Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Herd Dynamics

Into the pen

Following the herd is not a lot of fun. The view isn’t so hot and you usually step in much crap. Then, why do so many videos do exactly that, follow the herd?

The herd is eternal
Well, making videos that are largely the same as others in the marketplace is certainly not new. Many folks, me included, remember the past as the good ole days where everything was better than it is now. By and large this is the same BS instinct that makes every generation of parents crankily call their kids’ favorite songs “not music” and “just noise.”

Hollywood released some amazing movies in the 1970s and 1971 will be remembered as the year of The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange. But '71 was also the year for money making exploitation junk like Billy Jack, The Andromeda Strain, yet another Bond sequel, a Disney animated money machine and the year’s top grosser was a family musical called Fiddler on the Roof (which would certainly star Ben Stiller if it were to be made today). My point is that we tend to forget the turds of the past and only recall the things we see as cool or good. The same thing happens in music videos.

1983 was Thriller and the aggressively “odd-ball for such a straight-ish band” “Jeopardy” by Greg Kihn. Those were good videos, but there were also tons of cornball Quiet Riot and Michael Bolton clips that year as well. Music video directors have always followed the herd, and it is not really getting worse today. We usually remember the stand out stuff and forget all the filler. But most music video directing gigs are (have been/will be) just that, filler.

It seems to me, going forward, standing out will be harder (more clips in the on-line marketplace, no big label push to give any a head start) but at the same time more important. A great example is this wild Belarussian video that simply grabbed me and forced me to sing along in a foreign language about Snickers bars.

The labels WANT to follow the herd
It is much easier to market something when you have a road map. Watch how many studios green-light films that look like “300.” As I have discussed before, labels often use the video process to make final adjustments to the image of an artist, and they rarely steer the video away from what has been successful before. A director is free to come up with any concept he/she wants – but most of the working types know that if they ignore the notes for “an upbeat club concept that follows the lyrics” they probably will be home while someone else is shooting the job.

Generic music calls for generic videos
I have written on this before as well. Creating an odd-ball concept for a straight ahead artist is just as wrong (both commercially and creatively) as coming up with a typical performance clip for Bjork. If you don’t see the truth in that statement check out an earlier post I made on craftsmanship. If that doesn’t convince you, go back to commenting on all the video blogs about how every “v1deo suxxx.”

Money (or lack thereof) pushes videos into the herd
This is the one that has changed recently. As “big budget” videos have come to mean “anything over $200k” – it is harder to create something that stands out from the pack.

Some readers may be thinking that 200 large is a good amount of money – and it is. If you are used to working on videos with $8,000 budgets you may be shocked, but 200k is not that much. For big label/big artist jobs they usually have very specific demands like a certain “level” of DP, first class air travel for an alarming number of people besides the artist themselves. Plus there are the trailers. Always the trailers.

Two hundred grand is a one day shoot, in the quickly dying world of high dollar videos. You have to get real close to 300k to get a second day. And this is a simple job without too much post or location costs or stunts or dancers or art direction. The more things cost – the less control the director/producer has over things.

The label on the 200k job likely wants some specific things – 50% performance, nothing too dark or spooky, make the artist look happy and fun, etc. There will also probably be some product placement, which is where part of the 200k comes from. The label’s “requests” often get way more specific and include which choreographer or glam squad must be hired.

This is not to posit a “poor little rich director” scenario – it is to point out that the “big” budget of 200k is 1) mostly sucked up by extraneous stuff the director doesn’t necessarily want to spend it on and 2) comes with LOTS of restrictions and expectations from the label. It is the label’s money, they get to spend it however they want, but …

This is another thing that forces the finished videos into the herd. The label expectations and demands of doing a clip that is expected to sell records have always been there, but with the drop in budgets, it is even harder to make something unique.

If you have to shoot a one day job with daylight exteriors (not much money for lights or pricey locations) and the song is about hot women and hotter cars – you can see how this ends up lopping off the ends of the Bell Curve of creativity.

The best directors find a way to get the job done and add in their own creativity. Building a style has to be weighed against the real-world concerns of getting a coke addled R&B singer to come out of his trailer before his manager beats him up and making sure you have enough left on the budget for a, um, “gift” for the commissioner.

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Another incredibly insightful post. It's fascinating (and depressing) to see how the music video world has changed in the last five years, let alone the last decade. This entire blog should be required reading for starry-eyed film students.
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