The Last VJ's Guide to Making a Good Music Video
It appears -- and every record label, manager, and publicist that I ask agrees -- that I am petty much the only mainstream journalist who dedicates himself to covering music videos as a regular, in-depth beat. I try to focus on at least one a week, though it obviously depends on what kind of product I receive or find since I generally refuse to feature anything that I can't explore the full artistic meaning of.
Over the last three years I've done more than 100 articles on new music videos, and I'm eager to do more.
In the beginning, music videos were insane and seen just as novelty. MTV scrambled for content because there just weren't a whole lot being made. That's why you saw so many Residents videos in steady rotation despite being a very underground act: They were one of the few bands that were really into the medium, so into the playlist they went. In today's terms, it would be the equivalent of the Irrepressibles sharing the same level of exposure as Katy Perry.
Nowadays the idea of music television is pretty much dead. Record labels realized that they could make a substantial profit by having their bands' videos played, so there was suddenly a glut of them, all highly controlled by the business folks.
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Music videos went from a unique form of art to nothing more than commercials, and eventually the public stopped caring because there wasn't anything interesting about it. A lot of people who email me regarding my coverage are surprised they even still make music videos.
Well, they do, and thank god for YouTube and thank a much better god for Vimeo, where nudity is OK! Bands are still making music videos, either directing them themselves like Blitzen Trapper and Town Monster, or turning them over to directors who go out and make insanity out of the song just because.
I'm hungry for those gems, but I still throw out three or four videos for each one one I put to press. Why? Well...
There is almost nothing more boring than a video of a band playing the song in their rehearsal space or even onstage. Oh, sure, there are some famously great ones: Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" survives on sheer energy, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is generally regarded as one of the greatest videos ever despite the fact it's little more than Nirvana playing a high-school gym. In general, though, there's no point in just trying to capture a concert on film and call it a day.
Invest in an awesome side story to compliment like Cradle of Filth did for "Lilith Immaculate," or paint yourself a bizarre color and freakify your setting like Nurses did in "Fever Dream." Something. Whatever you do, don't just throw on your street clothes and get cute with camera angles.
That kind of thing is cool for established fans, but you're not going to win over anyone new by making a video that looks like you couldn't come up with a good idea.
Maybe you've got music and filmmaking skills like Taylor Momsen, and you know how to storyboard out an idea and get a coherent film out of it. Probably not though. You have to remember they are two separate skills, and adjust what needs to be done accordingly.
There's a lot more than just pointing a camera at something and just cutting it until you get a video out of it. Lighting for instance. Poor lighting is the hallmark of amateur music videos, which is why so many of them are shot outside. If you don't have these skills, then consider finding someone who does. Hell, some of them will even do it for free.
And if you absolutely have to do it yourself, please look up some tips on reducing shaky cam and being able to see your actors before you start rolling.
Look at your lyrics the way you'd analyze a poem in an English class. Try and figure out exactly what you're singing about, and what sort of reaction you were attempting from the song. Remember, a music video is basically a short musical film based on an original screenplay by you. What's the story you wrote?
That's not to say you need to go completely literal with your interpretation. Some of the best music videos are completely abstract representations of the message of the song. Niki & the Dove's "The Fox" comes to mind. The band certainly wasn't singing about a transformer falling through a strange landscape, but it sure does sum up the sentiments of the track nicely.
This is an issue I go 'round and 'round with Jennifer Grassman. She writes piano tunes that top the three minute pop mark, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you can come up with a video that can keep someone's attention for a longer length, too, even better!
But you have to remember that watching a video is not listening to a song. Listening can be passive, you do it while driving, cooking, making love. Watching is active, you don't generally read or play video games while watching a movie. So be ready to cut your work down to fit the ADD of the YouTube generation.
You're in good company. Tori Amos did it with "Crucify," and while the song suffers from the loss of some of the best lines the video just wasn't innovative or narrative enough to survive the full-length of the track.
Let's be clear, the music video as art is pretty much regulated to internet. Only the most mainstream and popularly appealing videos get screen time on TV now, and unlike independent film there isn't a whole industry based around showcasing the avant garde. In other words, YouTube and Vimeo is it.
So if you're stuck on the edge, be edgy, Challenge norms, break rules, go nuts, but most of all try and stand out from the crowd. Mediocrity is what killed the music video in the first place because in the end you just can't have a gallery of endless preening.
Folks want to go somewhere and do something new, they don't want to watch you play "Look at Me!" It's up to us to restore cinemaudio to its rightful place as the apex manner of music consumption. Anyone got something for me to see?
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