Encyclopedia Pictura’s stunning video for Björk track Wanderlust is one of the contenders at the UK Music Video Awards next week
Next week the first UK Music Video Awards will be held in London’s West End, writes David Knight, a new awards night to honour the very best work in music videos, celebrating the creativity and craft in a sector of filmmaking which has, over the past 30 years, been responsible for nurturing a fantastic array of talent. But the MVAs will not just be a celebration of creativity and technical ingenuity. Some will see it as a celebration of survival…
Sasha Nixon, head of music video at Partizan, who represent several leading video directors, explains it this way: “I think the state of the business has never been worse. What labels expect for what they pay is huge. A director no longer has any freedom – even with low budgets.” It is by no means an isolated viewpoint.
“What’s really sad about music videos at the moment is that it’s become ‘amateur’ in that directors are expected to work for free,” says Liz Kessler, head of music video at Academy Films, home to music video directing stars Jonathan Glazer and Walter Stern.
“With a few honourable exceptions, every video director has to have another job to have a decent lifestyle,” she continues. “And yet more than ever people want a visual to go with the music. Bands need visuals to express themselves, to lift the song, to feed the internet. It’s a twisted time.”
Plaster Casts of Everything, directed by Patrick Daughters
It’s twisted alright. On the one hand music videos serve a function which is arguably even more important than ever, and as a medium is arguably even more popular (and pervasive) than ever. Essentially YouTube has changed everything – and has probably impacted more on the music video than music itself.
On the other hand, its survival as a functioning creative industry is being threatened by the long downward slide in budgets. There are still lots of videos being produced in the UK and elsewhere – but many on tiny budgets. From a creative point of view it is a lot harder to make something really good without uttering the familiar, dread phrases ‘labour of love’ or ‘pulling in loads of favours’.
Everyone knows why. Music video production is dependent on an industry that is seeing its traditional source of income decline every year at an alarming rate, and desperately looking to develop new income streams to replace lost sales.
Tim Nash, head of videos at Atlantic Records in London says: “They’re still massively important. After the record itself it’s the most important thing. My MD is hot for them. And when I tell him that the video industry is almost unsustainable at the moment, he listens. But at the same time he’s running a business. If Universal is only spending 40k on a Kaiser Chiefs video, why would we spend more on one for The Days?”
Kaiser Chiefs, Love’s Not A Competition, directed by Jim Canty
“It’s not 30k for a new band any more – it might be 5k,” confirms Mike O’Keefe, head of video at UK major Sony BMG. “Gone are the days of 150k budgets. Those jobs are now 80k – but we expect the same production values as before, and that’s obviously difficult.”
Sasha Nixon argues that budgets are only part of the problem. “Everyone on the music side is nervous as hell,” she says. “There’s a lot of indecision. Pitches seem to take weeks not days. Rewrites, single changes, dissention between band management and label … this is the norm now – and frankly the A&R in the last year has been crap.”
“Videos are a bit unadventurous right now,” O’Keefe admits, noting that the indie guitar bands are probably now more conservative than pop acts. “Sure, in the 90s we got away with anything. But some of the best stuff is low budget, and you can still cross into the mainstream.” He cites The Ting Tings’ Shut Up And Let Me Go video by fine artists-turned-directors Alex & Liane, recently nominated for best video at the MTV Video Music Awards.
The Ting Tings, Shut Up And Let Me Go, directed by Alex & Liane
“The kids coming out of film school and art college are used to having a video camera and Final Cut Pro on their Macbook,” adds O’Keefe, indicating that technical innovation itself has softened the blow of lower budgets for music video producers, many of whom were quick to see the benefits of shooting on HD, and are now proving to be early adopters of the non-tape red camera.
O’Keefe also argues that lower budgets have given new directors an earlier opportunity to progress. “Companies like Pulse Films, who have lots of baby directors, have come on quickly and are doing quite well because of low overheads.”
Pulse has indeed bucked the trend by starting up in this difficult environment, and there are others – including Warp Films, the film company who have just opened a music video division, representing a roster including Richard Ayoade, and movie director Shane Meadows, plus young directors like Dan Brereton, Simon Green and Vincent Moon.
Arctic Monkeys, Fluorescent Adolescent, directed by Richard Ayoade
New skills needed
Mary Calderwood, md of Flynn Productions, with a decade-plus track record of nurturing music video directors, says a new skillset for directors is required. “It’s completely different now. We can’t develop directors with photographic skills. You have to develop directors with computer skills.” Calderwood’s current ‘baby’ directing team Youth Club actually work full time at Flynn in other jobs. One is the house editor, a job that did not exist at the company until the slide of budgets meant in-house post production, rather than using Soho post facilities, became an attractive option. “After ten to 15 videos they’ve just made their first one on film and it’s like starting again.”
And clearly the belief in music videos as a means of expression and chance to progress is still there for young directors. Tom Haines is a young director signed to Factory Films, with some excellent indie label videos to his credit including a beautifully cinematic new one for Full Time Hobby rock outfit White Denim.
White Denim, Shake Shake Shake, directed by Tom Haines
“I got into making videos because I was sick of applying for Film Council funding, failing and then not liking what they were making,” he says. “Although you’re pitching against other directors the odds are stacked a bit more in our favour. The band might be in them, but you can still make short films. Creatively speaking they still have a place and people definitely pay attention to them.” Haines also now has another job to keep the wolf from the door, making art documentaries for Tate Modern and the V&A. He’s fully aware that “the rules are changing”.
Meanwhile experienced directors who started out in video are now only returning occasionally, to perhaps work with bands they know (and have a legacy of success that allows them to have decent budgets) and most importantly to have creative freedom. But they have their own concerns.
Chemical Brothers, Midnight Madness, directed by Dom & Nic
Dom Hawley and Nic Goffey (usually known as Dom & Nic) are also with Factory for music videos, but they usually direct commercials and only return occasionally, usually to work with the Chemical Brothers, most recently on the videos for Salmon Dance, featuring a fishtank full of rapping tropical fish, and Midnight Madness, where a goblin climbs walls around the London Astoria. These excellent pieces could only be achieved by asking animation companies who do their commercial work to contribute their efforts on the videos for free. As Hawley points out, they effectively subsidise the videos themselves “because we love music and being part of music culture, and they give us the opportunity to bring our own ideas to the screen”. But afterwards the label sells the video on iTunes.
The online effect
“Historically music video directors have absolutely no creative ownership of their ideas and labours,” Hawley argues. “We have no rights, and we don’t benefit financially from their sales. But in many cases we are contributing financially to making them. Things need to change to come in line with the way the music industry is changing. I think it could start with finding some way of video directors having some level of ownership of their work – at least for me, it would be an ethical thing more than a financial thing.”
Mike O’Keefe says that unless it’s a major international act, the income from iTunes video downloads is not significant. But then there is video streaming and sharing – in particular, of course, YouTube; that is a different story – the most significant element in music videos of all.
Gnarls Barkley, Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?, directed by Chris Milk
Top US director Chris Milk – another director who tends to have to beg favours for his occasional music video excursions – recently made his second Gnarls Barkley video, a dark comedy which sees a jilted boyfriend pull his own heart from his chest, and give it to his jilting girlfriend. On release the video was soon ripped and added to YouTube, then embedded on hundreds of blogs.
“It was always the intention for people to forward it to their friends,” says Milk. “The main distribution of videos is the internet, and your demographic becomes your distribution channel. If they like it, they distribute it for you. So you’ve got to do something better than just shoot a band playing.”
What’s more, this beautifully tailored distribution system is also now starting to reap financial dividends. YouTube is now signing deals with all the major labels, offering per-view percentage points – very small, but representing a proper revenue stream when it reaches significant views.
“YouTube is fantastic for videos,” declares Sony’s O’Keefe. “With the sheer volume of people watching them and distributing them. The number of people watching videos must be greater than even MTV at its height.”
Radiohead, House of Cards, directed by James Frost
Tim Nash at Atlantic agrees that there is due cause for excitement. “I think the event video will come back,” he says. “From big artists there will be ideas, because it changes the game. Destination videos – that will open up creativity.”
Radiohead’s ‘no-camera’ video for House Of Cards, which was an exclusive on Google’s science site Google Code, became one such event, partly because it was ‘open source’ – viewers could download the technology and make their own versions of the video. Meanwhile, French director Romain Gavras (the son of film director Costa-Gavras) and the band Justice proved a few months ago that music videos still have considerable power to shock and offend, but can also be important and thought-provoking. The video for Stress, which follows a mixed race gang on their nihilistic, shockingly realistic trail of violence through Paris, caused outrage in France, and landed the video makers with several lawsuits.
Justice, Stress, directed by Romain Gavras
But will such rarities be enough to save music video production as we know it? According to Academy’s Liz Kessler being bold and brave is the only way forward. “Defy convention and received wisdom. Don’t worry about the rules and not selling records – you’re not going to sell records anyway! If it’s an exciting place to be, the place for artistic creativity, it will continue to attract the Sophie Mullers and the Jon Glazers. But if what we get is mediocre, underfunded and badly executed, people will disappear.”