Algorithms, Product Placement and Shirtless Boys: Inside the Music Video Economy of 2018

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This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week's worth content that looks at the past, present and future the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we take a look at how music videos get made, how they make money, and why -- long after the golden age MTV -- they still play a major role in artists' careers.

A camera panning through a warehouse lingers on a dancing shirtless rapper. A gospel choir gets gunned down. Donald Glover’s face seizes in fear as he flees the terrors our modern racist world. The music video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” released in May, demonstrated the artistic power a format that some people had left for dead: The clip, directed by Hiro Murai, was an unflinching look at gun violence as an American minstrel show. It also demonstrated the medium’s commercial clout: Of the track’s 66.7 million streams in the United States its first week release, fully 44.7 million them came from the viral video, making the song an unexpected No. 1 single.

The video had an immense, immediate impact on pop culture, the kind rarely seen since another American horror story 35 years earlier: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the biggest event-video ever played on MTV. While some fans still lament the absence a premier cable-TV venue for music videos, online platforms, especially YouTube, now have even greater effects on a song's fortunes. Back in 1983, even saturation play “Thriller” on MTV only got Jackson’s single to No. 4 on the Hot 100.

Danny Lockwood, the executive vice president creative and video production at Capitol Music Group, has been making videos since 1992. “When I started,” he says, “videos were purely loss leaders, and MTV airplay was the golden ring: We aimed for brainwash rotation and labels were selling CDs.” The Internet capsized the music industry’s business model, he says, and for a time video budgets severely contracted. But in the longer term, Lockwood explains, “it was the best thing ever for music videos. MTV’s playlists were small, and you were watching whatever MTV decided to serve you. Now, the eyeballs have become more valuable because they’re not passive.”

Although the recording industry periodically rails against the YouTube “value gap,” arguing that the service underpays for music, the income stream from video play has become significant: In some cases, big-budget videos can pay for themselves. Zack Gershen -- partner and executive vice president at the mtheory artist-development firm -- however, urges his clients not to focus on the possibility a video recouping its costs.

“If we get meaningful engagements, we’re going to monetize it,” he says. “For most artists, that will come in the form monetizing touring. Everybody gets how a cool video can be really interesting to fans, but our job is to educate artists on how we maximize the algorithms these platforms. The way the YouTube algorithm works is you need to have an active channel: If you don’t, you have depressed the potential virality any video. And you need to have a steady flow content.”

That means not just “ficial” music videos with high production values, but lyric videos with just the words, static videos with the music playing over a single image, and behind-the-scenes footage. Gershen says that to maximize the algorithm, “there’s a tremendous amount value in having a mix video assets with one underlying audio track.”

Yet another format on the rise: “vertical video,” meaning videos sized to fit the dimensions a phone rather than a monitor. Horizontal videos, it turns out, can’t just be cropped into vertical videos -- or at least not with appealing results -- so artists are still figuring out how best to make use them. Vertical videos can be featured more easily on sites like Instagram, and are particularly important on Spotify: They appear for some songs on Spotify’s most popular playlists, such as “Today's Top Hits,” and have gotten enough results in listener engagement that labels and artists are looking at them more seriously.

“It’s a fairly nascent creative asset,” Gershen says. “People have had lots conversations about where the sweet spot vertical video is: Horizontal videos are the more premium content, while the vertical tend to be more about] narrative and lifestyle, but that’s rapidly changing.”

Even with a full menu video options, there’s still great power in the flagship ficial video. “Official music videos are still one the most important tools we have for establishing the brand aesthetic,” Lockwood says. “It’s a tool we have to really make stars and cement them in the public mind.”

Dua Lipa experienced that power first-hand with her single “New Rules.” The singer had found making videos to be one the trickiest parts her career to manage: “When I’m writing songs in the studio, I’m imagining doing them live at a festival, not the music video,” she explains. But the “New Rules” clip, showing an all-girl slumber party-turned-empowerment-session, changed the course her career when it debuted last July: “The song was doing well, but the music video turned it into that viral thing. It was relatable, it was fun, and nobody expected it to do what it did.” To date, "New Rules" has been streamed 539.3 million times in the U.S., 229.5 them for the video. (Worldwide, the video has been viewed more than one billion times on YouTube.)

The “New Rules” video might look casual, especially when compared to, say, Taylor Swift stalking through a sci-fi dystopia and transforming herself into a killer cyborg in "...Ready for It," but Lipa says it took four solid days in Miami with director Henry Scholfield to realize a vision inspired by a 1980s Versace ad campaign. (Specifically, an image model Naomi Campbell getting a piggyback ride from model Kristen McMenamy). “Music videos take quite a lot time if you want them to be really good,” Lipa says. “We spent two days rehearsing the whole video over and over, so when we did shoot it everything would run smoothly and on time.”

Even more grueling was Lipa’s shoot for “IDGAF,” a clip that blended together two sets dancers, including twin versions Lipa, through the magic editing. “We had some green-screen geniuses making sure it all lined up perfectly,” she says. “We shot for 22 hours, starting at 6:00 a.m. and finishing at 4:00 a.m. the next day -- it was definitely a testing the patience.”

The basic method putting together artists and directors has remained the same across the decades, although email has replaced faxes: A label solicits treatments for a song, letting people know what the budget for the clip is. The executive in charge video production, though titles vary, is ten known as the video commissioner. Gabe Spierer, vice president content and strategy at the Beggars Group, is one those commissioners. “Frequently, we’ll go out with the budget range and get back treatments that cost twice as much,” he says. “We have to say, ‘No, we were serious.’”

In the heyday MTV, there was a panoply production houses like Propaganda Films specifically devoted to making videos, many them adjuncts commercial production houses. “Directors’ reps would come to all the labels and plug all their clients,” Lockwood says. “Now it’s the wild west. There’s a few reps left, but they handle a hundred directors apiece. The commissioners now have to hone their relationships and creative acumen.” That could mean spotting somebody doing great work on Instagram, or just paying close attention to other artists’ music videos.

Director Sarah McColgan, for example, started f working in commercial photography but made a super-low-budget video for a friend, Ro James, who had recently been signed to RCA, which led to a commission from Roc Nation for singer Bridget Kelly, which led to Miguel's “Candles in the Sun,” which got nominated for a Video Music Award (best video with a social message). After that, she had as much work as she could handle. “I want to make things that are meaningful and creative,” she says, “but a lot times in pop music, you’re essentially making a musical commercial for an artist's brand. It can be great -- there are a lot creative music videos being made -- but it can also be exhausting. There’s the artist, there’s management, there’s the label, and everyone has their own agenda. When you get into commercials, there’s a lot the same issues, but they’re paying you a rackload money.”

McColgan values her continuing relationships with artists -- she’s directed a couple videos for Kelly Clarkson and co-directed two videos with Charli XCX, including last summer’s star-studded “Boys.” McColgan says Charli “was down to earth and knowledgeable about the production process.” To gather the celebrity appearances for "Boys," they shot at Charli’s house, at Coachella, and in foreign countries including South Korea -- 17 shooting days in total, stretching out over many weeks. “The budget 'Boys'] gradually increased with every month and every shoot,” McColgan says. “But music video budgets, the money goes very quickly. Certain days, we were scraping together all our resources to make something happen.”

While it's possible to do a microbudget video armed only with creativity and a camera phone, the videos McColgan has worked on recently had budgets ranging from $80,000 to north $500,000. “When I was green, some my videos were in the $30,000 to $60,000 range. For household name artists, $100,000 to $125,000 is pretty average. But they might spend $300,000 or $400,000 on the first video from an album, and then save money on the follow-ups. Our budgets don’t include the artists’ glam teams and transportation costs, because that can double the cost: the stylist can be $50,000. And the worldwide superstars like BeyoncĂ© and Katy Perry are easily spending a million-plus.” (Those numbers gibe with what other industry sources report.)

“With relatively few examples, a video’s impact is fleeting,” Spierer says. “It’s hard to look back and justify overspending.” But Gershen has a different perspective: “If] a big video resonates, you’ll see quite a bit repeat viewing. And a really powerful video, that gets into playlists.” 

The philosophical approach many industry players has shifted: Music videos are now seen less as promotions intellectual property and more as manifestations that IP. Typically, labels front the money for music video production. “They are the beneficiaries the royalties that come from those videos, so it’s their obligation to pay for them,” Gershen says. “Artists who are not signed need to be self-financed. Apple’s funded a bunch videos, Spotify less so, and YouTube is doing some financing content, partnering with artists.”

Another source money can be making use product placement, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly: “As little as $5,000 and as much as hundreds thousands dollars, depending on the integration and the artist,” Lockwood reports. “Brand dollars are more important than ever to us. It allows us to make more and better videos -- and we like to showcase brands in the very best possible light.”

Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” currently No. 5 on the Hot 100, has a hit video directed by Nick Walker that depicts a charming date night at an amusement park -- one that kicks f with a prominent use Lyft. “Videos are expensive,” Mai says the product placement. “I’ve definitely been in situations where you wish you had a little bit money to pull things together.” She likes her videos to closely mirror her songs, and the extra resources product placement affords can help artists like her bring them to life: “Music videos are like acting -- if I don’t believe in the treatment, I’m not going to be able to perform with 100 percent confidence.”

Directors such as David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and F. Gary Gray turned their 1990s music-video reels into feature-film careers; today, some the top talents in the business are looking to make the same transition. “You can see which ones have movies on their mind,” Lockwood says, adding that he prefers to work with those directors: “Their pursuit excellence is higher than other directors.” He name-checks Colin Tilley (Kendrick Lamar's "Alright"), Melina Matsoukas (BeyoncĂ©'s "Formation"), Romain Gavras (M.I.A.'s "Bad Girls"), and Andy Hines (Logic's "1-800-273-8255") as prominent examples.

Jonathan Desbiens, who under the name Jodeb has directed videos for Imagine Dragons, Skrillex, and Jack White, says, “Music videos are my school -- they allow you to fail without being in trouble. I want to make films. That’s always been the goal.” He believes that one the underappreciated aspects music videos is that directors can periodically change course and reinvent themselves without unduly disrupting their artistic brands. “You don’t get to do that with movies,” he says. “I better do my first feature properly.”

Big-budget videos are still being made and having an impact, even if the channel through which they’re seen has evolved tremendously -- and directors are adapting for better or worse. Says McColgan: “It doesn’t change the approach, but it makes me sad, shooting all these videos on an Alexa the high-end Arri Alexa digital camera], with so much time color-grading and nitpicking and crafting the shots. It could be cinema quality, and it’s very sensitive for all the people on the crew to know that for most people, it’s going to be a blip on YouTube on the phone while they’re doing something else.” She laughs ruefully -- it’s one more contradiction in a business full them. “I try not to think about it.”