Music Promos: To Be or Not To Be?

Saturday 9th of July 2011 in Digital by

Am currently ensconced in The One Point's edit suite watching Pendulum's 'Watercolour' music promo (2010). It's a glorious piece of work, festooned in amorphous imagery, blue-tinged, anamorphic lens motif, CG'd astral metaphors, expensive-looking slo-mo performance -- plus, of course, a brilliant song. Business-wise, everything a music promo should be: exciting, engaging, memorable, innovative and, moreover, marketable. I've no idea who's produced it, but they've done the Australian-British electrorock outfit proud. It looks like it cost a fortune.

Lots of filmmakers, myself included, were initially attracted to filmmaking because of the presupposed opportunity to produce music promos. My childhood memories are kaleidoscopically, endearingly and emotionally charged with visions of a white-stripped Adam Ant leaping though a pane glassed window, Duran Duran's John Taylor getting soaked by an elephant in their 'Save a Prayer' promo, the Prodigy's Keith Flint farting about in a disused underground tunnel in the 'Firestarter' promo etc., etc. Who wouldn't want to produce music promos? They're brilliant! And, done well, are seminal and contribute to our cultural history.

Back in say, the 1990s, this was an understandable ambition. When I was producing music promos (up until 2008 or so), it was invariably with a producer/director called Nick Small. Nick cut his teeth with NME journalist, Steven Wells. Together they co-formed a production company entitled GobTV; with offices in Soho and LA, they spent most of the '90s co-producing promos ranging from poptarts PJ and Duncan (aka, Ant and Dec) to hard rockists Manic Street Preachers and Skunk Anansie. For Nick and Steven, life was good. Sort of... According to Nick, the LA office was a 'pain in the arse' to run, and its maintenance attributed to the company folding. However, they created a venerable portfolio of videos which is still clocking up thousands of weekly hits on YouTube in 2011. Bravo!

At some point during the late-90s, though, something changed. Global access to the Web. The double-edged opportunistic sword of promotional opportunities the Web incited seismically changed things, for GobTV and for the music industry in general. The first casualty was singles sales. Consequently, the BBC decommissioned poor ol' Top of the Pops. Some say that profit-hungry record companies charging upto £4 for a CD single didn't really help matters -- but that fact, now 10-or-so years later, is academic, I suppose.

Industry, along with the hardcopy newspaper industry, are now in a shared state of transition and flux. Future profits are incalculable, unpredictable. Within these private sectors, the ingenious entrepreneurs are the ones capable of developing new revenue streams. New revenue streams begets new media? Possibly. The corporate financial sector has a delightful little motto: 'Is the variability worthy of the diversification?' In layman's terms: Is the risk worth the return? As far as music promos are concerned, it's not. Promos nowadays are, at best, a loss leader, because it's (currently, at least) proving that its live performances and merch sales which are the exclusive avenues capable of recouping investment into promo budgets and artist development. But! In a quickly shifting-sands environ, this has also recently changed as well, when platforms such as iTunes (et al.) pioneered the single-song mp3 download market. David Lee Roth once stated (1991), 'Most albums are rubbish. There is maybe 2 or 3 great songs on them, and the rest is filler.' The iTunes community have embraced this, downloading the 2-or-3 singles repeatedly, generating more money for an album -- moreover, an album its downloaders will never fully listen to -- then if that album was released in the traditional way, via the shops.

And so, we come full circle: these individual mp3 downloads -- invariably singles -- require a promo video. However, things aren't the same here either. The careerist ladder of music promo production -- start small, get bigger, get a little bit bigger, get bigger still, get to the top -- doesn't exist anymore. The middle rungs of it, figuratively speaking, have been axed away. One is now either scratching a living at the bottom, producing low-to-no budget promos, competing with the singer's-uncle's-brother-ensconced-in-his-bedroom (replete with a computer full of illegally bit torrented post-production software), or the production companies at the top, with long-standing contracts with the remaining few music labels, doing the high-end stuff. There is no 'way in' any more, unless one gets a job with the latter. The exception -- there's always an exception, of course -- is self-promotion via our old friend the Web, and the optimistic belief that, giving enough time/online exposure, one's video hosted somewhere like, say, YouTube or myspace, will result in the megabucks.

In an era of the music industry's A&R execs already overwhelmed with multi-multi-new media platform ingestion on a daily basis, the odds are infinitesimally small for A) a new band/artist flagging themselves up; and B), a music promo puncturing the music industry's attention. One now does no-to-low budget promos exclusively for the art, or a labour of love for the artist. Is your artist really worth all of that the hard work? In an age of austerity, this is a question which can only answered individually.

Darren Edwards.



 


 


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