What I learned from binge watching 8 hours of music videos

What I learned from binge watching 8 hours of music videos

When it comes to creativity, the relative pros and cons of studying other people’s work always makes for an interesting discussion.

“All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is original”

Austin Kleon ‘Steal Like An Artist’

I like one part of Austin Kleon’s book where he describes creative plagiarism; in trying to imitate someone else, you’ll inevitably fail (because you’re not the person you’re imitating), but along the way there’s a chance you’ll find who you really are as an artist…

So I try to watch stuff. To be honest, I watch more short films than music videos. Shorts are easily time-digestible, they teach a lot about cinematography on a budget and they’re similar to music videos in that they aim to convey an idea in a short space of time. I do, however, try to watch a reasonable amount of music videos too.

Last year, however, was really busy on a number of fronts. When I finally got a chance to draw breath over the Christmas period, I realised that I’d hardly watched any music videos during the year. So to rectify that situation, I decided to go back and watch the music video for every track that featured in the UK’s top 10 in 2019. In one sitting, I sat for over eight hours and watched video after video, making notes on grading, aspect ratios, premise of the video, treatment etc. etc.

Incidentally, in hindsight I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this. Over eight continuous hours of videos is a slog, particularly when you’re studying and making notes…half way through I was regretting it, but by then I’d gone so far that I had to finish it! Having said that, I did learn a lot.

Before I get into a few of the things I concluded from this exercise (other than I probably need to get a life), let’s just cover off the choice of subject matter:

  1. Yes I know; the fact that they were top 10 singles doesn’t whatsoever mean that they were the best videos released that year.
  2. I also know that the type of music that typically achieves a high chart position is aimed at a particular demographic of listener/viewer.
  3. And yes, I acknowledge that a top 10 analysis will only cover a very small number of artists. 24 artists had at least two top 10 entries last year (Stormzy, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande had 6 each).

So I watched a lot more grime and Ariana Grande than admittedly I normally would. But look; it was an easily definable set of videos for me to study and more importantly, this end of the market is where the most money is being invested trying to figure out how to build and maintain brands; the smartest marketeers, the most expensive directors etc. All of these videos have tens or hundreds of millions of views, which is a massive revenue source in itself, let alone the cross-promotion they provide for downloads, streams on other platforms, ticket sales, merch, brand-cohesion etc.

My point is, there must be something to learn from them, or at least that was my thought-process going into this.

(What’s the story) Morning Glory?

When making videos or when people have watched videos I’ve made, I quite often end up having conversations about what the ‘story’ or premise of the video is.

Here’s a fact; less than 20% of the videos I watched that day had any kind of story or premise to them. In the main, these videos involved putting an artist in one or more visually different environments and directing them to perform. That’s it. No premise, no real message, no story involved. But these videos have millions of views. Furthermore, lots of videos that did try to tell a story were kind of poor in my opinion, even those that clearly had a lot of money spent on them.

My conclusion was that a music video can be just consist of a good performance with good visuals and still be incredibly effective in doing its job. It doesn’t always have convey some kind of deep and meaningful message.

(BTW – I personally thought Lewis Capaldi’s ‘Before You Go’, which was made by More Media and directed by Kyle Thrash, was the most effective ‘story’ video I watched that day).

To Be or not To Be…in the video

I’ve occasionally had discussions with artists about making videos in which the artists themselves don’t actually appear i.e. the video features other characters. Sounds pretty cool and arty right? So how many of the top 10 videos from last year actually did that?

Less than three per-cent. For people that know how to market artists, it doesn’t appear to be a very popular strategy. As an artist, people are into ‘you’ as much as they’re into your music. By not actually featuring in the video, you’re wasting an opportunty.

Interestingly there were a few more videos where the artist appeared but didn’t actually perform the track. But again, a relatively small number.

‘I prefer living in Colour’…

One thing I definitely noticed in a lot of videos was colour being used to create a theme and/or grab attention. With only three or four minutes to say something, you’ve got a better chance of simply saying something strong visually than you have of telling some kind of elaborate story that makes sense. A lot of videos in the list seemed to do that. Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ is a good example…

Other stuff

The use of titling in videos interested me; over 40% of the videos I watched contained some kind of text-based titling. Again, smart people understand branding.

There were recurring themes in colour grading as well…there was an awful lot of teal around in 2019! Unless it was my imagination, I also observed more videos later in the year adopting a higher-contrast look.

I liked the grading on Dermot Kennedy’s ‘Outnumbered’, in fact I liked the video in general:

It’s kind of obvious, but a big budget doesn’t guarantee a great video. Taylor Swift’s ‘Me!’ was a colour fest with a tonne of CGI that looked really good when it started, but it ultimately left me feeling a bit blank (I’m sure her fans loved it). Same with Mark Ronson/Miley Cyrus ‘Nothing Like A Heart’; big budget, but I don’t think I’d watch it twice.

Contrast that with Selena Gomez’s ‘Lose You To Love Me’. This was probably one of the lowest cost videos in that whole list to make, but was actually my favourite out of everything I watched that day. This video looks simple but it’s really clever. Her performance is a big part of why it’s effective, but the edit and the timing of the fade transitions is really good and then you’ve got this simple and recurring visual theme of the camera moving in and out just a few feet. Pretty simple, incredibly effective. Best thing I saw that day:

Other videos I liked? Calvin Harris/Rag’n’Bone Man”s ‘Giant’ was probably my favourite weird/conceptual/arty kind of video. Freya Riding’s ‘Lost Without You’ (shown at the top of this article) is technically a 2018 track but it was still in the charts in 2019 so I’m counting it!…that was probably my fave for the cohesion between music and visuals. Last but not least I’d probably pick Regard’s ‘Ride It’, just because it looked exceptionally cool!

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