Music Videos: Everything You Need To Know
Updated: Jul 6
Somewhere between narrative film, visual art, promotional media, and visual music sits the music video. It is almost impossible to classify them beyond the fact that they are an audio-visual piece produced off the back of a pre-made music track.
"Music videos come in countless flavors, from the narrative and live performance to the abstract."
Music videos are an essential outlet for artists and musicians alike, acting as a platform for cross-promotion and rampant creativity. They are also a fresh breeding ground for innovation, given their liberation from the constraints of realist narrative cinema—often ditching elements like continuity, rationalist lighting, and even, often, photographic representation. Allowing for special effects, cinematographic oddities and whacky ideas to run amok, inspiring millions in their wake. Furthermore, as music-fans come from all walks of life, music video often functions as a fascinating bridge between visual art and popular culture, exposing viewers to new, cutting edge ideas in cinematic representation. Easy access to music videos is at an all-time high, as seen through YouTube's remarkable statistic that 93% of the platform's most-watched videos in January 2020 were music videos.
Music videos bridge a gap between marketing/promotion and visual arts content—with it being elementary to argue that the primary purpose of most music videos is the promotion of music. But, as we have already discussed, there are deeper elements at play.
In this post, we will explore "music videos" in depth. Recalling it's long and varied history, differentiating the critical types of music videos, exploring why the form is vital for filmmakers/artists, and understanding how we can create a music video with a video production team. It's a vast topic, so strap yourselves in.
How Can We Define 'Music Video'?
This question seems pretty futile at first, as the definition of 'music video' is, of course, a 'video' which is accompanied by or reacts to a piece of 'music.' But a classification such as this becomes complex when considering musical film sequences—be it moments of diegetic singing, non-diegetic soundtrack, or a relatively abstract interaction between film and music found in much advertising.
As we have already touched upon, 'music video' is a term that encompasses many different products. It stretches from experimental video-art, with a soundtrack, to narrative style short films, again accompanied by a soundtrack. But if we were to pin down the fundamentals, it would be the integration of visual imagery with a song/piece of music. But, of course, music comes in an unbelievable amount of flavors, and in this vein, it would be easy to argue that the music-video form is as, if not more, variable than the medium of music itself. It is stretching from visual music to more traditional modes of narrative filmmaking.
The utility of the music video is also as difficult to pin down, often functioning primarily as a form of marketing/promotion for the musician but just as often being a form of expression unto its own. Of course, the vast majority of examples sit somewhere between these extremes. Still, there are also some outliers, such as tie-in music videos whereby a song and film are created for another purpose—again usually in marketing, but this time in marketing products, goods, or services. Interestingly, as almost all music videos are a form of marketing, in some shape or form, the model is one of the only types of advertisements that consumers actively search out to consume. As perfectly illustrated by the earlier mentioned YouTube statistic.
Music videos exist in many different forms, both commercial and non-commercial.
The majority of videos, which are the type we have discussed almost exclusively up to this point, come as commercial releases—be it video singles, video albums, or officially distributed live recordings. These music videos are controlled and distributed by the artists, or their representing record label. As such, these constitute all the forms of official advertising and marketing. In this way, one must also acknowledge that within these videos, often both the music and the video components run secondary to the objective of selling a particular persona of the musician/group themselves a persona which, when established, results in the sales of their music, merchandise, and peripheral products.
Consider any pop-icon, and this ideology widely applies. In essence, all the way from The Beatles to Cardi B, It's easy to argue that the commercial music video is, more often than not, not really about the music or the video. In this way, music video often tries to create a feel or vague ideology in line with their musician's persona, to stimulate fandom and celebrity status.
Non-commercial music videos, on the other hand, expunge almost all desire to sell, but they do not stray from the idea of devising celebrity status.
These non-commercial music videos are various music clips, supercuts (synchronizing existing footage from other sources to lip-sync/perform a song), unofficial live recordings, unofficial music videos, fan videos, lyric videos, and many more types all exist. Most of these are created by fans far removed from the musicians, and often utilize the song without rights. However, there are rare examples of exceptional unofficial music videos being seen by musicians, which then adopt them (legally) as the canon, creating a new collaboration along the way. But that is not to say non-commercial music videos need to be produced by fans, as these can also quickly be provided by independent artists as a form of documenting or establishing another creative outlet. However, these inevitably end up being used as promotion, thus pulling them back into the category of commercial music videos.
Through this brief rundown, we have barely scratched the surface of what a music video actually is, but we have come to some sort of definition.
A music video is a short film that integrates a song with imagery and is produced for promotional or artistic purposes. Modern music videos are primarily made and used as a marketing device intended to promote the sale of music recordings. There are also cases where songs are used in tie-in marketing campaigns that allow them to become more than just a song. Tie-ins and merchandising can be used for toys or food or other products.
Perhaps by exploring the history of the form, we'll get a bit more clarification on the range and scope of music videos.
A (brief) History of Music Videos
Although in the 1980s MTV (or Music Television) birthed the modern form we know as 'music video,' the history extends back to cinema's genesis.
We find its precursors way back at the end of the 19th century one early example is Edward Marks and Joe Stern's form of marketing their sheet music business. They hired an electrician, George Thomas, to promote their song "The Little Lost Child." Thomas used the already famous magic lantern, a method of projecting images, to create a show of sill images accompanied by live performances of the song. Of course, this multimedia show was a hit, combining the already popular forms of vaudeville theatre and the technical marvel of photographic magic lantern shows. As such, the formation quickly took off and was commonly known as the illustrated song. Although we can likely extend the lineage of music video far beyond cinematic precursors, the use of the photographic apparatus synchronized with sound, during a performance, is undoubtedly one of the earliest moments of the music video, as we know it.
Music played a crucial role in early cinema, but often one entirely dissimilar to the music video. Live music was often performed during the screening of films, usually with an official score. However, this form of cinematic experience coupled with live-music is almost the inverse of the music video, which is, in effect, a score which is then accompanied by visuals.
This distinction is vital in separating lots of "talkies," "soundies," and musical films from the medium of the music video. Although they are still important, our above example of The Little Lost Child comes closer to the modern music video than most live-action early cinema.
Nevertheless, a good history should include external influencers as much as the key players. The "talkie" arrived in the mid-1920s, with the most prominent example being The Jazz Singer. Following the success of talkies, many musical short films began being produced—Warner Brothers was a key player here, creating many Vitaphone Shorts, which became one of the tent poles of early sound films. Another reason for the form's popularisation was early animation, Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies and ground-breaking Fantasia provided instrumental audio-visual works.
While Max Fleischer's Screen Songs—short sing-along cartoons of popular songs—solidified a link with popular music. Both Fantasia and Fleischer's cartoons utilized readymade popular music, making them remarkably similar to the modern music video—with the significant difference being these were commercial products in themselves, not used for the promotion of a specific musician. Warner Bros. cartoons, however, bridged this gap with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, often including songs from upcoming Warner Bros. musicals, arguably introducing the idea of promotion and the tie-in (music and video being created for a different product) music videos. Furthermore, within the 1920s avant-garde explorations of visual-music, animation videos were used rampantly to translate the majestic qualities of music into audio-visual experiences.
Experiments like Hans Richter's Rhythmus 21 (1921) or Walther Ruttmann's Lichtspiel Opus I (1921) explore a direct representation of music into an abstract visual language. Thus, it becomes clear that animation had an instrumental role in the early explorations of the music video.
Between 1920 and 1950, live-action cinema also had its forays into the music video. "Soundies" were musical films often including dance/performative sequences. However, these, and other musical films, continued to fall away from traditional music video elements as they were created in conjunction with one another instead of the music directly instigating the creation of the video. That said, films like Louis Jordan's Lookout Sister (1947), a Western musical, pulled together a bank of the singer's most famous songs and tacked them to a vague narrative, leaving it somewhere between a feature-long music video and a musical feature.
In his autobiography, Tony Bennet claims to have created "the first music video"—a short film of him walking along the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London. The video was edited and set to his song Stranger in Paradise. The clip was later aired in both the UK and the US. Although his self-proclamation of being the first is mainly questionable, there was a move towards this style of promotional music videos, much closer to the form we know today.
It's also important to recall that this history is not an Anglophone one alone, as the avant-garde shorts above have already demonstrated. By the late 1950s, the Scopitone, a sort of visual jukebox, was invented in France and quickly spread throughout Europe. As such rival devices came to market, from the Cinebox in Italy to the Color-sonic in the USA, providing a steadfast way to view music videos outside of a cinema or specialist setting.
As with any innovation, an increase in the capability to distribute brought a swath of new content, both independently created and commissioned. Promotional music videos (videos that follow/illustrate a readymade song) became a prevalent occurrence across Europe and the US. This increase in production birthed many of the music videos styles we know today, from narrative and performance through the experimental concepts. It popularised the form as a legitimate form of entertainment while slowly disconnecting from the cinema space.
By the mid-60s, the music video was well on its way to the total domination of music promotion. The Beatles starred in their first feature, A Hard Day's Night in 1964 and Help! In 1985. Sparking The Monkees to begin the two-year TV series The Monkees (1966-68) on the other side of the Atlantic. Both of these minced together performance set pieces with historical moments, which ultimately promoted the bands as pop icons, not merely providers of catchy tunes. Furthermore, "filmed inserts" became common marketing materials, providing small promotional clips of the groups playing, to be distributed worldwide.
1964 also saw the beginning of Top of the Pops in the UK, followed quickly by Hullabaloo in the US, in 1965. Both of these were musical variety TV shows which saw transmitted live performances to millions at home. Due to a rapid increase in demand, these shows quickly picked up "filmed inserts" and other short-form music content to pad out their runtime. However, most of these still consisted primarily of recorded performance or dance. By now, music videos were a staple in music marketing, being a tried and tested method of raising groups such as The Beatles and The Monkees into superstardom. Better yet, music videos allowed the quick distribution of entertainingly consumable publicity content worldwide.
"Music videos became a pop culture phenomenon; consumers couldn't get enough of them."
Ten years later, music videos were so deeply rooted in pop culture that all top-performing artists were nearly required to defend their music with an accompanying music video. After the initial period of gestation, music videos began to flourish from more than pure performance videos, creating an identity for musicians and bands off the stage. Musicians like David Bowie and Queen perfected this, creating huge personas beyond their music and performances. Resulting in videos such as the landmark Bohemian Rhapsody (1975), which many, including Historian Paul Fowles, class as "the first global hit single for which an accompanying video was central to the marketing strategy." That is to say that by this point, music videos had eclipsed many traditional forms of marketing, becoming the primary method to market both music and musician.
The MTV Era
The music video had already penetrated television since Top of the Pops, but in 1979 the US saw its first channel utterly devoted to the form: Video Concert Hall. However, two years later, MTV (then, Music Television) launched. Commencing their early broadcast by airing The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," in a prophetic move marking the need for a visual representation of musical artists that would become, and remains, the norm today.
"MTV was the first 24-hour television station devoted to music. As such, stardom and fandom continued to rise sharply in this era of mass-media, promoting celebrity musicians as superhuman and godly."
The introduction of these two new platforms, again, lead to a sharp increase in demand for content, production of content, and effectiveness of music video as a form of self-promotion. The need for content coupled with recent innovations in video recording and editing, resulting in affordable devices that freelancers could purchase, led to an explosion in music video prevalence—resulting in wrath of cheaply made music videos. The new style of music video production contrasted immensely with the big-budget celluloid music films which preceded them. This wealth of production inevitably leads to a tremendous amount of innovation for the medium.
With affordable video equipment becoming more commonplace, it's also important to acknowledge the cross-over between many sub-cultures and the music video form. A vast underground output was coming from counter-cultural groups like skaters, anarchists, or the LGBTQ community, which, again, find their way to influence and shape the mainstream.
Individuals like David Bowie began to use the form as a model for social commentary, as found in his videos for China Girl and Let's Dance (both 1983). In an interview on the topic, he famously said: "Let's try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved." Of course, it can be hard to take such a message entirely seriously from an individual who already holds a vast celebrity status. Still, it is a crucial moment in introducing real-world importance for the ideologies presented within music video—and one far beyond consumerist tendencies. This sentiment arguably leads to popular social videos from Michael Jackson's Black or White and Pink's Family Portrait to Kendrick Lamar's Alright or Childish Gambino's This is America.
Similarly, Michael Jackson's Thriller, one of the most expensive videos of the period with a budget of $800,000, became instrumental in making space for African American music videos on MTV. Before the video, African American artists seemed almost boycotted by the platform, with many musicians such as Rick James being flat-out rejected. The videos that were accepted often aired late into the night between two and six AM when almost nobody was watching.
Censorship is a crucial debate that still surrounds music videos. As the medium often finds wide public distribution on television or, more recently, online, much content that is deemed offensive or inappropriate was censored, leading to a large amount of counter-culture or experimental content being pushed to the side.
Throughout the 1980s many channels popped up in the US and worldwide, with Country Music Television launching in 1983, VH1 (owned by MTV) in 1985, MTV Europe in 1987, MTV Asia in 1991, MTV Latin America in 1993, MTV India in 1996, MTV Mandarin in 1997 and MTV2 in 1996. As we can see from this list alone, MTV dominated both the US and worldwide markets, and although other programs did exist across the globe, MTV indeed leads the way.
During this rapid expansion of MTV, music video directors began to gain attention—especially as the channel started to credit the creative alongside the musicians in 1992. As such, a wave of music video auteurs arose who are, primarily, considered those who defined the medium—many of whom still produce videos today. Giants like Hype Williams, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Chris Cunningham all picked up the medium around this time. It was undoubtedly an exciting period for these creative, as the new(ish) medium needed shaping and defining.
The Internet Age
The website iFilm, established in 1997, was one of the first places on the internet to host music videos, along with other short-form content. The rise of Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa, and other peer-to-peer sharing services saw a spike in the ability to share music video content free of charge and on-demand. However, due to their illicit nature, most of these sites were closed over time. Nevertheless, they created a thirst for (free) accessible content, and YouTube, launched in 2005. YouTube quickly dominated becoming the prime outlet for free streamed music video content. While many other platforms have tried to take a piece of the pie YouTube, as we all know, holds the prime spot.
Due to the rise in free online content, MTV inevitably collapsed. Although the channel continues to function, by 2005, it had abandoned most music videos in favor of reality television shows, which drew much larger audiences and thus turned better profits.
As we all live in the modern world, the contemporary state of the music video is apparent to a lot of us; moreover, due to the endless expansion of distribution channels, the variability and range of music videos are now phenomenal. Let's break this down in our next section.