Guest Post: The changing face of music videos

3
Sep
2012
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I met Olly Knights from Turin Brakes through twitter almost 3 years ago and we nattered for ages. Eventually a collaboration ensued with “Ascension Day”, my first “proper” music video. I haven’t done many. Most of my work is in documentary, but I loved doing this. I eventually did two more, one for Turin Brakes and one more for Olly for his solo single, which forms part of the documentary I have made of him recording his solo album. This comes out soon as does the album. In the meantime Olly has written a cracking guest post on how music videos have changed over time and how you must adjust accordingly…these are not my views but Olly’s!

It’s Four AM, I’m standing on the shingle of a freezing cold Dungeness Beach in Kent England, it’s pouring with rain and my musical partner and I are busy apologizing to various members of the large film crew assembled in a large white marquee, eating their hot breakfasts from the catering team and looking generally miserable. We are very sorry that they’ve all had to leave their warm beds for our silly video…

Sophie Muller who is directing beckons me over and quietly asks me what the hell I’m apologizing for? “These people live for this shit, not to mention you’re paying handsomely, now start acting like a rock star” she reminds me!

It was our first ever Turin Brakes shoot for a song called “the Door” taken from our debut album “The Optimist LP” in early 2001. The budget was a modest £60,000 – Virgin records wanted to start off gently with this first “taste making” single, so went with what was considered at the time a medium to low budget.

We were shooting on Super16mm film with two Arri SR2 cameras set up with Cooke Zooms so shots could be made quickly in a documentary style. With a crew of approximately 30 people, techs, make up, catering, label people, actors, dancers in animal costumes, kids, girlfriends, boyfriends you name it.

The shoot went well and later we would re-convene in Sophie’s flat where she’d hired an Avid suite to cut the video herself. We sat in on the edit for a few hours, had some laughs at our own expense and a few weeks later saw the graded and finished version being played on a steady loop on the then Indie friendly MTV2.

So how do budgets really work from a band perspective? Well it always seemed to be shrouded in mystery to us, but as far as we could tell we were appointed a video commissioner. This is the person who gets the scripts in from a pool of directors and production companies who’ve been sent your song, who helps the band decide the most suitable pitch or whatever you wanna call the idea, and then essentially holds everybody’s hands through the entire process, ensuring its safe arrival in TV land. The budget is cut up into various chunks, some for production costs and some percentage goes to the commissioner and production company who have their own deals with directors and producers.

We went on to make another eleven major videos with major label budgets before we parted company with EMI/Virgin. The highest being for a song called “5 mile” set at a cool £120,000 or around $200,000. Shot in LA where we had just finished touring and recording a new single, which the label persuaded us to conjure up in an effort to fuel the hungry radio pluggers who felt we needed something as catchy as our previous number 5 hit “Painkiller (Summer Rain).” This was the first and only time we’d ever get involved in the type of ridiculous genetically modified *hit’s by committee* situation the music industry is famous for.

We finished recording the single at 4am and were in make up for the shoot three hours later, armed with a rough mix of the song which would be used for playback as the finished version was nowhere near complete. We had a private jet, model actresses who were instructed to flirt with us for the video, an enormous crew shooting on 35mm film, our own trailer with our own hairdresser, it was without doubt our biggest moment of ‘BLING.”

We all valiantly attempted to make up a video to a half finished song on the spot, and the fact that the video is even watchable is credit to the director and crew, who were incredibly skilled and professional in the face of such absurdity perpetuated by our label. It went to show that even a giant budget and access to the very best gear and crews and directors won’t save you if you haven’t got a solid idea to build on. We simply didn’t have time to contemplate what we were doing as we were too busy doing it.

Now although we enjoyed the sheer madness that our lives had become, we had always privately questioned the true worth of these high budget videos that seemed stilted and difficult. As a band, we were constantly trying to steer them into deeper philosophical realms like our music, but we had to battle a label and a media more interested in how we looked and acted – it was all surface, it was the world of pop.

We did manage it some times, the video for Mind Over Money was a great example, a metaphysical fairy tale in the woods.

I’d come from a film degree at Central St Martins and already knew it didn’t have to be this way, that it was possible to grab a Bolex and some 16mm film and shoot something with a tiny crew which relied entirely on big ideas and tiny budgets. But while we were beholden to a major label and major investment, we knew it was futile to try and go against the grain of throwing money at something until it works, so we usually just made the best of it, and besides we were very lucky to have our art funded and to be working with so many enthusiastic & skilled people.

Eventually as our band’s commercial stock fell back down to earth in a perfect expression of Issac Newton’s theory of gravity, we began to experience a different angle on music videos. We used whatever budget scraps we could get our grubby hands on to fund films for our music by film makers we knew and respected as artists, the first real clear moment being the video for “Dark On Fire” by Shelly Love. It had a tiny budget of £5,000 and told the surrealist tale of a child’s experience playing Cowboys and Indians in the dark forest to dramatic and beautiful affect. It relied on volunteers and enthusiasm for fuel and answered our question, that given the opportunity, hungry and skilled filmmakers could use the lack of budget to good effect, needing a superb idea to drive a singular vision unruffled by groups of financial investors pecking it into a safer shape for the land of MTV.

We continued in this vein, enjoying the outcome with multiple videos for the single “Sea Change,” the highlights of which was an epic world-war-two battle story in miniature, shot on a Canon 7D for £5,000 and a model animation illustrating the ascent of man, the budget for which was £500.

Happy to meet Philip Bloom

Then we met Philip Bloom….

Along with the music, my interest in film making has never waned. I got just as excited about what DSLR video could mean for the low budget filmmaker as the rest of you (well most of you) And Phil was the first high profile user to truly break through online, so I followed his fantastic blogs from early on and cut my teeth on a Panasonic GH1, using it to shoot bits and bobs for my band whilst touring like the American travelogue “Perpetual Motion”.

Eventually, we met Phil who told us he would like to shoot our next video. It just so happened we’d recently recorded a song for a forthcoming Talk Talk covers album, and thus the video to “Ascension Day” was born.

Turin Brakes: Ascension Day from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

This video truly proved to us how much things had changed. It was now possible for a band to have a video which could compete with the high budget stuff for virtually zero budget, provided they have a willing and hugely talented Director/DP and an enthusiastic crew who would work for passion and fun, perhaps as a refreshing change from their usual pay roll work.

As if I had any doubt, for me the ultimate moment of minimal perfection came shooting the recent video for “If Not Now When,” the title track for my solo LP.

We made this with a grand crew of just TWO people, Phil Bloom assisted by Sarah Estela using a lone non-pimped Canon 1DX, a tripod and a small selection of lenses in available light.

Olly Knights: If not now when from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Once again, it came down to having access to an inspiring location and the ability to think on our feet without being slowed down by too many people. It was intimate, and I felt extremely at ease performing for the camera and saying whatever I thought needed to happen next, and the results were beautiful and totally in empathy with the music. I realize now that this was probably the type of scenario as a music artist I’d always wished for, and it’s credit to the technology available at such low cost to the filmmakers that it can now happen.

It also helps to be free from the pressures and expectations of commercial success. We as a band are operating in a unique niche where we have had a moderately large amount of success we may not have had without those early major label days and giant budgets, but I still believe that much of our experience can and does apply to other artists. We live in truly incredible revolutionary times as filmmakers.

When I read on forums of people moaning about what they can’t do with camera X and software Y, I laugh because a few years ago obtaining such cinematic and artistic control of the moving image was virtually impossible for anyone below a certain budget. We have the tools of our dreams without a doubt, but the skill and the ability to conjure up strong ideas and apply them remain as difficult and rare as they always were – that is something budgets cannot touch.

In this age of cheap tech and Youtube as king, there is no doubt a great video can be made for very little. With an ever increasing number of young and hungry filmmakers showing their wares on sites like Vimeo, it’s very possible for new (and old) bands to kickstart a relationship with them directly, no need for a label and a commissioner or even a production company’s involvement! I’m not suggesting they aren’t nice things, they are and can lead to top notch success, but they might come later, or they might not…

As we all know, the music industry has shrunk and so have the budgets. If ten years ago a moderately successful band like ours had access to big budgets, that’s not usually the case anymore. The budget for our last label commissioned video was £5,000, so that’s £115,000 less than our most expensive video, and I guess what I’m saying here is that as far as the end results are concerned, the videos we make now stand up as equals to the videos of our past, and that big money while making the whole thing feel sexier does not a great video make. In fact, it puts the band in debt with the label as it all goes against the band’s royalties and creates a myriad of other pressures, none of which serve the art.

I shall leave you with this little info nugget: Turin Brakes has sold around 1 Million albums internationally, we have made some companies a healthy pile of cash but we left our label half a million in debt! You can probably guess by now where most of that debt came from….

Viva La revolucion!

Turin Brakes: Chim Chim Che-ree. RED Epic from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Olly Knights documentary teaser from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

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Comments

  1. theaveragedave says:

    Great post! my company (a partnership) shoots corporates, web promos and low-budget music videos. Often our crew is 2 people total. For music videos we get a lot of volunteers and borrowed locations. My company pockets very little of the budget we have for music videos because we put it all into the production. We’d like to start getting slightly higher budgets, but we are indebted to the small labels who, early on, gave us a chance with the money they had to spare. We’ve learned so much about what is possible with $1k and willing volunteers. It is heartening to see that others also see and welcome this change in the industry.

  2. nickforte says:

    What a thoughtful and open post.

    I enjoyed Olly’s take on the how the business is changing and his willingness to share the first-hand experience. I’ve recently shot for a group here in the Northeast that were formerly on a big label and the response was so much stronger to the final result. Throwing big money is a relic of a time gone by – giving artists the freedom and autonomy to exercise their skills is worth so much in end. There is something about the true heart of a job that simply shines through the fluff. Gotta buy all these guys’ albums!

    Small tools, small crews, big ideas!

    Thanks for sharing!

    NF

  3. Derrick_SA says:

    a nice read, thanks for taking the time.

    While I understand the spirit of the post, and agree with how things have changed. and yes for the better. One has to keep a few things in mind. we live in a world that costs money. Without money, you won’t have a roof over your head, food on your table, or wheels to get around.

    So while it is fair that budgets come down as technology improves and become more affordable, and makes it cheaper to make good films and music videos, alas, food’s prices does not …

    so the point I’m making is, as much fun as it is to work for free, or very little, you won’t have a roof over your head for long if you do that. you have 30 days a month to generate enough income to pay the bills, your time has a certain value that is measurable depending on your required lifestyle I suppose. You need to make money in that time you have available.

    I’m not saying don’t do free work, there is a time and a place for everything, I’m saying we need to be able to pay our way through life…

    - Derrick

    1. Philip Bloom says:

      yeah it’s not about doing everything for free, just a personal experience from Olly of his music video journey. i certainly cant afford to just do unpaid work but most times for me it’s the most creative rewarding…

      1. Derrick_SA says:

        True. I think when you do a free project you feel less of the responsibility, therefore you experiment a bit more, mostly for the better.

        And you are correct, there is a time and place for everything, paid word aswell as non-paying work

        - Derrick

      2. roryhinds says:

        This seems to be the norm these days with labels knowing there are filmmakers out there willing to work for “creative expression” but no matter how you wrap it up and present it its still exploitation.

        The artist needs the video to promote the band and sell albums, so its of value to all involved.

        I agree the budges of yesterday were well over priced but these unrealistic low/no budget projects are what will kill this industry. Just because its fun and creative doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get paid so we can live.

        How long can you pay your bills on “artist expression” working for free. Will your mortgage company forget this months mortgage payment because you have a fabulous showreel. I guess when you’re younger your overheads don’t really exist so you can work for your reel, but even the young guys will soon realise that you can’t run a business getting no pay when living expenses continue to rise and you need to purchase gear to keep up.

        Philip as you stated you could not afford to do unpaid work all the time but for these labels and the music industry at large it is all the time for them as they just keep finding people willing to do it for experience and being creative which if you enjoy making videos and are not living at home with your parents supporting you its impossible to stay alive so you loose out to people who can afford to do it for no pay and the cycle continues and continues and continues.

        Its a great article and nice to hear it from the artist / band perspective. What I would say is everyone has bills to pay and a living to sustain so the artists/bands and labels should think hard when they put these constrains on budgets and still require a professional to use professional gear to deliver a product that is broadcast in the market place. How would they deal with making no money but working hard and having huge bills to pay for all the camera gear and post gear you’ve invested in, not to mention actually getting paid for your skill and time.

        The state of the music video business is so bad that there are even places that hold “contests” for creating the music video, its crazy.

        I’d love to run a contest to get my plumbing fixed or my house build, I could have plumbers and builders do the work then I’ll choose who did it the best and pay them £20 for the pleasure…. hey they get a great deal and a showreel piece. – I don’t think it would fly in that industry so why do we let it in ours?

        Artists shoot themselves and other artists when you give away time, skill, equipment and creativity.

        1. Philip Bloom says:

          Cannot disagree more. Artists collaborating together, like myself and Olly have for the love of it is the best creative experience of my life! not saying do this for everyone and everything. Far from it…money NEEDS to be earned. But sometimes you gotta do this for the love of it for your own satisfaction and sanity!

  4. visualmed says:

    ..Phil is good and talented person i love what he do very good article

    1. Nitroman says:

      This is a very interesting article indeed. Thanks so much for you all for sharing.

      As a stills photographer who’s trying to add another string to his creative bow, I’ve started shooting dslr video in the hope to find a new way to earn money.

      Sadly this digital revolution has had a profound impact on earnings from stills photography over the last few years. Photography has been devalued and is worth considerably less than it used to be due to many factors. For instance, images I used to sell through International agencies like Getty Images for £250 now sell for the same use for one tenth of that price at best.

      As Derrick_SA states, we all have bills to pay and whilst it’s great top work for nothing – this will not pay the mortgage or nor fund the purchase of expensive new equipment. We all need commercial jobs to survive.

      It makes me wonder how creatives will earn a living in the future, when large corporations like stock agencies, record companies etc (who still have large profits) seem to be the only ones who now make money.

  5. RAM video says:

    Olly
    Thanks for the peak behind the curtain.
    Great post.

  6. henry coll says:

    May I be the devil’s advocate?

    I know the music industry very well, as I’ve been involved in it for around 20 years. In all this time I’ve seen plenty of bands making a living out of music, many of them even got rich, under the umbrella of a major label.

    Now that the monopoly of music distribution has dissapeared and bands are “free” an go solo, well, not a single one is making a penny and all band members must have a daytime job to live as music has become just a hobby for them.

    The idea of being “free”, DIY and not having a company getting the biggest slice of your cake is very compelling, but it just doesn’t work. For every band finally “making it” through the Net and Youtube, there are 100.000 others that fail. And when that band makes it… they sign with a Major. Oh the irony.

    Technology has made tools available to many, but the collateral effect has been the offer/product has multiplied 1,000 times. You now need EXPOSURE more than ever, and that’s precisely what a major label brings you. Honestly, you stand more chances of winning the lottery, than make yourself a name as a band on youtube/net, with another 1million bands trying the very same thing.

    As for music videos, the same applies. Tools are cheap now and everybody’s a director these days. But they are working for peanuts. And the end result is pretty poor, not technically mind you, but considering the final product overall. How many seconds will you watch that indy video before hitting the remote? That’s because it’s the professionals what matters. A professional producer, audio engineers, assistants, arrangers..etc in the case of music. A creative director, an scritpwriter, director, props manager, casting director, locations… etc in the case of music videos.
    Yes, you could put up a team of young talented fellows who “donate their time” and end up with a great product. But how many times are they willing to do so, to work for free “just so they get noticed one day and get hired by a production company”?

    I went to the Advertising industry long ago, where creativity is at their peak, budgets are stil healthy, and despite a crew of 30, 50 or even 100 people, everyone gets paid a proper wage.
    And if the project of a (label) low-budget music video arises at around €12k, you can get a small team and shoot at a proper studio/location with an ALEXA and HMIs on a single day and edit with Smoke on Mac the next. It makes all the difference.

    1. wbrock001 says:

      So in effect you’re saying that since its so much more accessible to DIY, that much gets lost in the frenzy of extra material out there. And record labels are still, for the most part, able to get a group above the din to get noticed and ultimately paid.

  7. Kent Allison says:

    I have to say, I’m liking these guest posts ’cause they fit perfectly with the philosophy (no pun intended) of this site to share knowledge/experiences! Olly … great to hear about your experiences in the commercial music/video industry and loving what I’m hearing from your new recording! Phil … any chance we can get some more wise words from the “red-neck hippy”? My favourite line was what Pierce said about collaboration: “I’ve gotten to where I don’t like to shoot by myself … but when my buddies come out … it’s on man!” Wisdom.

  8. HellKat says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for this very interesting post. It just happened that I am on my way to shoot my first music video (film). I watch (and read) tons of videos related to this genre in an attempt to understand it. What you wrote changed a lot in my thinking about the whole thing. No, I am not talking about financial part of the thing – my goals are 100% creativity – but many things mentioned in the post transcended in my mind and provoked many other thoughts.

    Since I started talking about creativity part, I want to use this opportunity to express many thanks to Olly for Ascension Day and and Philip’s extensive comments that followed.

    Taking my hat off,

    Serge

    1. Nyquest Limited says:

      Good post…..Phillip did it because he wanted to…. Fine…..Olly let him cos he’s a mate & knows Phil is good….Fine.
      All consenting adults here.
      Olly was highlighting the fact things could be done cheap & well compared to the good/ bad old days He did get a bit carried away with the doing it for free ideal….. Would Turin Brakes play for nowt… not sure but I’d say no & I wouldn’t expect them to as that’s how they make a living. However filming your mate with a camera he owns for a day with no crew isn’t like sorting out a gig.

      I shoot live concert DVD’s for TV & DVD…I used to get paid…still do sometimes….. however I now operate Joint Ventures.
      I pay & perform (with my usual crew) all the video & audio production tasks.We recoup the cost…true costs……and split any profit 50/50….Like a label really but with better royalty rate & no false accounting.

      I am directing a 10 camera HD shoot at the Albert Hall (Sunflower Jam Charity gig)on 16th Sept….Brian May, Alice Cooper, Bruce Dickenson etc etc..would anyone like to film it for free…be good for your reels……hehe only kidding we are getting paid for once!

      All the best
      Dave Meehan
      Nyquest Ltd
      21-25 The Observer Building
      Rowbottom Sq
      Wigan
      Lancs
      WN1 1LN
      Latest HD Projects We Have Produced
      Official Hello Quo cinematic documentary Released Nov 2012
      The Wonder Stuff “Never Loved Elvis” Live CD/DVD
      Ocean Colour Scene “Moseley Shoals Live”
      Steve Miller Band Live At Albert Hall
      Alice Cooper “Theatre Of Death” Blu Ray & DVD
      Australian Pink Floyd for PBS TV USA at Hammersmith Apollo & DVD
      The Levellers “Levelling The Land” Live CD/DVD triple disc on sale now
      The Stranglers – Hammersmith Apollo
      Ellie Goulding – Hammersmith Apollo
      New Model Army – The Forum

  9. joepreston says:

    Thanks for this Olly. A very insightful article emphasising the incredibly exciting, dynamic and creative future music videos offer. I am a long time fan of Turin Brakes and cannot wait to hear the upcoming solo album based on the incredible strength of ‘If not now when’ and Philip Bloom’s fantastic video and doco teaser.

  10. haukia says:

    Hi! I’ve been a longtime follower of this blog, and this is my first comment of a post here. I’m a professional music video director, who started his career maybe five years ago just when the budgets plummeted and basically the whole face of music industry changed. I started with making videos for my own band, then did a few for friends who just got signed and took off from there. At first the budgets would be only a couple of hunderd euros, and so on. Basically I learned the craft just by doing that, small budgets, friends and good ideas so I’ve never grown used to using big crews with art directors, location designers and what not. Not that I dont appreciate skills and professional take on things, I just wouldn’t know what to do with it. Nevertheless, I can’t get my head around the comments conrgratulating the “welcome change of no-to-low budgets” which somehow makes us more innovative and creative. I never felt a budget holding me back. Budget gives me the artistic freedom of even trying to get close to my artistic vision! Could such master-works as Massive Attacks Protection have been possible with a “talented crew and willing volunteers”? If budget is something that holds you back and restraints your creativity then you are doing something wrong. Dont get me wrong, of course artistic collaboration between friends is fun, but its much more fun to do it with a budget. I like hiring my talented friends who happen to be professional artists to work on a very dull pop song so that we can at least try to make a good and interesting music video out of it.
    Art it ’till you like it, I say!

    (sorry for the long reply!)

  11. I’m also a long time reader of this blog and this is my first proper comment. Recently me and my colleague set up a production company for narrative projects and our first project was a music video. We tried to offer a band we know (signed to an independent label) something different, with a plotline of a cagefighter to cut back to back to them playing in an abandoned industrial location we’ve rented for the day. We asked for a decent budget of £800, which in the end left about £100 for me and £100 for my producer/ 1st AD. It was just us two on the crew.

    They think we’ve ripped them off. People they know poison them with talk that this was too much money, but how is a filmmaker supposed to make a living if he can’t get paid? -I love working with small budgets to challenge myself but I think this image of low budget filmmaking sometimes works against filmmakers in that people expect miracles to be made for pennies.

    Anyway, here’s the music video we’ve made for them (doesn’t mention their name because they don’t want to use it) – If someone sees this, please give us some feedback :) did we really ask for that much money considering the end result?

    https://vimeo.com/48942536

    1. wbrock001 says:

      I think it was beyond awesome for the budget! Image looked great, very cinematic, kept the pace very well. I can spout out ideas, but that’s all pretty relative. For what you created for the budget, it was flat out spectacular. Oh, just one comment…the fighter should have had some bruises or sign that he was in a fight. Kudos. So you should add a description on vimeo talking about equipment, codec, framerate, etc.

      1. thanks for the feedback! -and yeah we regret not having done proper make up, at least after the fight :D

  12. nice post.thanks,philip.

    there are cons and pros .

    what we have today is too much music and videos these days .everybody can make a track or be a musicvideo director.thats good. but if there is too much of everything , at the end its just a noise and trash. most of them . they all look the same.same canon looking videoish picture (to be honest ,canon saved our asses), poor lighting, band is playing ,couple of actors (friends of course) ,minimum storyline,no action ,bad styling etc. to make a quality product , u need money, to hire the best crew (best stylist, best make up artist, best DP available,art department ,props ,light ,better camera, good locations,good editor, best colorist ,nice models ,actors etc etc) . u need professionals and experienced people. if u know them well ,they can do one job for free,sure .because of you or in the name of art. but of course, first of all u need an idea, a vision. then again, if there is no budget ,u cant think big or let your imagination fly….

    i have done for free some vids for friends (around 10 from 200 videos, i have done from 1993) ,produced and even paid from my pocket, to make something cool ,because i love music. but if u have to pay your rent and feed your kids …
    i miss 80s and 90s class and quality. in music and videos.

    cheerz

  13. wbrock001 says:

    I heard an NPR (National Public Radio) interview with a producer who worked with Rihanna. He went on to say the cost to put one of her songs out was about $2.4 million (if I remember correctly). The production was about $50,000 to make the song. Then the rest of the large amount was making sure it launches everywhere at once, iTunes, Amazon, music bloggers, a lot of DJ’s and radio, and corporate charges to make sure the song gets airtime. On this specific song, it didn’t do as well as others had, but the technique and costs were pretty much the same song to song. As someone who makes youtube videos, I can attest that without active marketing, videos just don’t get seen when you’re competing with so much other material out there. Or in some cases, folks get lucky and it goes viral…and I hear people say “lets make a viral video”…well its just not that simple. To get anything in front of anyone these days, takes an active push, and that takes money…or a very active behind the scenes community.

  14. Paul Abrahams says:

    I can relate to this post by Olly. Our band The Reels dealt with the same music biz during the late 70s & 80s signed with Polygram/Mercury with a ton of money spent on Music Videos. Often leaving us in debt and with tacky videos to show for it. At the same time it was history in the making and if it wasn’t for Labels throwing money around, there would be no memorabilia of those times. So now I’m older, wiser (cough) and ready to try my hand at songwriter producer and video maker. Looking forward to getting some material out there and making new connections and new collaborations/friendships.