What Does the Future Look Like for Music Videos?

A small addendum to last week’s YouTube piece: a few nights ago, a buddy of mine was liveblogging the South African Music Awards, and because I will killing some time until Mad Men came on, I decided to check out some of the winners. I know that South Africa is not a major music market, but it’s not nothing, either, and these artists are big enough to be winning important awards. I fired up Spotify, and — nothing. Nothing. Nothing. No recommendations, either. So, to YouTube I went, and spent the next hour happily getting to know Beatenberg, who are great. Again, I’m fully aware that I’m one of the few people in the US who cared about this, but these artificial limits still make no sense.

Now, on to the broader question about audio-visual consumption — in the age of YouTube, Vine, and Meerket/Periscope, what is a music video, anyway? And what value does it provide?

I like Empire a lot, but one of most dated moments on the show’s last season came when Hakeem begged for three million dollars to make a music video, and was then shown enjoying all the tropes of hip-hop videos of yore — girls in a hot tub, jet skis, etc. First, there’s no way a music video would cost three million dollars today unless someone just wanted to burn cash; and two, what exactly was the point of this video? Unless it was some sort of ironic wink-nod to the old videos that was intended to go viral, it probably would have fallen flat.

Right now, the traditional music video is weirdly both as important as it has ever been, and less important than it ever was. A good viral video can make, if not a career, at least a hit and a nice whack of cash. Remember Ok Go, Baauer, or Psy? At the same time, MTV hasn’t driven the conversation in years, unless the conversation is about why you shouldn’t have a baby at sixteen or trust your internet boyfriend. If you’re a major artist, making a big video might not do much for your career; “Shake It Off” was fun and all, but people would have been talking about Taylor Swift anyway.

Making a viral video is an art, not a science, especially if you’re a smaller artist. Kanye riding a motorcycle while being straddled by Kim Kardashian drew a lot of attention and some great parodies because everything those two do draws a lot of attention. There are lots of videos that had all the right ingredients to go viral but never took off for any number of reasons. Part of it is because you compete with a much larger set of content when you make a video — when someone says “listen to this song,” it’s only competing for your attention with other songs (and maybe podcasts or audiobooks). When someone says “watch this video,” it competes for your eyes and ears with every other music video, TV clip, movie trailer, video of a kid making an insane half-court shot, etc.

You also have to take into account that a decent size chunk of your audience probably won’t even watch the music video you put on YouTube — that’s the audience that uses it as a streaming player. In which case, the plain old lyric video starts to look pretty good. Hell, you can just leave it to the fans to upload the tracks and add pictures of your album cover or their dog as visuals and call it a day. You cede control of the image and the conversation — the last thing you want is your heartfelt breakup track to rise to prominence because Buzzfeed liked the use of it as backing track to someone’s cat album — but you also pay nothing. And while backdooring your way into a viral video isn’t something you can really try to do, it might pay off if you handle it right.

Then we get to short attention span theater, AKA Vine and Instagram video. Are these even music videos? Done well, they can be — but they’re still pushing up against a lot of self-imposed limits. I’ve written before about the need to broaden the definition of a song; maybe a cool chorus or snappy sample is really all people want, in which case, a clever 15-second video makes sense. More problematic is that Vine and Instagram are both walled off by their owners, and people still don’t think of them as places to see “music videos.” This will change as people get more creative, but until there are a few big shifts, they’ll remain far behind.

And finally, we come to Meerkat and Periscope. If you’ve been to a certain type of concert in the last few months, you’ve had the “pleasure” of watching the concert through someone’s phone as they used the app to livestream it. Meerkat and Periscope exist in a weird legal grey area, the same area that has choked the life out of live streaming startup after live streaming startup. Unless you want to alienate your audience by banning phones, you’re kind of stuck with this as the new normal. On any given evening you can search for shows at mid-sized indie venues and stumble across a few streams of varying quality.

It in no way competes with the live experience. It can induce FOMO in your friends who blew off the show, and it can provide a nice thumbnail for people considering buying tickets to a future show. It can also expose bad shows and hold artists who slack through their sets accountable, which is always a good thing. The one thing you can’t do is use these apps to premiere old school music videos, as we saw with Madonna’s disastrous Meerkat experiment. Meerkat is not a place where you show a music video; a Meerkat stream is the music video.

The old format video, such as it is, remains king, but the new kids are coming up from behind. Is there a future without the three-minute, highly produced clip on the horizon? Not anytime soon — but don’t count the other formats out.

Founder and CEO at Friends With Holograms. Adjunct at NYU. Bylines Billboard, Ad Week. Speaker. Ultrarunner in my spare time.

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