MTV debuted 28 years ago this summer, amplifying the impact of what we see on the pop music we hear, and creating obvious commercial reasons for record labels and performers alike to keep potential video visual hooks in mind when making and marketing songs.Tristen Video screen shot

Videos by American Songwriter

MTV debuted 28 years ago this summer, amplifying the impact of what we see on the pop music we hear, and creating obvious commercial reasons for record labels and performers alike to keep potential video visual hooks in mind when making and marketing songs.

Singles came to need a good beat you could cut film to, rockers were introduced with surreal eye-catching images more (or less) suggested by the lyrics; and country music, from the early going, tended to extend its storytelling through video narratives. Across the genres, whether the video underscored the song’s own message, or poured on others like lumpy gravy, it filled in what would otherwise have been blanks, too much so for some tastes; a recording was always going to stick in the audience’s mind, to some degree, as the video framed it.

If anybody thought that lavish music video productions “killing the radio stars” was the last chapter in what’s really an eons-long story of image meets music, it’s clear in this era of homegrown videos posted on YouTube, video editing tools arriving on iPhones, and fan-made interactive video variations that that wasn’t so. It’s no surprise, in 2009, that a recent Sarah Siskind appearance in New York was heralded by Time Out magazine’s website via—a flip phone captured video performance of the singer/songwriter just standing there singing.

Yet first visual impressions still last, and the perception of a song or performance by audiences (and bookers and promoters and distributors) is still affected by the qualities of the visual presentation. It’s the ways to get there that have changed.

“The age of the big budget music video is clearly as on the wane now as is the age of the CD,” says Craig Havighurst, music journalist and founder and producer at String Theory Media, the Nashville-based A/V production firm. “Artists budgets are pretty thin, but you still want video to be visually arresting, use light well, and tell their story well, on their terms. Beautifully shot HD video recorded with good mics is still going to look a lot better, on YouTube, than some shaky automatic setting Handicam video with muffled, bad sound.

“Look at Old Crow Medicine Show’s experience. They were in New York on a still photo shoot, but the photographer also happened to shoot video, and he said ‘Hey, if you give me a couple grand more, we can go downtown and shoot something.’ They rigged it up underneath that construction overhang, got a performance permit for one street corner, then purposely started playing on the opposite one, so a cop came along and stopped them. That, importantly, felt like something real, because it was. It costs almost nothing—and it is shown on GAC and CMT.”

And there’s the saga of Randy Houser’s “Boots On,” the widely-seen video single that began by embracing a model “viral” phenomenon, an audience-created video of toddler Drake Dixon lip-synching and “playing” some remarkable rubber guitar to the tune, in the back seat of a car.

“That Drake video took on a life of its own,” says Fletcher Foster, Senior Vice President and General Manager at Universal South, Randy’s label, and a veteran video producer. “A YouTube link to that video spread around the office in one day, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do something with this.’ Then it went up on Perez Hilton’s site, and it got 400,000 streams in one day. People were calling from CNN and ABC’s Good Morning America about it.

“My challenge was that it was a video about the song, and the little kid Drake, but with no reference back to Randy. If this were an Alan Jackson or Reba McEntire, that might be OK, but to establish an artist we needed to take command of this thing. So, I created a little storyline around it, about going to a gas station, like parents do all the time anyway. We licensed the footage from Drake’s parents, and shot video, originally just to edit it together and keep it viral, take it back to YouTube. We shot our part in two hours, with a minimal crew, but with a much higher definition camera. So we still had to go back and sort of dumb the footage down, to make it look more like the Drake footage.

“We’ve had radio programmers that did not play the last Randy Houser single, who saw this video and we got the ‘add’ the next day, “ Fletcher notes. “They saw something they wanted to get behind. You can’t, finally, put a dollar figure on creativity, six-figure or low. We’ve seen audio go from 8-track to pristine, and similar things with pristine visuals; now it looks like we’ve gone back to looking at flip phone videos!”

It may be too early to nail down how these hybrid pro-am approaches and the greater accessibility of professional video to budget-limited budget artists are impacting the music itself, something always easier to chart in retrospect—but decades of music video experience suggest that it surely will.

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