Tegan Tuesday: The Music Video Effect

Part of the fun of graduate level training is the introduction to existing questions in your field. One of the topics presented for debate in my Masters was the phonograph effect. A short description of this debate is: does knowing there are preserved, repeatable versions of a performance change how we write, perform, and listen to music? Of course it does. Technology changes cultures and music is no exception to this. (The debate then becomes what specifically is the phonograph effect versus changing tastes.) But now, 150 years after Edison’s invention, I think we are experiencing a second shift: the music video effect.

While videos of musicians and songs existed in the 1960s and 1970s, these mostly don’t resemble the current understanding of a music video. A modern music video is a separate work of art that uses a piece of music as the predominant soundtrack for storytelling. This isn’t that they can’t be more than that — Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album come to mind — but they usually stick close to the recorded sound. Sia’s “Chandelier” is an example of modern visual storytelling that uses the song as the primary audio.

Early music videos, rather than being a separate art form, were often recordings of live TV performances, or weren’t far off from that format. Here’s The Monkees’s “Daydream Believer” as an example of the fake concert format.

These early videos weren’t much beyond advertising for tickets to live concerts and for album sales. Notable exceptions to this were long-form videos like Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” and The Beatles’s “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Compressing two decades of music video history, it’s enough to say that the biggest change to the value of music videos came in August 1981 when MTV first went on the air. The story I had always been told by my dad was that the first video played was The Buggles’s “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It is a story so pat, I doubted it, but a quick glance at wikipedia — your friend and mine! — suggests that it’s true. Now, because of the impact of MTV on young people, if an artist wanted to reach that market, they needed an arresting video in addition to a catchy radio hit. The forty years since then have only increased the emphasis placed on music videos, and even prioritized them over the development of albums. According to my friend’s own MA research (unpublished thesis entitled How TikTok is Changing the Music Industry), it is more cost efficient in the Spotify and TikTok world to have a handful of well-made and highly-produced singles with music videos than to build the narrative of an album that would have three-quarters of its tracks commercial non-starters. Most pop music consumers today are only looking for individual tracks anyway. The TikTok connection to videos is obvious, as it’s a visual medium, but even Spotify will often show music videos while streaming if the app is up on the phone or computer. That a streaming audio service is attempting to capitalize on the music video phenomenon is indicative of how prevalent this format is in the modern music industry.

Where the music video effect gets really interesting — to me — is the relationship between music videos and non-current popular music. Today, we have access to 150 years of recorded sound and each era has modern fans. One of my favorite digital archives and preservation projects is the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archives, with a close second being the Library of Congress National Jukebox. These platforms allow modern music lovers to hear everything from the latest vaudeville hit of 1899 (“Hello My Baby” anyone?) to home recordings of unidentified children singing folk songs. While I’m sure that there are early sound fans creating videos for some of these recordings, the majority of early sound fans on YouTube prioritize the physical medium. Their videos are often simply a turn table or phonograph playing the music, sharing the early album with you, the viewer. I suspect that these earliest recordings are less susceptible to the music video effect simply because they are niche markets with dedicated fans of the aesthetic. The goal of a digital rendition is not to bring modern aesthetics to the era, but to introduce modern music lovers to the aesthetics of a previous era.

There is, however, a pre-MTV era of music that is still commercially viable and widely popular: the classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Not all of the hits from the early music video days had videos made because it was an expensive extra. More than that, hindsight can tell us what tracks have stood the test of time. “Purple Haze”, for example, was considered a flop upon release, and now it’s one of Jimi Hendrix’s most well-known tracks. Why waste the money on a video if you weren’t even sure the song would be popular? Classic rock is thus the only genre that both has a large, active fanbase, and doesn’t currently have in-period music videos to bring into the digital, visual world. They also are still all under copyright. Because of this visual gap, in the past 5-10 years, many record companies have started producing officially licensed music videos to bring these beloved hits to a new market. There are three main categories for how to structure these videos: listening community, artistic community, and retrospective.

The first category is the celebration of the listening community. The first song that I noticed having had a modern music video made fits this category: Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

The music video is simple and doesn’t even include the singer, but it instead highlights the listener. “Tiny Dancer” has been a part of people’s listening experience since it’s release in 1971 and has been loved for all of those fifty years (although it technically wasn’t a commercial success as it never topped the charts). The newly crafted music video shows the viewer snapshots of the lives of the many people who listen to Elton John, and invites us to link our experience with theirs. Rather than highlighting a new work or an artist, this video celebrates the long-lasting cultural power of a hit song. The artist is important, the song is important, but the listening community built around it is where its current value lies.

The second category is also a variant on community. “Artistic community” specifically refers to the community that the artist has built. An example of this I saw recently (it’s what prompted this article!) is George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

The music video for this song is a fun romp telling the story of a secret spy organization, and has nothing to do with the song content. For this star-studded video, it is clear that the artist — who is posthumously present in the film — had had all of his friends asked if they wanted to make a film. This video is just a goofy and entertaining introduction for viewers who might be unfamiliar with the song. The non-topical video also in no way impedes the enjoyment of a long-time fan.

The final type of new video for an old tune is the nostalgic retrospective. An example of this is the new video for The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun.”

It’s a beautiful video that references the source material, but it primarily highlights old footage from the band’s heyday. A viewer of this type of video is most likely already familiar with the source material and the context for the nostalgia. This style is the hardest video for a newcomer to appreciate, but perhaps the easiest for a long-time fan. This style also feels closest to a fan video with an actual budget, so the only novelty here is the official sponsorship from the record label.

The thing that all three of my examples have in common is that they are mega-hits. It is a low-risk financial investment for a recording company to make a video for one of these tried-and-true songs. The Lovin’ Spoonful or Lulu aren’t likely to be eligible for officially licensed videos any time soon, no matter how popular they may have been in their own time. Personally, I hope that more videos are made in the first two categories, as I find both of them significantly more fun than simply being sad about times gone by. Feel free to share any examples of the music video effect that you’ve seen in your own corner of the internet — I’m always looking for more fun videos to watch!

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  1. K says

    I saw the premiere of MTV at a friend’s house, whose family had only just gotten cable–the first in the neighborhood. Yes, “Video Kills the Radio Star” was the first song played. And MTV harmed the careers of several singers that were considered less-than-attractive (for example, Christopher Cross).

    Trivia: Rosie O’Donnell was one of the v-jays on MTV.

    Old man yells at cloud: why did they stop playing music?!?!?

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I just turned 60 this year. I can well remember in the 80s, doing my homework in a university union basement room that had MTV on 24/7. We’d keep it on most of the time in our apartment, too, and every new video was endlessly analyzed and discussed.
    Much of what was said in the OP was news to me, though. I actually thought the whole music video trend had died out when MTV and VH1 quit playing them. Oh, occasionally when I heard something cool from Katy Perry or Taylor Swift I’d look up the video on Youtube, so I guess I knew that the Big Names were still making them. But without dedicated channels playing them all the time, I assumed they weren’t being widely watched any more. I’ve never gotten into social media or Spotify or Ticktock, so when you say

    The forty years since then have only increased the emphasis placed on music videos, and even prioritized them over the development of albums.

    Really? Get out!
    Especially the part about songs from the 60s and 70s getting their own modern videos: I had not one single clue. So thanks for giving this geezer some new information.

  3. John Morales says

    PS funny thing, that’s functionally Bowie interviewing MTV, not the other way around.

    (Mildly impressive)

  4. Dunc says

    There was a BBC show back in the ’80s called “The Golden Oldie Picture Show”, which produced videos for “classic” tracks of the pre-video era. Some of them were quite good.

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