Tuesday, June 26, 2007

There is no God but God

HBO’s new comedy show “Flight of the Conchords” has obviously brought a lot of comparisons to Tenacious D. It is easy to understand why – two guys play guitars and sing funny songs while seemingly waaay too into it and believing they are (or are soon to be) massive rock stars. Jack Black and Kyle Gass have dreams of arena rock while the Conchordians imagine (or joke about imagining) a world where fey strummers are the coolest dudes around. Perhaps a decent metaphor of differing mindsets in the US and New Zealand, but anyway …

“Conchords” is a reasonably funny show with a very unscripted “post-comedy” feel for most of the episodes. But then comes the main event – the joke music videos. The show is not a parody of musicals where people suddenly break into song in the middle of their lives. There is plenty of that in the under-seen Top Secret where Val Kilmer cuts a rug and surfs with a 12-gauge.

What “Conchords” parodies so well is music videos. The two stars of the show don’t just break into song, they break into song with “edgy coolcamera moves and Caribbean-appropriate post effects. There is even a little Spike Jonze-ian Daft Punk action, all with charmingly low-fi budgets.

The parodies demonstrate just how welded into modern pop-culture MVs are. A few seconds into the music video sketches you can see what the Conchords guys are going for – even if they are not doing a specific famous video send-up (that is preserved for the genius of Indian Thriller). The Conchords perfectly capture the silliness of their (and our) favorite videos – turning the conventions of MTV into comedic punctuation for their slightly silly songs.

Music Videos are headed into a more and more fractured future where kids can delve deeper and deeper into their favorite sub-genres of music. The clips are sorted and arranged on the Inter-Tubes so that no music fan must be exposed to goth rock if he likes emo and saves the backpack rap fans from ever hearing or seeing R&B or drug-rap unless they choose to.

Conchords is obviously aimed at people old enough to recall MTV as a dominant and relatively omnivorous musical force and not just the pre-teen reality hoe-down it has become. As the conventions of music video are further and further Balkanized I wonder if only a few kids will be able to laugh at music video parodies because they won’t get the narrow-cast references. That and the parody videos will have the same production value as the “real” clips.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Leakers Almighty

Wednesday afternoon the kind folks at Idolator linked to a new blog (so new it really had no posts) that is all about leaking the names of people who leak tracks. I’m pretty sure that this guy posting the names of bloggers who post unauthorized tracks on another blog is not gonna “solve” the music piracy situation – but it is a funny situation.

Many commenters on Idolator and the dude’s blog (which as of today had still outed no one) are freaking out claiming that any such name-leaks are violations of this right or that amendment. Funny how people are all concerned with rights and fair-ness when theirs are at issue and far less so when the “rights” belong to a band who’s music they wanna own. I don’t want to go into all this again but it got me thinking about …

A few years back there was a huge album coming out and the label only sent out CDs with watermarks on them. That is standard now, but this techniques was a bit new then. These were NOT the CDs that were-uncopy-able that only play in old school boom-boxes but rather each disc had the name of the director and prod co that it was given to encoded into the 1s and 0s of the digital file.

I heard the song but never got a disc. The director in question did not get the job but in a few weeks word came down that “his” copy of the song had ended up on the internet. The track had been panned by amateur and pro critics all over and the label was feeling stung so they launched a full-fledged investigation.

A week or so after that I am in the office of the same prod co and there is a Pinkerton agent there. Yes, the strike breaking, Lincoln protecting Pinkertons that even scare Al Swearengen on Deadwood. Unfortunately, the music piracy Pinkerton was not wearing a six gun or swinging an ax-handle. He was just an ex-cop looking guy with a clipboard. He asked a lot of people in the office some questions and then left.

Nothing really became of it, but this has to be the ultimate “analog solution to a digital problem.” I guess the Texas Rangers or Musketeers were not available.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

The Cone of Silence

This is the first in a series of anonymous email interviews with music video industry insiders. Up first is a major player at a very major music video production company.

What kind of things does an executive producer do on a daily basis?
I’m not sure how it works at other, bigger companies, but at my company the executive producers are involved in every aspect of the music video process. My impression of EP’s at other companies is based on my previous life on the other side of the equation and it seems that they are less involved, less hands on and wear fewer hats than me and my co-workers.

So with that said, my duties are as follows:

One – Sales. Ultimately I’m a salesman. I could be selling cars, but instead I am selling directors. Selling starts like Glengarry Glen Ross – with cold calling. This is my least favorite part of the job. I feel like a telemarketer, especially when clients don’t take my calls and don’t reply to my emails.

Luckily, we represent directors who are in demand, so to a certain extent the work comes to us. A client will send us a track and it becomes my job to ask the client a bunch of questions – are they really interested in our director directors they have solicited? Who else is writing? When does it shoot? What is the budget? Will they spend more for our A-list director, and can we have our B-list director write since the budget is too low for our A-list director and/or our A-list director isn’t available. Once I get all that information, we are on to step two…

Two – Interfacing with the director. This is still sales because all directors are picky and I’ve got to sell them on why writing on a no-budget, mediocre rock track with a nightmare client is a good idea. Or it’s the pep talk with a junior director about why they should write on the new Gnarls Barkley track even though they have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the job.

With our younger directors, we’re very hands on with their treatment writing. Our A-list directors have earned the right to have us just spell check their work and forward it on to the clients. With our babies it is much more involved. This is the part of the job I like the most. It is occasionally the most pure moment in the process of making a video. It’s about ideas – it’s about finding references, refining the pitch and making the writing clear and concise. It is also about protecting directors from themselves and their tendency to over-promise specific things in their treatments. Why write “massive sea of fans” or massive club scene” when you only have $50k?

Three – Budget. Once the treatment is in and the label or artist says that they like it, the next step (unless there is a re-write) is budgeting. We prefer to have producers work on budgets so that there is some accountability (even though we end up hacking away at most bids anyway). We like to pretend we’re not handing the producer a pile of shit.

Four – Overseeing production. Besides spending time on set, we try to stay involved in the day-to-day production. At the very least, we’re in the loop on most decisions that are being made on a job. At the most, we are stepping in to help produce jobs because the producer is semi-retarded and has let things get completely out of hand.

All this stuff is happening simultaneously so when we’re busy, we end up doing a bad job at all of it.

Talk a bit about the way MV world has changed in the last few years.
The business has just gotten harder and harder. Budget reduction is only one part of it. Labels are in turmoil, so there is a level of stupidity and chaos that is mind-boggling. People are afraid to make decisions, afraid to do anything new and creative. Everything ends up being really last minute, and the people we are dealing with as commissioners have less and less power. As far as I am concerned there is only one really good commissioner left in the business. She’s good because she has real power, she can make real decisions and she’s able to manage people’s expectations because she understands production.

Do you think that some of the "blame" for the current state of the MV industry belongs to MV production companies for their behavior during the "glory days"?
No. When the entire industry is badly behaved, you can’t blame one part of it. The only thing I would say is that production companies are their own worst enemies. Unlike the commercial world (although, this seems to be changing as well), MV production companies have never banded together in a positive way to make a stand with their client base. It’s no coincidence that the commercial standard is to have three directors compete for any given job while in videos it’s not uncommon three of our directors write on a given track. [That is just at one company,] so do the math, it’s possible that 10-20 directors are writing for certain tracks. That is insane and foolish.

What is the craziest thing you have ever seen (heard about ?) a director do on the set?
I wasn’t around for the crazy years. Coke and booze on set is old school. I don’t see anything wrong with calling out Wayne Isham since he stood up at this year’s MVPA Awards and did a shot [of liquor] as the finale of hiss speech. He’s famous for his hard partying. It’s why certain bands still want to work with him.

The worst I have personally dealt with is yelling. “So and So is the stupidest fucking idiot I’ve ever met!” Most of our directors are really nice and relatively normal.

What is the one thing that labels do (pay late, string directors along, screw with edits, etc.) that annoys you the most?
Making everything last minute. Especially with the budgets we’re now dealing with, working with really last minute situations is a nightmare. With the down-grade in quality of commissioners, there has been a huge drop in the condition in which jobs are done. Because the commissioners have no power, they’re afraid to tell their bosses, who really know nothing, that they need to push the dates of their shoot if they want a good video.

What is the most over budget one of your jobs has ever been? The most under?
$50k over is the worst. I have heard stories from the old days of being $200k under budget, that just isn’t possible any more.

Do you think about the long-term of a director's career much, or does that take care of itself if you get them doing good work on a day-to-day basis?
Our company’s philosophy (that I don’t really agree with all the time) is that work begets work and that directors shouldn’t be picky. We want directors who want to work, we’re not interested in developing “artists”.

What is the most extravagant "gift" you (or your company) ever got for an artist/manager/exec?
Huge amounts of weed. $15k to a manager who approached us and guaranteed a single bid for his huge artist. That’s only happened once or twice. I’ve heard stories about companies that have a more serious approach to the kick-back game. That’s never really been our thing, but good clients do get nice meals and nice Christmas presents.

Ever had a gun pointed at you (music video related only)?
I was in Miami recently and walked past the artist’s car, when I peered inside in the open door and saw a hot groupie polishing a Glock.

What director do you wish you had gotten to work with? What director are you glad you have avoided?
I know it is a cliché but I would have liked to work with Michel Gondry. I’ve heard he’s a nightmare but I’d like to have seen how his mind works. I have not been able to avoid the worst.

That was great! After the Glock polishing, my favorite part was the coining of the term “a more serious approach to the kick-back game.”

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Like, Wow

Just a quick one before the weekend.

When the Esquire article came out in January of 2001 it created a pretty big stir in the music video world. A very high-profile director of the poppiest of kiddie pop videos was revealed as a former pornographer. And not just some soft-core Cinemax stuff, this guy did the hardest, weirdest dirty movies that anyone had seen. Based on that description, can you guess which one of the people at left is the director I am talking about?

The man is Gregory Dark, possessor of perhaps the most varied imdb listing in history. Plus, check out all the pseudonyms!

"There's a whole generation of kids who learned about sex from my f^%&ed-up movies," Gregory Dark says. "A lot of gangster rappers and guys in heavy-metal bands still come up to me and say, 'Gregory Dark, I had my first sexual experience watching New Wave Hookers!' " - Esquire

The Esquire piece is about the troubled shoot for a video starring Leslie Carter and it made me think a few things:

Anyway, read the article and watch the pop-a-licious video.

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Monday, June 11, 2007


In casino parlance, a Whale is the kind of big time gambler that gets all the comps and upgrades – because despite the effort and expense, the high-rolling whale ends up pumping major cash into the house’s pockets. In the world of music videos, the whale is just as profitable and the opposite of the mirage – but the whale is rare and getting rarer.

As a side note, did anyone else who saw "Ocean’s 13" think that Pacino’s tremendously ugly casino skyscraper looks like the strange twisting obelisk from the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Presence” album? Probably just a flashback from Journey being the last sound ever heard on the Sopranos. Anyway …

Whales are the kind of jobs that can really make the year for a prod co. Whales are ultra-high profit jobs because the paying party is never a regular record label. The entity cutting the checks could be – a movie studio, a video game or dot.com firm, a plutocratic family member, or even a coffee company named after a character in a whaling book. (Hmm.)

What all the whales have in common is that they are NOT used to commissioning videos. They don’t know the territory and they are easy pickings for a smart music video production company looking to, um, maximize profits. In this situation the prod co and director can come up with a grand concept (which the Whale will love since Whales are always looking to make a splash) and the music video pros have the advantage in that the people commissioning the job have no freaking idea what stuff is supposed to cost.

Labels are usually pretty good at knowing how much it costs to make a video and they have all kinds of mechanisms in place to monitor the price of the videos they are commissioning because they do it all the time. A Whale doesn’t know that a camera package should rent for less that $50k per day – how would they? The Whale has been off in their own world, very busy making scads of money in a field they understand completely. But now they are up the creek.

Whales are marked by having an excess of cash, a lack of experience and (this is key) a burning need to make a very special video for this particular project. Like Adam Goldberg’s (un-credited?) trust-fund baby-turned-movie-producer character on Entourage – the Whale has money burning a hole in their pocket and they want to spend it on something. Anything.

Some Whales are making a video to promote a movie and they are going all out. What is an extra $300k on a film that costs over $160million with prints and advertising? I have even heard of clips that were paid for by the ultra-wealthy (cough, cough, robber baron) parent of the artist. Daddy must love his baby daughter a whole bunch to hire Joseph Kahn, no?

Now that Starbucks has entered the world of making music videos – they are the new money getting jacked by the old hands. The talk is that Gondry spent US$1.5mil on the latest Paul McCartney clip – and that is just nuts. Starbucks Music got boned by He Whose Name is Always Spoken – and all the other directors and prod cos are sad that they didn’t get THEIR chance at the defenseless checkbook bloated by all those no-whip fraps.

That is what the whale does, they come to Vegas an puke up all their cash to the house. Ain’t life grand? As long as you’re not the whale.

Paul’s boy had an expression – something about karma.

That is probably why there are way more Mirages that Whales these days.

Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you're gonna be dead

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007


When I was younger, I would drive my parent’s car past Taco Bell to get to Del Taco (or even better, the locals only Benny’s Tacos). Why did the probably intoxicated me choose the Del over the Bell? Because their cheap-ass bean and cheese burrito was larger so I got more calories for the same $1.49. Yum. The Benny’s $1.49 burrito even had something meat-like in it. Ultra-Yum!

As a more grown up and less likely to be intoxicated person I pay three times that price for some tiny organic thing that is way less filling. As a bonus, my now “mature” body turns that health food into fat while the younger, bean-and-rat eating 30f had 6% body fat despite his “burrito and Mickey’s wide mouth only” diet. So what does this have to do with - -

Music videos? Well back then my dining goal was big. I wanted more food. I cared only about big. To a certain extent, that was what videos of the day were on about as well.

Grand. Super Star. Epic. Larger than life. Iconic.

At the very beginning, music videos started kind of small but the labels quickly realized that they could make artists look big with the right music videos. By spending a few thousand dollars they could create a band with epic scope – right out of the box. If you had an established star like Michael Jackson or Guns N Roses you could make (for a mere million or two) a video so big, it was visible from space.

For years, “big” was the thing you aimed for with music videos. There were always exceptions like grunge and early hip-hop clips – but bigger was considered better most of the time.

The new, more mature video industry doesn’t really do that kind of big any more. By and large, music videos have shrunk up their scope – not even trying for grand any more.

Obviously a big part of the reason for that is the lower budgets in 2007. That is a huge factor to the shrinking ambition in music videos. You know I go on about this, but there is actually a new reason for smaller, tidier videos …

The market has changed. The smaller and smaller niches that bands fit into mean that a new act is no longer really trying to reach every viewer in the world. No artist is supposed to appeal to everyone so they don’t really try. The goal is a narrow slice of YouToogle (where people are probably already looking for a clip from an artist they like) rather than a broad shotgun blast onto MTV hoping to hit folks who have never heard of you before.

There are some obvious exceptions (Timberlake and urban acts come to mind) but for most artists, the label has a target demo and they try to hit those record buyers, er, downloaders with a video that they will like. Think about bands like Arcade Fire or even an R&B diva like Keyshia Cole – they make a video that stays on message, rather than shoots the moon. More money might make a better video, but no one is even aiming for grand anymore, so why spend the big cash.

Motley Crue did clips like “Girls, Girls, Girls” that simply seemed big. Budgets have clearly cut down on the big-ness, but is anyone even aiming for that kind of huevos grande scope today? Maybe Avenged Sevenfold? (And BTW - compare the opening sounds of those last two links.) Artists probably shouldn’t be attempting to be overly big – trying too hard is a much worse sin that being “small” in 2007. The way to sell a band/artist today is about making thband/artist seem cool - which is as it has always been - but it seems to me that "big" is no longer a major component of cool (with noted exceptions like My Chemical Uniform and their theatrical friends).

Wayne Isham directed that Crue video and tons of other mega-clips that just oozed with “big.” Wayne’s videos are still big, but by and large the pictures got smaller. Seriously, watch his 2007 reel and see how Wayne still does (and most directors used to) swing for the fences.

In the urban world, big still sells so Hype continues to, umm, work. Even with a brand new (at least to him) smaller budget-scape Hype can still do wonders when he cares enough to try - like with Kanye, who definitely looks like a huge star in this clip in the desert.

This "don't aim for the moon" mindset seems like a shift in the marketplace and I’m not sure we are going back. That is not a bad thing at all – just a new-ish direction. Hell, I could be wrong, but I bet you a bean and cheese burrito that small budgets and narrow demographic-izing keeps most future clips laser focused. Vaya con dios, Senor Big.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Fan-made Shark Jumping

I know I touched on this before, but does anyone still think that fan made music videos are going to be the next wave?

Here are some suggestions from the site for the newest fan-mercial contest from Heinz Ketchup.
• Try describing your idea in one sentence—that will keep your commercial simple and single-minded.

• Turn on the TV if the ideas aren't flowing and actually watch the commercials. What did you like? What made you feel something? What was awful—or, worse, boring. At the very least, you’ll be convinced that you can do this (emphasis Heinz's).

More posts coming soon. Until then, try not to let this girl steal your job.

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