Much of the focus around music videos in 2016 has been related to YouTube, takedowns, safe harbours and the ‘value gap’.
Yet videos are one of the most powerful things artists and labels have to reach fans, to define aesthetics and to showcase new forms of creativity. This side of videos has been unjustly side-lined in recent years.
Mike O’Keefe, VP of creative at Sony Music Entertainment in the UK, has worked in music videos for three decades and was recently given the Outstanding Achievement Award at the UK Music Video Awards. He has witnessed first-hand the transition from the all-powerful MTV to the even-more-powerful YouTube and how this has changed not just how videos are consumed but also how they are made.
“Nowadays it hasn’t changed much,” he says of video as a creative and expressive medium in 2016. “Good work is still good work.”
For O’Keefe, consumer empowerment through technology has had a direct impact on the way videos now have to be conceived and created.
“The fundamental difference now is that when MTV was on, you had to watch what you were given; now you have a choice of watching what you think is good,” he says. “Today there is more pressure on us to do conceptually clever ideas. You can’t just do [a performance video]; no one will give a shit. We have to be cleverer. And we have to be cleverer for less money – a lot less money.”
O’Keefe regards the 1990s as something as a golden age for music video (“There was the ambition and we had the budgets as well”) and feels that freewheeling creativity is happening more at the margins today than in the mainstream.
“One of the things about video at the moment is that some of the most interesting stuff is almost the least commercial. If you go back to the Fatboy Slim or the Chemical Brothers videos, they were big commercial tracks that had very clever videos, that also worked commercially,” he suggests.
“You tend to find now that the most successful commercial videos generally tend to be the blandest. The cleverest things tend to be done for the much smaller acts which – unfortunately, with one or two exceptions – don’t seem to see the light of day to a high degree.”
O’Keefe adds, “I think the problem is that it’s about getting the biggest artists to do cleverer ideas. It will affect the way that people share them and the way that people watch them. I think the best videos are coming out of the US urban scene at the moment; Drake, A$AP Rocky and so on are really interesting. In the UK, it’s a tricky area at the moment.”
With viewing moving first from TV sets to laptop screens and now to smartphones, the context of consumption is shifting, but this does not necessarily mean that videos have to be squeezed down to simple images that work on an iPhone or Samsung screen.
“People still seem to like the cinematic approach to things,” says O’Keefe. “People are so used to watching things on their phones; they watch Netflix on their phones. They still watch big productions. I don’t think it’s dumbed it down too much.”
What video-makers and artists need to be most keenly aware of is just how short attention spans have become due to infinite choice and an on-demand consumption culture. O’Keefe says audience research suggests that videos have a matter of seconds to grab and hold someone’s attention. If you fail to engage in that tiny window of time, you have lost the viewer.
“Videos that used to start with a detailed narrative and built to a conclusion are not working that well,” he says. “You almost need to turn it on its head and do the spectacular bit at the beginning so people go, ‘Oh, wow! That’s amazing!’ and then they’ll carry on watching it. The average video view length is about 30 seconds or less, and people will just turn it off. We have to consider that as well because people have got so much stuff to consume.”
Within the video world, Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ was a landmark video of the modern age – not because it was bankrolled by Apple but rather that it was packed with moments and clips that could be quickly turned into gifs and shared (or mocked) online easily.
As a sign of the times in November, Vevo launched a GIF creator to allow viewers to grab and loop five-second clips of videos on the platform. If you want your video to have more of a life beyond YouTube or Vevo, you have to consider how GIF-ready it can be and how it can be converted into visual catchphrases.
“Another example is Little Mix,” says O’Keefe. “The GIF-ability of their videos is huge. All the fans chop them up into their favourite little bits.”
While GIF-ready videos are about super-serving the fans, O’Keefe firmly believes that videos should not exclusively be about catering to the fans to the exclusion of others and instead be thought of as a means to draw in new fans.
“I think one of the mistakes we sometimes make is saying, ‘Oh, the fans will like that,’” he says of the video business as a whole. “The fans will like anything because they are already fans, so you don’t have to worry about them. What you have to do is get new people to engage with the artists. You almost want to make videos for the people you are going after rather than the people you’ve got. I find that sometimes doesn’t happen as much as it should.”
O’Keefe is not enamoured with the easy win of behind-the-scenes footage that tend to flood social media sites and video channels, marked as additional content as if that is enough of a draw in and of itself. He feels the demands for exclusive video from the proliferation of marketing/promotional channels can still be met without lazily defaulting to the lowest common denominator.
“To be honest, behind-the-scenes videos are usually quite dull. But we are looking at things like shooting additional content – so maybe shooting some 360 videos or shooting material that can be used as gifs or teasers for the video. For general content, apart from music videos, the demand for it has gone through the roof,” he says.
“We have an additional in-house production department here that goes out and films loads of things like live performances and talking heads. We are looking at doing more conceptual content as well. So instead of just doing a straight ‘making of…’, you’ll shoot using a 360 camera and you’ll see the whole set.”
For the moment, O’Keefe is not sold on VR as a new creative tool for music videos just yet.
“It’s the same as everything. Good VR material is compelling, but if it’s not good it’s not going to be compelling in VR or 3D if the idea and the material is not good to start with,” he says.
“I saw a fashion brand marketing this amazing VR behind the scenes footage of models getting ready for a fashion shoot and it was as boring as shit. Just because you are seeing it in VR doesn’t inherently make it interesting. I think that VR will start in games first and then move into features. How we are going to use it because of the inherent cost of it [is unclear].”
Equally, O’Keefe has reservations about the hype surrounding 360 video. “We did some live stuff in 360 [for Kasabian among others]. If you’re watching a film of a concert, you can look round a few times into the crowd; once you have done that a few times you go, ‘Well, what the fuck else is there? That’s all I can do?’ It’s not that compelling. That’s the mistake people make. Just because it’s a technical innovation that it’s going to be compelling – which it isn’t.”
Videos have tended to be promotional tools for singles, but in recent years artists have started to push deeper into visual albums as a new creative form, most notably Beyoncé (with both ‘Beyoncé’ and ‘Lemonade’) and Frank Ocean (‘Endless’).
Like 360 and VR videos, this will be something that only the biggest artists will be able to afford to embrace for the foreseeable future, with O’Keefe feeling it will be some time before they become mainstream.
“A lot of artists could do it, but it would be a budgetary thing and there has to be a commercial aspect to it,” he says. “The question is: what is the commercial value of the Beyoncé visual album? I think it’s a brilliant project and all the films were amazing. Did it make any more money for everyone? That is ultimately the bottom line. For Beyoncé, it was amazing that she could do it. I don’t think the ‘normal’ artist could actually do that. They probably couldn’t attract the creatives in the first place to work on it.”
This is ingenuity at a high budget level but O’Keefe feels that a whole generation of new artists is coming through for whom video creation naturally works in tandem with their recordings; they are learning how to shoot videos at the same time as they are getting to grips with studios. We are seeing the emergence of a new creative class due to the ubiquity of certain technologies.
“Probably the most exciting thing is the artists coming through who are quite visually literate now. They have grown up on YouTube and have friends who make films. When we sign people now, a lot of them have made a few videos and other bits of content, [plus] they know filmmakers” he says.
“If they are visually literate and they have got good ideas [that’s great], as ultimately everything comes from the artist. If you look at all the best videos that have ever been made, it really originates with the artist’s ideas.”
Ideas, rather than technology, should be the key currency here. Ultimately, technology has to be a catalyst for creativity and never a substitute.
“My mantra is that good stuff is good stuff,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what format it’s recorded on. If it’s good, it’s compelling; if it’s not good, it doesn’t matter what technology you wrap around it.”