Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Posse Blocker

Just a quick hitter for Kev.

I was talking to a very experienced urban director and we were laughing about all the dumb stuff that must get shot on a video because the artist wants it. Like his new custom Nike's or him with his main girl or his friends/manager/posse getting wild in the club. Shoots run long, artists are late - and even though the director doesn't wanna waste film or (more importantly) time on shooting the rapper's cousins, he might have to. Artists don't often hear "no" so the set is not the place to start.

When forced to do this kind of ego-boosting BS, the video pro said he would tell his DP to put on the "Godfather filter" (name changed to protect the director) and shoot the posse shots. The artist would watch the playback monitor as the posse guys posed or fondled the hoochies or whatever. The director could placate the artist they could move on to the next set-up without anyone ever knowing ...

"Godfather filter" meant "don't turn the camera on." They wouldn't run film and no one ever knew the difference. Allegedly no artist ever wondered what happened to that cool shot of Cousin Ray-Ray when they got to the edit.

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The Grammys are hooked

The list of Grammy nominated videos came out this week. I believe the selections are solid and remind me of the choices the Grammy voters seem to make every year. In the same way a famous actor playing a character that is fat/ugly/retarded almost assures an Oscar nod, the Grammys seem to look for certain things.

The main thing they look for is a “hook.” Hooks are good, they sell treatments to labels and make for some memorable videos. The Grammy voters like ultra-high concept stuff like “Hey Ya!” and the dancing Walken video – which is certainly not a bad thing.

This year the nominees are Big & Rich with a tear-jerker about war veterans, The Killers with a telenovella, Chili Peppers with themselves playing dress-up, Underoath wedged into a nightmare dollhouse and OK GO bouncing around on choreographed treadmills. I believe OK GO is/will be one of the most significant and memorable clips for this era of music video, despite what some people might think. The full list of Grammy nominations is here.

On a side note, the long-form nominations are usually a collection of uninteresting concert footage, backstage interviews and old videos. This year is the same except for the Death Cab collection which is fresh new stuff. Congrats for those involved.

Back to the short-form nominees. All these are good videos and the makers should be proud. High concept videos are neither good nor bad in my book – some are excellent others are Trapped in the Closet. Those big hooks and high concepts certainly jump off the page in treatment form, which is definitely a good thing.

Hook videos are sort of the opposite of the “execution” videos I have written about before. Execution videos, like Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” or No Doubt’s “Hella Good” are not ‘about’ any one thing but rather more focused on performance, the photography and style. Execution videos are also often harder to describe in one sentence, at least in a way that makes them sound like a good idea for a label to shell out $$$ for. Seriously, Hella Good is the band in vaguely futuristic/apocalyptic looks, completely alone in and around a decrepit cargo ship all shot in black and white. That doesn’t sound great in one sentence, but the final video was excellent (IMO). Hook videos are the opposite, with quick, easily digestable pitches (RHCP perform on stage in dressed and shot like a living history book of rock and roll, from British Invasion to Glam Metal and everything in between). Both “types” of videos (and there are obviously way more variations and shades of grey than just these two) can produce great results but the hookier ideas are easier to sell to the client and they are usually the kind that award shows (like the Grammys) notice.

I, personally, don’t think that hook videos are usually the best for a new artist. The performers can get lost in the hub-bub of the idea, which is fine if you are as famous as the Killers or Flea, but not so good if you are the guys in Underoath.

I don’t think that the Underoath video really serves the band because most viewers have never seen them before and after watching the video, still haven't seen them. I feel like I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them again. To me, they get lost in the cool visuals of the clip. Same thing for that Jamiroquai “Virtual Insanity” video, their only clip that ever aired much in the US. I am still not sure I know anything about the group. Band? Solo guy? I don’t know. I do know the Jamiroquai dude is famous in the UK but Americans don’t dance we just pull up our pants and do the roc-a-way.

Execution videos usually make better introductions to new performers or artists switching to a new image – “Crazy in Love” or Christina’s first “Genie in a Bottle.” Execution videos usually have longer close-ups and they focus more on performance without too much story, effects or concept getting in the way. I have encountered labels booking a job based on a hooky concept that is fun to read and then the same execs try to turn the finished clip into an execution video during the shoot and/or edit, usually with poor results.

On a side note, I have recently figured out how to see who logged onto this blog and what link referred them and so on. Basic stuff, but that’s how I roll. Anyway – I have been getting a trickle of traffic from people who have Googled “execution videos” and are really looking for something far, far darker that I have to offer.

I know some commenters don’t like the tone of the blog, because it is too grim and they don’t like the view I have of the music video industry. To those people I say, Sony and Warner Bros laid off MORE employees in the video departments on Friday. I ain’t making this stuff up and at least no one gets “executed” here.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Wait, Now Hip-Hop is Dead?!?!

If it’s in the LA/Chicago Times it must be true. Right?

There is a piece in Friday’s edition of the Los Angeles Times explaining how the lack of Grammy nominations in hip-hop means that rapping on records has lost it’s creative steam. Certainly the best judges of what is and is not a creative force in music are the septuagenarians and Steely Dan fans that make up Grammy voters.

Some of the article is Senior Citizen hogwash. Newspapers are aimed at your parents, so the stories tend to reflect their interests (like “Them Intranet Tubes Try to Steal Social Security Checks” and “Why Do They Have to Drive So Fast?”)

But Boucher and Lee do get to some salient points. TI’s album is the only rap-based record in the Top 20 in sales for the year. They also point out that lots of other music in the Year-End Top Ten is not rap-based but is hip-hop influenced (JT, Mary J). Plus many of the "big" rap releases (Jay Z, Game) are at the end of the year so they will sell less copies in calendar 2006. Even Mr. "Hip Hop is Dead" himself, Nas, has record coming out in 2006, but buried on Dec. 15. I guess Nas's boss didn't want the sales competition.

There is also the acknowledgement of the changing business model that is working its way through the music world – by starting in hip-hop:
"Hip-hop and urban music is just as strong as it has been, it's just that now its success is coming in new places and in new ways," said Jay Frank, the chief of programming for Yahoo Music. "There's a lot of digital downloads and ring tones being sold, and in some cases this is music that is being very successful in ways other than selling CDs."

Sixteen-year-old rapper Jibbs is an example. His debut album has sold a humble 126,000 copies since its release in October. But one sing-song track on the CD, "Chain Hang Low," an ode to diamond necklaces, has sold 1.4 million ring tones. Those sound clips, used to personalize cell phones, usually cost about $2 each. (full article here)

I hadn’t realized that Jibbs had sold so few CDs, nor that many ring-tones. Things are changing, but it certainly is not all bad. I guess that the growing youthification of the music scene means consumers who can afford to buy songs one at a time but aren’t committed/wealthy enough to buy the whole disc. Kind of like that shady liquor store that sold cigarettes for a quarter each, knowing the market was all underage kids. Anyone else remember that? Maybe that was just me and all the other kids with the Hessian rat-tail combs.

More on the Grammy Nominations in a bit.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Technology to the FUTURE!!!

This was inspired by another conversation over on antville and shots ring out.

There has been much talk about YouToogle and possible replacements for the titan of web video. No one is happy with the picture quality of Das Tube – other than R Kelly who enjoys the graininess because it allows Kells to claim that ain’t him sexing the underage girls on the home video.

There will someday (and soon) be a new and improved YouTube. Maybe Google will upgrade their new purchase to HD or maybe some other new site will come in and have better tech that pushes out Das Tube. It will happen, but the details don’t matter. Not to me and not to the regular people who have made YouTube the hit it is.

I use a car. Every day. It has a complicated motor inside. I don’t care. Add gas. Change oil occasionally. Do that and the car takes me where I want to go. I care about the destination, not the process. That doesn’t mean the process isn’t important, but if the engineer/designer/builder does their job right, it doesn’t matter to me whether my car has a five speed automatic transmission or a six cylinder engine. If they do their job right, I only have to care about my goal – “get to store for more Mickey’s Wide Mouths and non-fat cottage cheese singles”.

In the early days of cars, like 1911, drivers had to know how to crank the vehicle to start it and have some knowledge of repairing/maintaining the ungainly beasts. These cars never really took off in the market-place. But when the Model T came along with radically better reliability and simplicity – people started ditching horses for Fords.

Das Tube is great at simplicity. I click and the video plays. Every, mutha-farking time. No ifs, ands or buts. That is what matters to me. I get to see the video when I click. It seems pretty simple.

If you find yourself thinking, “Well all you have to do on (name of higher tech video service) is be sure your browser accepts cookies and download the driver that will …” then you are a tech nerd. Tech nerds were the guys out buying those early horseless carriages because they liked the challenge as much as they liked getting from point A to B. Tech nerds are great. They read websites about music videos. Hell, they often direct music videos. But tech nerds are NOT normal people.

Web videos need to be 100% easy or they will get ignored (Hello, MTV Underwhelm). Video links/files are useful if, and only if, I can instantly send it to a co-worker or friend and it will definitely play for them. The last thing you wanna hear when you send a buddy a video of Britney’s pastrami curtains is that the damn thing wouldn’t open. Of course, a better quality picture is better, but only if we can launch the video on your computer or otherwise it won’t matter.

At some point, the new service(s) will be all that, but for now, YouTube is the best option for normal folks. When that change-over happens, the tech guys will have known about the new service for months - but it won't matter until us regular types figure it out and flock there like lemmings.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mystery Artist III

Once again, the photo here represents our Mystery Artist (previous incarnations are here). The MA in question is not Elvis but is very, very famous and not dead. Almighty Spell-Check help me now … Schadenfreude.

A few years back, there was a pop star-slash-actor appearing in a kid-centric feature film. The pop star had begun their career working for the kiddiest of all entertainment enterprises, but this project looked to be MA’s last with the studio.

The movie was wrapped after a long and tabloid plagued shoot. MA had been a problem during the filming but now was MA’s chance to shine – promotion. One thing MA can do, it’s attract attention so the studio, and their record making arm, had contracted a soundtrack with MA performing the lead single and video.

Soundtrack jobs are always hard – there are at least two masters to serve, the label and the film studio. Sometimes the artist is signed to their own label while the film soundtrack is on a different label associated with the studio releasing the feature film. That means three masters. The commissioner involved varies from project to project – sometimes the artist’s label, sometimes the soundtrack label, occasionally even an exec from the film studio.

When concepting a soundtrack video, the treatment first goes through one of the entities. They inevitably say “Don’t worry about those other guys, create an idea that works for us.” That means focusing on the imaging the artist’s label likes if they are the first contact – ignoring the demand for including film footage that will inevitably come from the studio.

MTV now has a rule that no more that 30 seconds of a music video can be footage lifted from a film, in order to force studios to buy commercial airtime to promote their movies. So most soundtrack videos are now created to make the performance and other footage shot for the video “feel’ as much like the movie as possible. The studios want maximum promotion. “Seamless integration” and blah, blah, blah.

On this job, MA was not at all interested in making this music video. I believe they were contractually obligated to do it, but that doesn’t mean MA was happy about it. The money for doing the work of shooting the video was probably rolled into the payment for the film, so it seems likely MA had been paid for this gig 3 or more years earlier when the film was green-lit. That means a cranky and non-cooperative artist.

For the concept, the director was coming up with stuff that would work with the film, but MA would throw their 2-cents in every once in a while with crazy, off-topic ideas. Seriously, MA pitched a video based on magic butterflies when the film had nothing to do with butterflies. AND the MA is not Mariah Carey. That slowed things down, but the film studio finally got their way.

MA felt they were far more mature than the movie. MA didn’t want to be seen in this film at all, I would imagine, even though they no doubt spent the money. The video was one more immature thing that did not fit with MA’s “new” image of sexiness. Why do the young ones always believe that “grown” and “sexy” are exactly the same thing. Is it Chamillionaire’s fault?

The music video shoot was a physically massive undertaking and the prod co rented out an enormous building for the two day production. The building has been used for shoots before and it is gigantic – just at the edge of the 30-mile zone. The production started filling up the space with art-direction and equipment until the day of the shoot and …

MA does not show up. Six hours late and no MA. The director is trying to stay cool and shoot B-roll stuff, but you only need so much of that. The weird thing is …

The movie studio people were actually laughing. They all had experienced so much of MA’s un-professionalism in the past they were actually hoping MA would NOT show up at all. There was a VERY high level exec from the studio arriving and the lower level types wanted the big-wig to realize how difficult MA had been. I guess BigWig simply loooved MA and minutes before the boss type showed up, MA arrived.

MA seemed to have dodged a bullet as they greeted the BigWig like MA had been working hard all day. The label and film producers WANTED this to turn into a blow-up and they got their wish. A few minutes after greeting BigWig and shooting a single performance bit …

MA’s cell phone rings. It is obviously a member of the opposite sex and MA scrambles away from the set – eager to talk to their crush. The BigWig is left with jaw hanging – his impression that MA was a true professional harassed by the press is ruined. BigWig wheels around and the other execs and commissioners have to stifle their smiles and “tsk, tsk” over the behavior of MA.

This giant production, stands idle and many of the people in charge are happy about it. THAT is how bitter they were over the way MA had been acting. Money is being burned like crazy – but they hate MA enough that it seems okay.

After the phone call, MA leaves the set all together because they are feeling ill. (Later than night MA is seen at Concorde, slightly less ill.) The shoot gets shut down after MA leaves. The prod co begs the label types to cancel the second day. Begs them. Everyone knows that MA won’t show the next day, but the label and movie types seem to be reveling in MA screwing everything up so they refuse to cancel the second day.

Day Two. No MA. More b-roll shooting by the director. He gets lots of footage he hops can build his commercial reel. More money burns. They hear from MA – too ill to come to set. Day Two is a complete waste.

The whole production gets pushed to a single day, a week later. That means the prod co and the label have to keep paying for the massive location for the days in between. More money gets burned, but the people paying – movie studio and movie studio record label – are eerily okay with it all.

A week later the video is finally shot. MA shows up on time and the film gets into the can. The video is nowhere near as good as it could have been. But the movie the soundtrack is from ain’t very good either. Lots of money got burned, but that is one job where the label was happy to pay the overages because they got to make their “point” that MA was nuts.

I try not to think of all the cool stuff Chris Milk could do with the money that got wasted.

Anyway, is the MA still a mystery?

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Is YouTube dead?!?!?

Of course Das Tube has not died. It is still there. Trust me. Click on over and see Tyler’s birthday party. All is still in order.

But when an “underground” phenomenon starts getting written up in major media outlets (think of grunge on the cover of Time magazine) it usually means the “hot, new thing” is waning faster than a Pro-Activ shilling Diddy.

When the LATimes does a piece on how “graying grown-ups who wistfully recall the giddy rise of MTV” are flocking to Google’s new viral video baby, things start to seem a whole lot LESS cool.

“YouTube and similar sites, meanwhile, are beginning to play a role as de facto syndicators of old "off-network" programming like music videos, not to mention original stuff generated by users. Indeed, music videos are particularly ripe for exploitation on YouTube. Most are brief, which fits well with the site's 10-minute time limit on uploaded clips. When Google purchased the company in October, moreover, deals were cut with major record labels that cleared the way for many videos to run without fear of litigation from copyright holders.”
Read the whole Scott Collins piece in LAT here.

I am in no way suggesting that YouTube or MVs on YouTube are REALLY going away. YouTube is here to stay but …

If YouTube is now VH1 for secretaries and mid-level manager types at Dunder-Miflin, will kids still use it? Or will it be a pre-planned youth “thang” like the Honda Element that was designed for dorm-living X-gamers and turned into the coolest mode of transport at the Leisure Village?

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Friday, December 01, 2006


Many of you will wonder, “Why in the hell is this guy writing the same freaking post again?” Well, I wonder that myself sometimes. On the automotive industry blog call “The Truth About Cars” they have written over a hundred posts about the inexorable demise of General Motors, so I am just biting their style.

Over on the ‘ville there is a discussion about a contest to finish a video for The Decemberists. More details on video static, since my Mac-loving makes logging onto any MTV related site painful to impossible. Overall, this is a great marketing concept by Capitol, especially since it has been picked up by The Colbert Report and smacked around on a REAL television network (sorry MTVu).

The prize for the contest from MTV/Viacom? Ironically, a Mac laptop. But that’s it. Oh, and airplay on MTVu. Whoop-de-doo. That’s fun as a lark, but it showcases once again how directing music videos is no longer a career. MVs are now something to be done in one’s spare time – since you will need to keep your regular gig making lattes, driving a UPS truck or working at a sullenly-unkempt indie record store (oops, scratch that last one) to pay the bills.

Making music videos is slipping away from being a profession and moving into becoming a hobby. Videos air on websites and not television networks. Or they do air on TV, but in such obscure spots (MTVu) that they have the same viewer-ship as a website.

Addendum Dec 2: The Decemberists and this contest are not the problem, nor are they even causing the problem. This is a smart idea to promote a pretty cool band, but it does illuminate the creeping amateurism in what was once a professional industry. Back in the day, MTV had a contest called "The Basement Tapes" where baby directors made videos for their local bands and got airplay on MTV. That contest discovered Scott "Parents Just Don't Understand" Kalvert, one of the most influential video directors ever. That was different because it sought out amateur directors to do videos for small, local bands that would get major cable airplay. This contest is being sponsored by a major label band and only gets airplay on MTV's college network (which is viewed exclusively by non-CD buying "downloaders"). To me, that is a major step back.

That leads me too …

The Mine. Raw. A Few Miles North. Propaganda. Geneva Films.

Those are all music video production companies that have gone out of business. Some were significant players. Some probably still owe you money.

The most successful production companies – HSI, @Radical, Black Dog/RSA – keep their doors open by producing commercials. Music videos are only an afterthought. Yes, Paul Hunter is at HSI, but he makes more commercials these days than videos. HSI is not a “music video company” any more than your local McDonalds is an “ice cream parlor” because they have a soft serve machine behind the counter. It ain’t music videos that keeps Stavros in Aston Martins.

Things are changing. Things always change. But the business of music videos – at least the big-budget "Hollywood" end of the pool that I swim in – is “changing” by going away.

That might mean more opportunity for young directors who are hungry enough to enter contests and beg favors to get $5k jobs shot. Let’s just hope your prod co stays in business long enough to pay you.

What are these dark, empty parking lot photos doing here? This is the former executive parking lot for Band Apart. You remember Band Apart – Tarantino, John Woo, Robert Rod …

This used to be the exec producer's parking spot. It is where I park now, when I go to my gym.

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