be selling what the market wants to buy when the market wants to buy it. If the label thinks they have something great (or believe they have nothing to lose), they can just do what they want to do – despite the market (like Alanis Morisette’s "angrier than anything on radio" first CD or Missy Elliot doing her own, loogie spitting thing. I believe the really big break-throughs (and profits) come when labels are willing to take a chance, but in reality, labels are MUCH more likely to choose a safe route and try to market an artist/CD like another successful product. Even if the new product isn’t much like the successful one at all, you can still try and sell it that way.

Even if the label signed the “wrong” artist, had them work with the “wrong” producer and recorded the “wrong” kind of songs (too edgy? not edgy enough?) – the whole project can still be saved with just the right music video. Or at least that is what the labels want to think can happen. And that is the magical dream that music video directors sell to the labels. "Don’t worry, I can fix it in the edit."

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Why are all videos the same?

When people ask me about what music videos - they have one of two questions. It's either "Where do you guys come up with those wild ideas?" or "How come all the videos look the same?" Are music videos on the cutting edge or simply rehashing the same-old visual catch-phrases? I guess it depends on who you ask.

People in their thirties usually don't watch many videos (nor should they, videos are sales tools aimed at junior high kids). But these adults often have strong opinions that videos are lame and not as good as the Kajagoogoo and Greg Kihn clips they remember from their own wasted youth. Well videos are better in some ways today, they are just more likely to be from "inside the box" that record labels want them in.

By the way, when I mention "music videos" in this post I am referring to big budget, major label clips. It is not that homebrew clips don't count (witness the success of OK Go on treadmills), it is that I know less about that part of the industry. Micro budgeted movies at avant garde film festivals are certainly still "movies" but they are also definitely not Hollywood movies. I guess I am writing today (and almost always) about the "Hollywood movie" side of music videos. If you like weird and unique music videos, you prolly already know about antville.

Overall, music videos are a lot the same because they should be a lot the same. If you can tell Dem Franchise Boyz apart from Ying Yang Twins or Yung Dro from Young Joc - you win a prize. That similarity of musical style needs to be reflected in their videos. If dudes are rapping about rims and girls with big butts - what should the video be? Stop motion animation made out of pipecleaners and old polaroids of Fiona Apple and Siouxsie Sioux? This is not to excuse all the lazy, poorly thought out videos on TV, but to offer a reason why they end up the way they do.

Most music is the same, so most videos are the same. The videos for Panic! @ the Disco should look like slightly lower budgeted Killers videos. That's what the band sounds like, that's how they should be marketed. Video directors would be doing a disservice to a straight ahead artist (like TI or Nick Lachey) if they tried to make some weirdo, art-school music video. Bjork needs odd-ball videos, because they reflect who she is. Music videos need to connect with their intended audience, so Weezer videos are quirky and Busta Rhymes videos are full of braggadocio and jewelry. Why confuse the record buying public with imagery that is NOT what the artist and their music really is?

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What he make?

A commenter asked about how much music video directors make. I don't get that many comments so I will definitely answer that question. The answer is, "It depends."

There is not a fixed rate or dollar amount fee that music video directors make (like there is for commercial directors). The standard rate is that the director earns 10% of the budget. That may seem like a lot of money (and it sometimes is) but you also have to figure that the video's line producer makes 5% and the production company usually takes 15%. That is 30% right off the top that goes to pay the people involved before you pay a single crew member, buy film, and so on.

Okay, the director makes 10% of what? That also depends. Music video budgets vary from weird little arty things you find on antville to big budget Hype Daddy jobs. Smaller, "favor for the band/label" jobs almost certainly do NOT adhere to the fee structure I described. In 2006 a "big budget" is, in my opinion, anything over $350-400k. Much more typical, even for established artists you have heard of is a budget between $200 and 300k.

The quick math will tell you that 10% of 300 large is thirty grand - not bad for a few week's work of directing. But those jobs are hard to get, even for established directors. The thing that truly effects a director's income is how often does the director works. Many big time directors work less than twelve times a year.

Much of the time these days, the director and the production company have to take fees based on a smaller number than the actual budget. If the label wants to spend 300k, the production company will often decide to take fees on "only" 225k in order to have enough money to spend on making the actual video.

This is becoming a more and more common practice as labels focus on the bottom line, often at the expense of the creativity (shocking, I know). Bigger budgets do not guarantee creativity, but in the "good ole days" it was common for the labels to agree to higher budgets to get name directors like Michael Bay, David Fincher or Paul Hunter. The labels would also often ramp up the budget because they wanted something specific like choreographed dancing or stunts that cost money. Now, the label is locked in on a number and they seem to care more about hitting that number - no matter if that means losing a rehearsal day for the dancers or whatever. Labels are now also excluding budget items and paying them directly - like artists' travel costs or make-up/wardrobe/hair stylists (a whole other topic) which saves them paying the production company's fees on those items.

The commenter asked the director pay question about an "artist of Beck's stature." In my experience, the status or level of an artist/band has no effect on the director's pay, other than labels spend more on established or famous or previously good-selling artists. Some "big" artists have super budgeted videos - like the aggressively messy new Janet that Hype did - while other noted artists, like Beck, or Beastie Boys often have a DIY, low-budget approach which means smaller director fees. Often, new and "poppier" artists - like Rihanna or Chris Brown - get higher budgeted videos because the label wants to "launch" them and see if they fly on music television while the labels spend less on much more well known artists, like the recent Red Hot Chili Peppers videos. Directors like working with artists they admire/respect, but the money from bigger budgeted jobs is what pays the bills.


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