Some things change, and some things stay the same. Despite MTV, Video Hits and other forms of music video broadcasters losing cultural significance, the videos themselves are still an incredibly big deal. After all, you can’t have a huge single without a clip to match. Despite this, music videos don’t appear to be the earth-shattering events that they may have been in the past. Scream by Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson cost the equivalent of $10.5 million USD today, a figure which is still 10x the most expensive video released this year – Drake’s God’s Plan, which clocked in at just under a million dollars (and, if you haven’t seen it, involves Drake giving away a LOT of money – see below). Given the advents of streaming and DIY attitudes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that music videos have lost some of their sheen.
Unfortunately, you’d be wildly mistaken.
93/100 of the most watched YouTube videos of all time are music videos, with 19 of the top 20 videos of all time on YouTube being music videos. Simon Cahn, film and music video director, is widely quoted as saying, “even if everything is now digital, who doesn’t want to have more than just the track … I would say the track is the burger and the music video is the full meal deal with fries and Coke”. Music videos often don’t just complement the song, but build on it – which, for fans, can be the difference between simply enjoying the song and truly understanding it.
Take this year’s standout music video, This Is America. On its own, the song is enjoyable and poignant, if not a certified smash-hit. But, when Childish Gambino paired it with a music video that explored brutality in America in such a compelling and confronting way, it became not just a song, but a social commentary set to remain in people’s minds for years to come.
But what makes music videos able to stand the test of time?
Largely, you could argue that the very purpose of a music video has been replaced by social media. Music videos were a way to not only listen to the artists you enjoyed, but replicate their look, style, and in many cases, dance moves. Britney Spears built her career off music videos like ...Baby One More Time, Oops… I Did It Again and more, and inspired a generation. Now, social media allows us to gain greater access to artists than ever before, and largely circumvents this need to replicate the music videos our favourite artists were releasing.
That’s not to say that music videos aren’t still creating cultural phenomena. Everyone has seen one of the countless Harlem Shake videos at least once, or at least an offshoot of it. Who could forget Pharrell’s hat, the Dougie, or most importantly – Gangnam Style? Whilst music videos may not be getting as regular airtime as they would in the '80s and '90s, they’re still continuing to entrench themselves in the collective consciousness So why do music videos continue to be such a cultural cornerstone, especially for artists that are looking to make a name for themselves?
One explanation that explains why they’ve remained so prevalent is attention span. While movies, albums and other forms of longform media can be dragging, it’s easy to stay connected to a music video. According to the National Centre For Biotechnology Information, the average human attention span has fallen to just a measly eight seconds, from 12 seconds in 2000, dropping a third in under two decades. With most music videos falling between three and four minutes, it’s a lot easier to watch your favourite band’s latest music video, rather than your favourite actor’s latest movie, not to mention a lot less time consuming.
Music videos, in some instances, can still be the best way to market yourselves. This is especially the case in hip hop, with Brockhampton a prime example. Their video style, while not always high art, nevertheless allow fans to understand the core concept of the band. The DIY ethos that controls almost every aspect of the band, even with their recent RCA deal, comes through arguably most strongly in their music videos. Building a brand based off music videos isn’t confined to the past, but indeed, with more artists taking the independent route, signs of what the future holds.
It’s not just artists that are creating music videos that take the world by storm. A good music video director can make an artist, with a compelling video enough to take that artist to the masses. Cole Bennett might just be the king of the underground hip hop scene at the moment, at least if you’re looking for a significant payday. Having worked with artists like Lil Skies, Smokepurpp, Famous Dex, Lil Xan and more, Cole is an example of a director working through the medium of music video.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, he says he wants a return to the days of the high-end music video: “I wanna bring back early 2000s music videos where everything is really thought out and everything is really well directed, and is very high budget, ’cause I feel like things were so much different then, and eventually I’d like to get to that point. “ XXL described him as “the Spielberg of SoundCloud rap” and with almost 6.5 million subscribers, and nearly two billion views on his YouTube channel, they might just be right. After all, a feature on Cole's ‘Lyrical Lemonade' is a stamp of approval from Cole himself, and in a genre where there’s a lot of competition to get heard, this is worth its weight in gold.
However, these examples of success aren’t just confined to hip hop. Popstars, both mainstream and cult favourites, use music videos to transition between eras. Take Charli XCX. When contrasting the videos for Break The Rules and 1999, the former tells of a musician that’s still finding their feet, the latter – a futuristic star sent from another era (which era is less simple to determine). Music videos allow musicians, in any genre, to tell a story not only about their music, but themselves – one of not only who they are, but who they are set to be.
This is highlighted by the fact that Billboard, as well as popular opinion, crowned Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as the best music video of this century. Is it the most extravagant video of this century? Maybe, but almost undoubtedly not. That honour goes to Gwen Stefani’s Make Me Like You. Is it the most involved, or the most complex? No. But what it did, arguably better than any music video before or since, was announce an artist to the world, and put her on the map. It contains such a singular, focused vision for her art, that it captured exactly what musicians all around the world had been chasing in their own music videos: the ability to control the narrative around their music, and present them as a complete artist, not just a musician.
So where to for the music video? Given the rise of technology, different artists are experimenting with the confines of a music video, and just what you can do with them. Bjork’s video for Stonemilker was filmed for Virtual Reality, which even ten years ago would have been unheard of. Speaking to Noisey, Bjork described the viewing experience as incredibly intimate. “When you can have someone that close to you playing a song to only you. It can be very touching; almost more touching than going to a gig in a way."
Similarly, French DJ and producer Klingande premiered the video for his song Somewhere New live on Facebook. With close to 200,000 views to date, as well as a few thousand viewers live, the video was shot live in one take. However, don’t be fooled – according to producer Marcus Lindgren, the crew planned “for months to get the right lighting, dancing, the right queues, projection, balloons, etc.” There’s plenty of scope to reinvent the music video (or just make it your own), you just have to find the right people to work with.
If you’re filming a music video in the near future, then it’s crucial to get it right. If you nail it, then you might just be the next big thing. But one thing's for certain, YouTube and music videos are not going away any time soon.