Sound & Vision

We talk to Caroline Burton-Fairbrother, former Director of Video at Virgin, about big budgets, bedroom directors and breaking new artists

The 1990s was widely recognised as the ‘golden age’ of British music video – a time when the medium played a significant role in launching new artists, when labels could largely control the exhibition of work on TV to drive sales domestically, and the industry was taking chances creatively and economically.

Gondry et al

As director of video for Virgin from 1989-2009, Carole Burton-Fairbrother commissioned some of today’s best-known directors. For Chemical Brothers alone, she brought in Michel Gondry for Let Forever Be, in which surreal imagery, camera trickery and sharp choreography illustrate a girl’s nightmare, and Dom&Nic on more narrative-based videos including the out-of-body rave of Setting Sun, Hey Boy Hey Girl’s skeleton disco, and the hallucinatory Believe with factory machines that come to life.

Record labels such as Virgin were seeing the potential of music videos as more than just a promotional tool, allowing for investment in a greater diversity of production methods, unconventional performative and narrative styles, experimental conceptual visuals, and the view that music videos could be stand-alone pieces of original artwork.

“They weren’t just more MTV fodder, some of them were quite left-field. I don’t know that many commissioners who got the same creative freedom that I did at the time, working at Virgin. It meant I was able to take risks – like with the Massive Attack Teardrop video,” says Burton-Fairbrother. “The style and content suited the song, it was mesmerising, but it was quite a brave thing to do because it was such an unusual idea.”

Directed by Walter Stern, Teardrop features an animatronic foetus singing in the womb. It’s one of Massive Attack’s most indelible videos, and arguably the track’s enduring popularity owes a lot to it.

While the label worked with avant garde directors, much of Virgin’s success in the music video arena was down to their savvy mainstream choices. They may have been producing high quality work with the music at the centre, but it was still about breaking an act, creating a product and giving it a promotional launchpad.

“I did every Spice Girls video,” Burton-Fairbrother says. “It was a wild few years, because they went from extreme to extreme – from not being known at all to being so well-known in such a short space of time. But everybody learned together. Everybody went through that journey with them.”

Girl power

A single-shot eccentric boho party in Wannabe, PVC clad ninjas dancing in the desert in Say You’ll Be There – these are prime examples of the way that the aesthetics of music video were being used at the time in the creation and reinvention of a band’s identity. However, they also illuminate the way record labels were learning to utilise video to visually package concepts like ‘girl power’, with women doing what they want and sticking by their friends. On the one hand it’s problematic to base a ‘revolutionary’ social ideology in consumerism, on the other hand it became something of a mantra for many young women of a certain generation. In this golden age, videos were the ideal tool for selling bands both as product and as endorsers of cultural ideals.

Burton-Fairbrother saw the rise and fall of the industry to a certain extent. So what about when the money ran out? “When budgets really dropped it meant there was a lot you couldn’t do, but they dropped because they were getting out of hand – it was so much money for effectively a three-and-a-half- minute film. It allowed a new breed of directors – the bedroom director – to come in and play. So it changed the industry and that was a good thing.”

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