Monday, August 16, 2010

The History Of The Music Video

I have a book coming out next year called The Musician's Video Handbook that gives a musician all the tools he needs to create any number of videos that are now integral to an artist or band's career.

Here's an excerpt from chapter 1 that traces the history of the music video.

Music with picture goes back a lot further than you might think. With the arrival of the synchronized film sound in 1926, many bands, vocalists and dancers of the era were viewed as excellent demonstration content for the new medium and featured in short musical films by the Vitaphone company. Then in 1932, in what was perhaps the first music video, blues singer Bessie Smith appeared in a two-reel short film called St. Louis Blues which featured a dramatized performance of the hit song. Moving into the 1940’s, musician Louis Jordan made short films for his songs that also foreshadowed many of today’s performance-style music videos.
In the 60’s, music videos started to become more experimental. One of the premier prime-time television shows of the time was “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” that frequently featured the guitar playing and singing son of Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky Nelson. In a departure from the typical performance video where the artist played to the camera, patriarch Ozzie Nelson directed and edited the video of the Ricky’s hit song "Travelin' Man" and featured images of various parts of the world cut into the performance. This was certainly not even worth a second thought by today’s standards, but it was groundbreaking at the time. I can remember thinking how distracting those images were when I watched it back then, but the video was the precursor of things to come.
One of the earliest directed performance clips was the promo film made by The Animals for their breakthrough 1964 hit "House Of The Rising Sun", which was filmed in a studio on a specially-built set and featured an edited sequence of tracking shots, close-ups and long-shots, as singer Eric Burdon, guitarist Hilton Valentine and bassist Chas Chandler walked around the set in a series of choreographed moves. Heavy stuff for the time!
We’ll put the breakthrough feature films by The Beatles and others aside, since this book is focused on every kind of video a musician needs except making a feature film, but it should be noted that the Fab Four used video to their full advantage even back then. In 1965, The Beatles began making promotional clips (then known as "filmed inserts") for distribution and broadcast in other countries so they could promote their record releases without having to make in-person appearances. At the same time, The Byrds began using the same idea to promote their singles in the United Kingdom, starting with the 1965 single "Set You Free This Time". After seeing the success of this strategy, the floodgates opened and just about every popular group of the time including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who, Procol Harem, and even The Carpenters all did several videos of selected hits. In the late 60’s, Motown records was one of the first record labels to see the advantages of having video of their acts, with all of their artists making several clips available as needed for the various dance shows of the era like American Bandstand.
But music videos were changing. Instead of limiting themselves to strictly performance videos, many acts began to explore the abstract, led by the major acts at the time, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. The monochrome 1966 clip for Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" shows Dylan standing in a city back alley, silently shuffling a series of large cue cards bearing key words from the song's lyrics in time to the music while his underground celebrity friends Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth converse in the background (the cue-card device has since been imitated in numerous music videos). Then in 1967, the clips for "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" took the promotional film format to a new level as they used techniques borrowed from avant-garde films such as reversed and slow motion, dramatic lighting, unusual camera angles and color filtering added in post-production. As with their music, the Fab Four felt the need to break from the traditional manner of production and tried to depict a narrative or plot instead of strictly performance.
By the end of the 70’s, everyone was getting into the act, as even cult groups like The Residents and Devo (who’s videos actually helped them break out to mass appeal) found it useful to produce their own videos. Bands like the Swedish group ABBA continued to use promotional videos of their songs with great success instead of touring (although they eventually did one brief tour of the States).
But music videos were about to be taken to another level as ex-Monkee guitarist Michael Nesmith began to consider video an integral part of the music and composed both music and the video at the same time. This conceptual leap became Elephant Parts, which was the first video album and first winner of a Grammy for music video. That being said, the biggest evolution in the marriage of video and music was about to come.
The atomic bomb of change in music video came with the arrival of MTV in 1981, but not many know that we have the evolution of technology to thank for its sudden surge in popularity. If it wasn’t for the fact that cable TV became widely available at that time, and the arrival of fairly affordable videotape recording and editing equipment (everything was shot on film to this point), the music video revolution wouldn’t have been nearly as rapid or bombastic. Suddenly there was an outlet that focused exclusively on the promotional video, and both MTV and their music fans couldn’t get enough of them. Almost overnight, MTV became a powerful force in the music industry, launching or propelling the careers of superstar acts like Madonna, Culture Club, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Queen, and The Police, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the major record labels.
But perhaps the most dramatic event for both MTV and music video occurred in 1983, when the most successful and influential music video of all time was released, the nearly 14-minute-long video for Michael Jackson's song "Thriller." While the video set new standards for production (produced and directed by film maker John Landis at a reported cost of $500,000), Thriller, along with earlier videos by Jackson for his songs "Billie Jean" and "Beat It", was instrumental in getting music videos by African American artists played on MTV. Up until that time, the network’s content was centered squarely on rock. MJ made it not only acceptable for black music to be played on the network, but set the stage for the hip-hop revolution that it would help propel into the mainstream. 
Many critics of MTV and the music industry feel that music changed for the worse as the network’s viewership grew and the videos became ever more sophisticated. Because MTV had become so important in breaking an act, the major labels began to look for artists with a well-honed image and good looks that translated well to TV, while the emphasis on the music became less of a concern. Perhaps this kind of thinking eventually led to the fact that the subsequent “hit” artists became less unique and more homogenized as constant video viewing was no longer the attraction that it was when MTV debuted. In order to maintain or even increase its viewership, MTV slowly morphed into a lifestyle channel for the young, today rarely playing videos at all.
You’d think that with a major distribution outlet like MTV virtually out of the market videos would have a diminished importance, but today video music has become an essential element in the modern musician’s arsenal of tools. With the rise of the Internet, an artist has more video distribution avenues than ever before thanks to sites like YouTube (and about 250 sites like it), music and video blogs, various social networks, and the artist’s own website. If used properly, a video can even be far more important for outreach and connection to fans than any other artist to fan communication method ever used before. Where once upon a time an occasional video was reserved as promotion for a hit by a best-selling act, video is now an integral part of the game plan of any serious musician now that the costs of production are so low and there are so many avenues for distribution. 
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