A few years ago, a co-worker asked if I ever watch music videos anymore -- which inadvertently tapped into something I had been pondering for a while. As someone whose babysitter was watching late 1980s-early 1990s MTV, you'd think the sentimental attachment to music videos would have kept me interested and engaged for life. But there was definitely a time when that wasn't the case.
It wasn't long ago that the music video looked as though it might slip into the void of outmoded art forms. In 2000, MTV broadcast music videos eight hours a day; by 2008, they were down to just three. Starting in 2002, ratings for MTV's late-90s flagship music video program “Total Request Live” declined dramatically until the once-influential program finally closed shop for good in 2008. YouTube launched in 2005, and although the site grew astronomically in only a matter of months, it took a while to truly unlock the site's potential as a conduit for music videos. We were losing interest in watching music videos on TV, and a financially crippled industry meant fewer multimillion-dollar video budgets. The internet’s potential hadn't quite fully blossomed, and the technology and capabilities to produce and promote your own videos on a shoestring budget were only recently starting to fall into place.
You can't keep a good medium down, though. We like to have all of five senses engaged; we play music while we do anything and everything. Half the pleasure of eating potato chips is hearing a satisfying crunch. And music is an integral part of visual art like movies and TV shows -- there's no way the music video could disappear for good. The art form (and its method of delivery) merely needed to be updated for a generation of listeners who want to participate in the conversation, not just watch and listen in silence.
The music video's emerging renaissance is tangled in ad money, memes, and clever ways of figuring out how capture someone’s attention, eyes and ears for like three damn minutes. It’s hard. But there are several companies and artists leading music videos down a profitable path, having taken to heart the need to adapt music videos to the internet, provide an option to customize the experience, and foster the intimacy that draws people toward music in the first place.
There are basically two ways to go about the business of making music videos successful: work with artists to produce original content, or get your hands into every conceivable pie.
MTV and VEVO vie for dominance when it comes to music videos on the web. VEVO launched in 2010 and works a bit like Hulu. ComScore statistics deem it the leading music video platform on the web -- not because they're necessarily making great content, they've just partnered with enough outlets to monopolize the viewing market. If you’re watching a music video on Facebook, Google TV, Boxee, Fuse.tv, AOL, or Last.fm, it’s powered by VEVO. It's like visual Spotify: an all-encompassing database of art that visitors can filter through and play to their tastes.
It's an especially savvy way to capitalize on a few things: a) with each passing minute, bandwidth is cheaper and easier to come by, b) as a huge information database in and of itself, the internet affords people the capability to program their own entertainment -- which we enjoy and (now) expect.
MTV Hive represents another great effort at adapting a business to fit modern music consumption. The site’s main navigation bar tells the whole story: Read, Watch, Listen. There are written features, streaming mp3s, an archive of music videos, and original programming. “[MTV] already had stronghold in the space [but] we saw an opportunity to create a niche destination for fans whose musical tastes span genres and decades,” Hive’s Managing Editor Jessica Robertson told Prefix.
Even a cursory flip through the site’s original programming confirms the Hive’s genre/decade spanning tendencies -- and highlights the site’s connection to music fans. There’s beloved VJ of yesteryear Matt Pinfield, posing questions to fans and artists on “120 Seconds”. Equally-entertaining “Jury Doody” captures spur-of-the-moment reactions on songs and music videos from fans on the street.
MTV has been instrumental in promoting artists and nurturing their careers -- but it’s always been done with an eye towards pleasing and appeasing music fans. And Hive’s original programming translates that goal to the web.
Pitchfork TV’s format is somewhat similar to MTV Hive -- but their original programming is geared more towards capturing and conveying artist reactions. Like MTV Hive, the site is part music video archive, part original video content, which includes series like “Daytripping” and the pithy Q&A segment “Over/Under”. Fans don’t really enter the picture; Pitchfork TV’s programs show off the artist, making it a natural extension of the site’s editorial wing (thoughtful criticism, no reader comments, please).
Both sites present music videos in ways that best reflect their respective brands. They’re succeeding because they’ve adapted the art form to fit their voice.
The programs and capabilities associated with Web 2.0 have trained us to interact with our media, be active participants, contribute our own voice to the conversation. MTV was quick to anticipate this trend. In the late 90s, the network unveiled Yak Live, programming that integrated live internet chat with music video viewership; you could see a stream of comments scrolling across the bottom of the screen. MTV actively sought and incorporated users' opinions as far back as late 1990s -- “TRL” let viewers vote for their favorite videos online and via text message.
Of late, MTV has taken steps to bridge the gap between “internet” and “reality” in their legacy programming. At the 2006 VMAs, OK Go recreated their DIY sensation "Here It Goes Again" onstage. In 2011, there were appearances by Rebecca Black and Kreayshawn, two "artists" whose lifeblood is YouTube clicks. At times, the fan base decides the outcome of VMAs. But these efforts can only go so far.
The internet is the ultimate arbiter of self-curation: a vast expanse of multimedia content, there for you to navigate and select what you want to see. In many ways, it's leveled the playing field -- and in some ways, it hasn't. It affords anyone with a camera and an internet connection the ability to create and share a music video. But it's a playing field littered with competitors that's imposed some regulations on content. Now that it's completely up to consumers what videos they watch (as opposed to sitting in front of the TV and watching across-the-board broadcasted content), it takes a little extra effort to capture viewers' attention.
This shift to self-curation seems to have forced content to scuttling to either end of the bell curve. It's either a hundreds of thousands of dollars affair by a megalith artist custom built for thousands of YouTube clicks -- or something designed to imitate the experience of an intimate live performance or a homemade video. The most popular YouTube video to date is Justin Bieber's "Baby" -- the first ever YouTube video to be viewed a half billion times -- but that's not to say that low-budget videos can't still be a viable way to the top. OK Go operated along the indie pop fringe until their synchronized treadmill routine for "Here It Goes Again" went viral. Tyler, the Creator's stark, apprehensive video for "Yonkers" took the 2011 VMA for Best New Artist.
Although the days of being able to pull a Madonna and build an empire based on videos has mostly disappeared (barring shit-stirrers like Kanye West's "Monster," huge budget videos these days tend to not be the ones pushing the envelope), it's still possible to forge a path based on grassroots efforts and smart content. Last year, YouTube launched a program called Musicians Wanted where artists who own the global rights to their videos could apply to participate in an ad revenue-sharing program with YouTube. At its inception, it was only open to artists signed to labels -- but now, it's targeted specifically toward emerging artists, giving them a page and a (potential) revenue stream for their videos. The market's pretty saturated with similar services, but it helps to have an internet juggernaut making things easier for aspiring artists.
But what's more interesting are the smaller outlets with an active stake in working with artists to bring life to their work. Yours Truly is one of the outlets capitalizing on this potential, creating partnerships with bands and producing content together, rather than serving as a curation portal or a free-for-all self-promotion platform.
Yours Truly is something akin to the platonic ideal of DIY music videos. Artists approach the company (and vice versa), and the two work together under YT's creative and artistic direction to make intimate videos. It's something altogether different -- more like a documentary approach. They strip away the veneer and flash of big-budget productions, but they don't rely on go-viral gimmicks or shock tactics either (which are two major crutches for low-budget affairs). Creator Will Abramson is achieving what music videos are supposed to achieve: creating intimate portraits of the band, promoting new connections with the music and with the artist.
I spoke to Abramson about Yours Truly's method of differentiating themselves, and as he sees it, the crux is: "Our success so far is based on our ability to take our fanhood to the next level and actually make something with an artist, as opposed to talk[ing] about something an artist made. It's this partnership that makes us unique."
A savvy viewer can sense when someone's jockeying for clicks; sincerity's difficult to fake, even online. YT's approaching their craft by taking an approach the average fan would take: putting the band in a setting that reflects their personality and their art, and letting them play. It's so charmingly antiquated that it's somehow difficult to believe that it works on the web. And to take the old-fashioned approach one step further, YT has started a record label as the latest venture affiliated with the brand.
Says Abramson, "Starting a label came from our deep love of physical objects, like all the handwritten letters you see on the site. Our videos, and the song we write about exist in space, on the internet, so we wanted to create something real that you could hold in your hand." And what's a music video but a more concrete expression attached to something that exclusively exists in the ether?
It's important to note that intimacy is a two-way street in terms of how effective a music video will be. Outlets like Yours Truly focus on intimate portraits of the band, tactics like the HTML5 videos for OK Go's "All Is Not Lost" and Arcade Fire's "We Used To Wait" create intimacy for the viewer. Although the way the windows pop up separately and overlap often comes off a little clunky, its tactics were inspired: incorporating Google Maps satellite images, integrating your own thoughts and messages into the video.
These HTML5 creations completely transform the art form, highlighting the most amazing aspects of a new technology. Each viewer has a personal experience with these videos, since they’re tailored to a message of his/her own devising. It's adaptive, customized to the viewer, and an intimate experience…and yet it hasn't been completely embraced and adopted as the “new way to do music videos.” Whether that's to be blamed on the internet's mayfly attention span is up for debate. But I think it's telling that something could seem so revolutionary and still not be the tipping point for a whole new direction for the music video.
MTV Hive’s Jessica Robertson told Prefix, “We want to use music as context [for] all kinds of storytelling, but also bring context to music.” Adding context to music is the essence of the music video -- it’s a simple mission, but also one that can be interpreted in infinite ways. You alone know the context that will make the music mean the most to you -- so manipulate the zillion outlets competing for your attention and curate your own audiovisual experience.