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Who Killed the Video Stars?



LBB's Laura Swinton on how music video producers are battling tight-fisted labels and online censorship

Who Killed the Video Stars?

We need to talk about music videos. Everyone else is, after all. Too rude, too nude and too much attitude – if you believe what you read in the mainstream media, they’re responsible for the downfall of civilisation, flanked by fellow apocalyptic horsemen Video Games, Social Media and Justin Bieber. For the production community though, they’re a wellspring of young filmmaking talent, a source of creative release and a useful publicity platform. But with the recently announced BBFC classifications for online videos and the tussle between record labels and filmmakers that’s been playing out on Vimeo over the past month or so, music videos are at a funny place right now. It’s definitely not Armageddon yet, but we might need to give Bruce Willis a call. 

 It hardly needs saying – but I’ll say it anyway – there is so much more to music videos than lamé-clad twerkers. Beautiful cinematography, smart ideas, lovely animation, mind-melting visuals. However, the Robin Thicke / Lily Allen / Miley Cyrus flavoured controversies of the last year or so have been strangely nostalgic. Yes the past couple of decades have seen budgets annihilated and music channels edge out promos in favour of back-to-back re-runs of ’16 and Pregnant’, but the angry pitchfork brigade that had Queen videos banned in the 1980s are still here, like a reliable comfort blanket. Events such as Bug and monetized YouTube channels like Vevo have facilitated a semi-resurgence of the pop promo (although ye olde budgets of yesteryear have notably failed to resurface), and D&AD have even reinstated the music video category for the 2014 awards. All things considered, videos seem to be in reasonable health. There may be a few stumbling blocks to overcome, though, if the music video is to reclaim its throne in the pop culture pantheon. 

In January, the British Board of Film Classification announced that it was working with Google and the BPI (British Phonographic Industry a.k.a the record labels) to figure out how to bring an age-rating system to music videos on Youtube. The move was in response to angry parents’ groups. A couple of phone calls later and it transpired that the plans were really not as solid as had been originally reported in The Guardian. What’s more, there seemed to be no clear idea of what sort of music videos the scheme will include – just the major label Lady Gaga extravaganzas? Or would this effect experimental young directors working for unsigned bands too? Who will have to handle the extra admin? And what about the overlap between music video and short film? 

At the time I spoke to a few production companies to figure out what the industry’s take on these announcements were. On the one hand, no one seems to be panicking quite yet. The plans are at a fairly early stage and, as Great Guns’ Andy Morahan pointed out, censorship would be pretty tricky to enforce. "I think with the rise of the Internet and the likes of YouTube and Vevo becoming the main platforms for music videos globally, what was once regulated by the likes of MTV, VH1 and networks has now become an open playing field. I also think the recent stink created by the Miley Cyrus ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, which was virtually soft porn, has driven the desire to now regulate music video content, although I think it will be virtually impossible to 'police' effectively as people will always find a way round it.”

Meanwhile others, like Indy8 EP Rupert Reynolds-Maclean were concerned about potential knock-on effects on the production company’s self-funded creative projects. “We have started making more commissioned short films, and what they are talking about potentially has wider ramifications on production companies and the work we make online. A large proportion of clients are unlikely to want to make anything which may be deemed as too risqué for the internet so it will only be in some unusual cases that it affects us as a company. Where it is of concern is how it is policed in more creative work we produce and how we can show that online. The Internet has revolutionised how our work is shown as it used to be that you had to go to a short film screening in a film festival to see something interesting and outside the commercial sphere in short format film. There is obviously content on the net which little kids shouldn't be viewing but I'm still of the belief that a lot of that comes down to education and not policing the Internet.”

For now, it looks like music videos have a bit of breathing space from the ‘ban this filth’ brigade – but lurking round the corner lies another threat:cold hard capitalism. Over the past month or so, I’ve heard repeated stories of major labels demanding that music videos be removed from directors’ and production companies’ Vimeo pages. Directors like David Wilson and The Daniels have seen videos taken down – and we’ve even heard of a couple of production companies who have been using Vimeo to play their content and reels on their own sites only to have a huge chunk of it pulled. Of course the thrust of the issue is licensing and copyright – not to mention a fear that labels may lose ad revenue that would be generated from their official YouTube channels. At the end of last year, Vimeo was taken to court by Capitol Records – and it’s understandable why the platform has been cracking down.

However I think the situation highlights a deeper instability within music video production. As I may have mentioned several hundred times already, music video budgets are, for the most part, pretty ungenerous. In some cases, production companies or aspiring directors subsidise videos in the hopes of building up a reel or showcasing their skills. So if record labels are unwilling to stump up suitable budgets and accept that craftspeople have to make a living, it seems only fair that those involved in producing their promo content at least get to share it with fans and potential clients. If the climate becomes too restrictive and labels squeeze too hard, they may find that the pool of producers willing to ‘maximise efficiency’ and work ‘flexibly’ shrinks too.

Towards the end of last year I also caught wind of one record label starting to play awkward with payments, refusing to pay up front for music video production. Effectively that means that the label expected the production company in question to shoulder the financial risk. Talk about a flashback – in 2009 the production industry found itself in a similar position when Omnicom attempted to pull a similar trick.

So we’re at a bit of an impasse. Video content is more important than it’s ever been; younger fans live online and expect behind-the-scenes films, interviews, video diaries and more from their musical idols. On the other hand the people who create that content are being treated with disregard and disrespect. The music video isn’t dead – in the age of hyper-connection it shines more brightly and across more platforms than ever before – but something needs to happen or it could go the way of the radio star.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 26 Mar 2014 17:13:05 GMT