Wanted: Music Videos That Don’t Look Like Commercials

It would be easy to attribute the recent decline in music video viewership on television to the decline of the major record labels. Every year the news reminds us the major labels are signing fewer artists, releasing fewer albums and songs, and making fewer music videos — and fewer videos made means fewer videos worth watching. There is more to it than that, though. I believe the decline in interest in music videos on television reflects a change in attitude about television advertising, and the subtle conflicts of interest that music video directors face may be contributing to the decline.

People are becoming more resistant to advertising messages in all media. You can see this in the 40 million people who rushed to sign up for the U.S. government’s Do Not Call list that may someday ban some kinds of marketing calls to specific telephone numbers. You can see it in the uproar about spam, the unsolicited commercial e-mail messages that now account for 90 percent of the volume of e-mail. And you can see it in the popularity of products like TiVO, which some have called the product of the decade because it allows television viewers to play back recorded television programs while skipping the commercials.

The resistance to advertising is bad news for music videos on television, because music videos have for the most part been made to look like commercials. MTV pixelates the occasional commercial logos that appear in music videos they show. They have to; channel-surfers who glimpsed a product logo on MTV would naturally assume they were seeing a commercial break and would move on to another channel. That’s how strongly music videos resemble commercials. A television channel can’t draw and hold viewers if the whole channel looks like one long commercial interruption.

There are, to be sure, legitimate reasons why music videos might look like commercials. Record labels purchase videos as advertisements for albums, and video directors try to employ in music videos the same techniques that commercials use to grab viewers’ attention. Meanwhile, commercials try to draw on the vitality of music videos, further blurring the line between music videos and advertising. But as viewers become more resistant to advertising, videos must look less like commercials, and this change is coming too slowly. Record labels need to change their thinking about videos, to think of them less as commercials for a specific album and more as a way to showcase the virtues of a recording artist’s work. Video directors need to make a shift in style to make videos that are more rewarding to watch repeatedly, more musical if you will, even if it means they won’t grab people quite as strongly. This could be a difficult transition for video directors to make.

Only a few elite video directors focus their careers on music videos. Most, I am told, do more work and make more money in commercials than in music videos. If their career success depends on mastering the techniques that grab people’s attention for 30 or 60 seconds in order to force them to look at a product they’re not really interested in, it is hard to ask them to set those techniques aside to make a thoroughly watchable 4- or 5-minute music video. It is even harder if the video director thinks of the music video as a calling card for his own subsequent work directing commercials. And how could a director think otherwise, if the future of his career depends in part on advertising executives who might see his music video and be sufficiently impressed to hire him to direct a commercial or two?

But this conflict of interest can only cause declining audiences for music videos on television. When viewers see the commercial-like music videos, they may get a sudden uncontrollable urge to grab the remote control and switch to another channel. They’re just following the same habit that makes them avoid actual commercials on television. If this result is distressing to the television channel, which has just lost a viewer, it is doubly so for the record label and recording artist. Psychologically, a fan who remembers that he couldn’t sit through a recording artist’s 4-minute music video will have difficulty justifying the purchase of the artist’s 55-minute album. With this effect, television airplay of a music video produced in too much of a commercial-like style can actually harm an artist’s record sales.

Video directors and record labels need to discover what specific qualities of music videos hit advertising-averse viewers the wrong way. Eventually, directors who cannot adapt to the changes in viewer expectations may have to drop out of the music video business. In the meantime, record labels may get commercial-oriented video directors to deliver better videos by requesting, as a simultaneous delivery, a 60-second edit of the music video — in effect, a commercial for the music video. It might seen counterintuitive to ask a director to make a commercial when the objective is to make the video less like a commercial, but there are at least four reasons why it makes sense. First, the short edit is useful for news programs and other television opportunities that do not present the possibility of playing the entire song. It’s an improvement over the standard practice of playing a randomly selected excerpt of the video. Second, a director who has to sit down in an editing suite to make a short edit and a complete song from the same source video is forced to think of the two as separate products with distinct objectives, and perhaps would be less likely to mistakenly apply a 30- or 60-second editing paradigm to the entire song. Third, if a director does have a desire, consciously or otherwise, to show off his commercial-directing ability in a music video, he can do that in the 60-second edit while at the same time delivering a more musical sensibility for the complete song video. Fourth, just having to look at the video in a new light will give some directors a few new creative ideas. It adds little to the production budget to also make a short edit of a music video, and taking this approach might help slow the decline of the television audience for music videos.

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