At most cinemas during this period a short film, usually of a musician performing, would be played before the main feature. By 1930, the music video as we know it today begins to take shape. Take for example, the Spooney Melodies by Warner Brothers – five minute films of a singer overlaid onto animation. Only one of these videos survives to this day:
It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the concept of a music video became more commonplace, largely resulting from the rise of television networks.
Nobody makes million dollar videos anymore. There is never going to be another video like November Rain or some other gigantic epic
Austerlitz says, “TV then was this giant, gaping hole that needed to be filled. There was so much time and there wasn’t much programming to be put on it. Some of the early proto-music videos that emerged were really just filler, to fill empty pockets of time.”
In light of this the music videos were visually unexciting – usually it was just a film of the band performing live. It wasn’t until the 1960s with the release of the Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night directed by Richard Lester, that Austerlitz believes the visual language of the modern music video was established.
He says, “There are specific segments that can be pulled out entirely from the film and be seen as essentially music videos in their own right. They play the entire song and there is a set of interesting, fun and energetic visuals that go along with them. The visual language and the way in which the song is treated is something very familiar to us who have already been long exposed to the music video.”
The scene in which Can’t Buy Me Love is played exemplifies this. Instead of the band performing, the song is played over an aerial shot of the fab four running around in a field. The images are cut to the beat of the music, a trope employed by many directors in the years to come.
The huge success of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975 and the video that went with it led to a rise in the number of artists making a video promo to accompany every single release. Interestingly, many the strange effects, including Freddie Mercury’s face being multiplied and dragged out, was done during the filming and not in editing. This particular effect was accomplished by pointing the camera at a monitor to create visual feedback.
I think MTV changes everything in the sense that it becomes a whole lifestyle of its own
It wasn’t until MTV landed on the scene in the 1980s, however, that the music video became a firmly rooted feature on the pop cultural landscape.
Austerlitz says, “I think MTV changes everything in the sense that it becomes a whole lifestyle of its own. The music video begins to stand for something much greater. I also think that MTV becomes a marketing juggernaut in its own right, in the way that it is capable of making or breaking artists. For some musicians, MTV was a Godsend and their ability to cleverly use the language of the music video to promote themselves ends up making them huge stars. For others who weren’t interested in making videos or did a poor job with them, they were left behind and I think the main reason why is because the rise of MTV makes anyone who isn’t a part of it look like a cultural dinosaur.”
Even so, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the music video director starts to enter the limelight along with the performing artist, something acknowledged by MTV when they began placing the name of the director at the end of the video from 1993 onwards.
Austerlitz says, “In the 90s the music video becomes something that is really unique and I think it’s due to the rise of those directors who were interested in developing the music video as a sort of weird, hybrid art form.”
Two of the finest music video directors to emerge from the 90s are Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who both worked with Icelandic musical innovator Björk. Jonze directed her 1995 hit, It’s Oh So Quiet, which was shot as a pastiche of traditional Hollywood musicals. Gondry worked with her on a total of seven videos starting with her debut single Human Behaviour in 1993.
Moving into the 2000s, Gondry’s work with the White Stripes is a perfect example of the music video as an art form in its own right. Take the video to Fell in Love with a Girl, which was made from a mixture of stop motion animation with real Lego blocks and the pixilation of real footage of the duo. Though simple looking it has come to be seen as one of the most effective and progressive music videos of the decade.
It was in the 2000s however, that MTV, which for the last two decades had been the main conduit for the music video, turned its back on music television and started to make trashy reality TV shows. With the implosion the music industry and the rise of the internet as the key marketing tool for bands, though online video is an important aspect of this, big budget music videos designed to promote a band’s single went into decline.
Austerlitz says, “If we step back from artistic consideration and think about what it intended to be, which is a marketing device, it’s not what it once was. Nobody makes million dollar videos anymore. There is never going to be another video like November Rain or some other gigantic epic, there is no reason to spend that kind of money.”
I think it’s due to the rise of those directors who were interested in developing the music video as a sort of weird, hybrid art form.
But Austerlitz believes this might not be such a bad thing. He says, “I think it really recreated itself for the internet. It has become much more limber and looser. I think it has readapted itself for its new host and ended up doing a lot of really interesting things.”
Take Micachu and the Shapes for example, who have made a low budget video for every song on their new album, Never. All the videos are tied together with a retro, comic book-esque backdrop onto which the band act out fairly simple scenes. The videos can be pieced together to create a cohesive short film.
As the music video is released from its marketing shackles, with luck it will continue to grow as an innovative art form; working within ever dwindling budgets will simply force the video makers to become ever more ingenious in their approach.