One of the (numerous) highlights of the 2013 Bradford International Film Festival was Adam Buxton’s Best of BUG show. In the Pictureville cinema he screened music videos from recent years that he thinks are of particular merit. I was familiar with heard several of the tunes, but had never seen the videos. This is not uncommon as I don’t always get to see music videos. It was a real eye-opener to see what amazing pieces of art have been created, such as recent videos by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bonobo and this by Shogu Tokumaru:
Adam Buxton didn’t discuss the evolution of the music video during his show, although I thought he might. This is something I think about quite a lot, and I don’t necessarily mean the evolution of the videos themselves, but more our relationship with them.
When I was about 15 I would eagerly await every third edition of The Chart Show on ITV on Saturday morning to see if I might catch a video by one of my favourite bands in the show’s Indie Top 10. TV programmes like that were the only way for people like myself to see music videos. I never had MTV, and there was no Internet. So, unless something was a hit, and could have its video shown on Top Of The Pops, there were few opportunities for people like myself to see them.
Videos on demand – 1990s style
In the mid 1990s things started to change, although rather slowly at first. I remember seeing the video to Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly‘ on a CD-ROM in 1995 and being totally blown away. Not by the song or the video, I must admit, but by the concept and what it heralded. “A video…?! On a CD…?! WOW!” thought I. It was one step away from a hovering skateboard as far as I was concerned.
In 1996, while at university in Salford, I did an assignment analysing music videos. I wanted to base my project on 3 Radiohead videos: Fake Plastic Trees, Street Spirit and Just. The trouble was, none of these videos were available in any way, unless you were able to tape them off the TV. (It wasn’t until 1998, and the release of 7 Television Commercials that these Radiohead videos could be watched ‘on demand’). So, I wrote to Parlophone in 1996 to entreat them for help. To my amazement, within a couple of weeks, they had posted me my very own Radiohead videotape.
The YouTube revolution
I use that Radiohead example to illustrate just how different things were not all that long ago. The MTV era is now behind us, and in the digital age the YouTube revolution has taken us to a totally different level. Of course, any student undertaking a similar assignment now would have no problem with accessing music videos.
Not only is the Internet where most music videos are now watched, but YouTube is even many a person’s first port of call for listening to music full stop. That’s quite incredible really and is worth pausing to reflect upon. There are so many ways to listen to music now, both offline and online, yet millions of people use a website that wasn’t even intended for music. As a consequence, every new song released really has to be on YouTube, whether it has a video or not, as with the new My Bloody Valentine album. I was shot down by the panel at the 2012 Live At Leeds Unconference for suggesting that bands should put all their new releases on YouTube. I would be interested to know whether the same panel would still hold that view now 12 months on.
So, we now have (virtually) every song on YouTube, with or without a video. Then we have artists’ other promotion videos; those which don’t accompany a song, and whose sole purpose seems to be to be viewed and shared online. The seven videos Mute Records put on YouTube to promote Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! album in 2008 are the first example of such that I can recall. I was struck at the time and saw this as a significant move. This wasn’t simply a band making videos, and then ensuring that they went on YouTube. These videos were, so far as I could tell, made specifically forYouTube.
The video and the single
The evolution of the single and the album is something I will write about another day. But it is impossible to talk about music videos without discussing singles.
When I was a boy a good music video might persuade me to part with my pocket money for a 7″ single, and the purchase of the single might then lead to me buying the corresponding album (notable examples from my youth don’t come any more significant than A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me‘). But now the distinction between a single and a video is far less well defined. In fact, to say that the video is the single is not an absurd statement.
When David Bowie announced his surprise return with the ‘Where Are We Now?’ single in January 2013, you couldn’t walk into a shop to buy it. There was no physical single to buy. Yes, you could buy the digital single from iTunes, but most Bowie fans didn’t waste their time buying the single. Instead they just pre-ordered The Next Day, the corresponding album, thus receiving an instant download of ‘Where Are We Now?‘.
‘Where Are We Now?‘ entered the UK singles charts at no.6. The follow up single ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)‘ only reached 102. The low placing of the latter single was merely because most fans had already pre-ordered the album, so had no need to buy the new single, which they had already paid for once. The low chart placing was not because nobody was bothered about the song. As I write, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)‘ has had a million more YouTube plays than ‘Where Are We Now?‘ (4.3m compared to 3.1m respectively). So, the fans clearly didn’t turn their back on Bowie for the second single. They took to it in their droves, but on YouTube rather than iTunes. It was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘video single’.
My problem with YouTube
Now, I’m conscious that I seem to have focused as much on the merits of YouTube here as I have the music videos themselves. Although I do think YouTube has become an amazingly useful tool for musicians and music fans alike, I do want to express one reservation I have about YouTube and its owners, Google. They are very good at promoting their own, often at the expense of others.
YouTube is not the only online video sharing platform, but search Google for any of the videos I’ve mentioned here and you will invariably find YouTube results ahead of those on other video platforms such as Vimeo and Daily Motion. Personally, I favour Vimeo for its usability, features and aesthetics. But Google would rather have you forget Vimeo exists. So, I will let Vimeo have the final say, as it enables you to view one of my favourite videos from the past couple of years, ‘Try To Sleep’ by Low.
Please use the space for comments below if you have anything to add, or any point to pick me up on.
This post was originally published on my ouralbert.net website in 2013. I have since retired that website.