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MTV made music videos cool. Technology will make them epic

Video never really killed the radio star, but it seemed like things might be heading that way when Micheal Jackson joined a zombie flash dance for the 13-minute epic that was the Thriller music video.

Its 1983 debut made millions of music fans realize music videos could be an event —  mini-movies that brought artists into your living room; no concert ticket or an album purchase required.

Music videos had become the currency of cool when a television network dedicated entirely to showing music videos, MTV, debuted in 1981 and managed to amass 22 million viewers while inspiring dozens of imitators. In the 1990s, music videos became so ubiquitous in popular culture that record labels shelled out over $1 million dollars on music video production no less than 22 times.

Times have changed, though. Once-popular music video countdown shows, which provided millions of people curated music video lists daily, have all but gone extinct. Only 17 music videos over the past 16 years got the $1 million budget treatment, which pales in comparison to the 1990s playground which saw rappers transmogrifying from liquid and the Jackson family exploring space. “MTV, play more damn videos,” Justin Timberlake famously quipped as he accepted his award for Best Male Artist acceptance speech at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards. “We don’t want to see The Simpsons on reality television.” 

Indeed, the music video is no longer en vogue, but it’s not dead either, just changing shape. Social media, interactivity and even virtual reality are all being used to revive and reinvigorate the art form.

Turning 90 degrees toward the future

In late June, Drake’s 23-year-old R&B crooner PartyNextDoor wanted to do something cool with the release of his music video for his song Come and See Me, featuring Kylie Jenner. Instead of turning to MTV, YouTube or even Facebook, he turned to Snapchat.  Come and See Me premiered in Snapchat’s Discovery tab, a coveted space usually reserved for media partners such as ESPN and Vice.

“I remember Instagram taking time. I remember everything taking its time to become a phenomenon, but Snapchat just immediately grew.”

Tyler Henry, PartyNextDoor’s 23-year-old manager, dreamed up the plan after watching Snapchat’s dramatic rise. “I remember Instagram taking time. I remember everything taking its time to become a phenomenon, but Snapchat just immediately grew,” Henry told Digital Trends. “I was always thinking in the back of my head ‘Wow, I imagine a next big step for them is to figure out how to get into music. Whether it’s premiering stuff or putting out songs or ads.'”

He approached a few University of South Carolina college friends, who now work on Snapchat’s partnership team, about premiering a music video on Snapchat. They agreed, but wanted the music video to fit the medium.

In the realm of smartphones, vertical is king. Receive a text, take a selfie, dial a number, or even search for Pokemon and you are more than likely doing all of this, instinctively, with your camera in the vertical position. As a result of this habit, vertical video — portrait mode — is becoming the default way video is consumed on mobile. Social media powerhouses Snapchat and Instagram won’t even let users flip the video to landscape mode.

“Snapchat wanted us to shoot the video vertically as well as shooting our own version of the video, horizontally,” Come and See Me director Adrian Martinez told Digital Trends. “They even gave us a pre-made vertical cam rig that you turn the camera on its side and be able to shoot it that way.” That presented a problem that could not be easily dressed up with Snapchat filters. Logistically, shooting every scene twice would have added an extra day to the two day shoot.

They decided to shoot the video once, and edit a vertical version for Snapchat. Normally, when editing widescreen video to fit a smaller screen, the video is put in between two thick black lines known as “letterboxes.” Martinez shot PartyNextDoor’s Come and See Me video with an ARRI Alexa camera using anamorphic lenses, which gives videos the super widescreen look and blurs out the background.

“I had to expand the video to like 370 percent,” Martinez said. “I was kind of scared I was going to lose resolution, mess up the footage, and get it all pixelated.” He worked until the very last moment making sure it looked right. “That video released on Snapchat 7 a.m. on Thursday, and we were up until 4 a.m. on the phone with [Snapchat] still making sure that everything was right.”

Being able to edit a music video hours before its worldwide premier is one luxury MTV never afforded. Analytics are another. After the debut, Party and his team were able to see the number of times the video story was clicked on, played, and who fully watched the video, similar to other video hosting sites. Henry did not divulge specific viewership stats, but says both Party’s team and Snapchat were pleased with the results, noting Snapchat told him “It was very, very successful for them.”

Facebook struck back with its own unique first: French DJ and producer Klingande used Facebook to live stream the music video for Somewhere New. The video features two people traveling through a multitude of scenes, but it’s all shot in one take. While the filming only lasted the 3.5-minute duration of the song, the crew planned “for months to get the right lighting, dancing, the right queues, projection, balloons, etc,” according to producer Marcus Lindgren. A few thousand people watched live, but it has since amassed more than 175,000 views on Facebook at the time of publication.

Now Vevo, the online video platform dedicated to music videos and mostly owned by Sony and Universal, has joined the game with a new music video player for smartphones which presents every video in portrait mode. With Vevo boasting more than 200 million daily active users on mobile, portrait mode will become the default manner in which we consume music videos. The next generation of music video consumers are spending more time on social media than sleeping, and nearly half of all of the time Americans spend consuming digital video occurs on mobile devices. With more than two billion people in the world on social media — roughly 650 million on Snapchat and Instagram, daily — the music video will never look the same again.

Interactive

Around the same time Justin Timberlake was pleading to MTV for more ‘M’ and less ‘TV’, Vincent Morisset was ready to film in the future. “It was at this specific moment in time where MTV was slowly dying, it was just reality TV and no music videos,” Morisset told Digital Trends. “YouTube was starting to be the place where kids were watching music videos but the quality wasn’t great.” So, when indie rock upstart Arcade Fire asked him to direct a music video for the group’s 2007 seminal album Neon Bible, he decided to make waves instead of drifting in the tide.

“I told the band: Imagine you’re watching the news or a film and the actor or the person telling the news is turning to you on your couch.”

“I told the band: Imagine you’re watching the news or a film and the actor or the person telling the news is turning to you on your couch,” Morisset said. “Something that feels like a video but that is reacting to what you’re doing.” He was imagining the an interactive music video, and the video for Neon Bible’s title track would be the world’s first. “I approached the project as some kind of homage to [George] Melies,” referring to the 20th century pioneer of such visual effects as time-lapse photography. “I don’t know if ‘music video’ is still a relevant way to describe it.”

Once the website loads you are met with “Neon Bible” in large letters, flickering light against a dark backdrop, as the song almost immediately plays. You can tap on the letters to make their light flicker. The letters then vanish and you are met with the face of Arcade Fire front man Win Butler and hands below him ready to be manipulated. You could place the cursor over Win’s face and it would disappear into the black, leaving just his lips and a trail of lyrics forming from smoke as the lyrics are sung. You can click on his hands, individually, and at certain points in the video they’ll reveal cards. At some points during the video, clicking on his hands makes them shoot out rain that fills as you keep his hands open and does not disappear when you stop, it stays there. This adds a sense of permanence to your actions; creating the illusion that you, and not the pre-recorded motions, control the experience you are watching.

The end result may have been visually innovative, but was created with relatively inexpensive means. Morisset filmed Butler singing the song in front of a black sheet and another actor performing a series of simple hand motions that Morisset could later “assemble like a Lego set.” With hundreds of actions recorded, the true innovation came in the way Morisset assembled enough actions to satiate both the engaged viewer who will click everything at a rapid pace to get the full experience, and the more passive viewer who will only click when something sparks their interest. Just five years before Neon Bible, both of those viewers would be confined to watching the same music video the same way.

For Morisset, Neon Bible was more than a new technique for film-making, it “established some kind of a grammar of non-linear editing.” In the first six years following Neon Bible, Morisset went on to make seven more interactive films including two more music videos for Arcade Fire. Sprawl II, released in 2011, let viewers control the movements of the actors in the video by moving around in front of their computer’s webcam or clicking on the screen. The 2013 interactive video for Reflektor took the technique a step further by allowing viewers to move a cell phone in front of their computer’s webcam and adjust the effects used in the video.

In 2009, Google began Chrome Experiments, an initiative to demonstrate the visual capabilities of Javascript and the Google Chrome browser. Arcade Fire were the first to create an interactive music video for their song We Used To Wait, a collaboration between Google Creative Lab and Within founder Chris Milk. Twenty-two more interactive music videos were created through Chrome Experiments in the last six years alone.

In March 2015, YouTube began hosting videos shot in 360 degrees. Later that year, Facebook began supporting 360-degree video embeds. That same week, Dutch artist Noa Neal’s released Graffiti, the first 360-degree music video on YouTube, and has since racked up more than 1.3 million views.

Interactive music videos feel like you are watching a music video you are customizing for yourself, in real time. With YouTube and Facebook giving creatives a platform to expose interactive videos to millions, the physical past of music may soon find harmony with its digital present and future. “Music needs it’s own world,” Morisset said. “Since we lost the booklet/artwork, the web and whatever platform took that place in that relationship between narrative visuals in music.”

Virtual reality

A rapper standing still in front of a black background reciting lyrics is not visually engaging. Watching El-P from rap group Run the Jewels do the same thing in virtual reality, as if he were in the room with you, recounting selling cocaine to a pregnant woman, is enough to bring some viewers to tears. That is a sliver of what thousands experienced when they slipped on a Google Cardboard and clicked on the Crown VR music video filmed in virtual reality by VR studio Wevr.

“What VR gave you was that presence and that closeness you could never have when you’re watching on TV or YouTube.”

Interactive and virtual reality music videos go hand in hand in some respects. Like the technically simplistic yet visually complex Neon Bible interactive video, the video shoot for Crown was relatively quick, lasting roughly five hours.  The director, Peter Martin, was foreign to making virtual reality music videos before Crown, just as Morissett was before he started a new genre of music videos with Neon Bible. But, when dark clouds begin forming in pitch black sky around you as the menacing, marching drums of Crown trample upon your eardrums, you can feel the difference between VR music videos and 2D interactive ones.

“We thought the visual art form of music was becoming dead and tired in the current form,” Wevr founder Anthony Batt told Digital Trends. “What VR gave you was that presence and that closeness you could never have when you’re watching on TV or YouTube.” According to Batt, it was a RED camera with a special lens that Martin used to help Run the Jewels achieve their goal of making you “feel like you’re standing in a black void.”

“I think in terms of story telling the project opens up a whole new genre,” Martin explained in a Wevr’s blog post regarding Crown. “This idea that you can have multiple stories going on, multiple angles of the same narrative, all running in parallel.”

In the embryonic stages of VR music videos, Wevr is developing into one of the premiere production studios. Directors have spun out from this company to work on virtual-reality music videos, including Tyler Hurd, who turned a seven-year old Future Island song — Old Friend — into a three-minute psychedelic animated music video for the HTC Vive. In the Old Friend experience, you are surrounded by colorful creatures dancing around as you use the Vive’s controllers to manipulate a pair of rubber hands and use your actions in real life to dance to the synth-heavy song in VR. The experience was featured at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and has started an industry-wide conversation on VR spurring a music video renaissance.

Batt said Wevr have been in contact with a number of music artists about potential collaborations, including Danger Mouse and Reggie Watts. Watts and Wevr’s collaboration, a 12-minute comedy and sci-fi journey called Waves, was a 2016 Sundance Film Institute selection. The next collaboration, Particles, recently went into production.

Paying to play

VR has the highest potential for immersion, and the steepest entry hurdle. The five major virtual reality headsets — Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR — all have different costs, technical abilities and requirements. The Vive and Rift deliver the clearest images with a 1080p resolution per eye compared to Google Cardboard, but both need expensive computers and room space to use them. As a result, directors, such as Hurd, who invest a considerable amount of time creating these virtual worlds, are deciding to put their work on the platform that displays it the best, regardless of access. “People are like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen VR, I tried a Cardboard,’ and it’s like — no, no you have not,” Hurd told The Verge. “I don’t want people to see the mobile version of this and think that they’ve experienced it completely.”

You think paying for two music streaming subscriptions to listen to Beyoncé and Frank Ocean is bad? Imagine having to buy thousands of dollars in equipment just to make sure you catch all the latest VR music videos.

The hardware limitations are only compounded when you enter a music industry trying to make up for a decade of revenue lost to illegal file sharing and YouTube. Record labels fork over the money for artists to make, promote, and sell music in exchange for ownership of the rights to the artist’s music, so they’re cagey about opening the checkbook when the return on investment is questionable. Music videos were, and still are, promotional tools for record labels to help bolster single and album sales. No one had a problem spending millions of dollars on music videos when  they were selling millions of CDs priced at $15 each. Those glory days of the record industry are now capitalistic wet dreams, so creativity comes at a premium.

“Record labels have been traditionally scared and non-creative when it comes to new technologies.”

“Record labels have been traditionally scared and non-creative when it comes to new technologies,” Batt said. “It’s limited creative for years. They’re very risk adverse.” Alternative R&B artist The Weeknd, Bjork, and Foals all have music released VR music videos in the last year using music distributed by either Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, or Warner Music Group. But attempts at a large scale VR push by record labels have been delayed at best and abandoned at worst.

In 2014, Vevo was ready to spearhead music videos entering virtual reality. Two years, and a new CEO later, the same company that left its 24/7 music video TV ambitions now believes “going headfirst into the VR game would be interesting, but distracting,” according to new CEO Erik Huggers.

In 2016, Universal Music Group started partnering with iHeartMedia to produce upwards of 10 VR experiences, with one planned for every iHeartMedia event. While iHeartMedia contended the company was working on bringing at least one VR experience to the annual, two-day iHeartRadio Music Festival, nothing was announced in the weeks leading up to the event. The absence of any at April’s iHeartRadio Music Awards does not bode well for UMG and iHeartMedia’s VR ambitions.

“[Virtual reality in music videos] could become a niche if the record labels don’t come around to it,” Batt said. “When YouTube moves forward, the record labels go ‘Oh my God, if I make this 360 VR video, it could work on Facebook, it can work on YouTube and the headsets.” Batt thinks “If [the record labels] were smart, they could own that music distribution for VR.” It’s not out of the question: Vevo, after all, was co-founded by two major record labels as YouTube was beginning to dominate all music video consumption and record labels were pulling videos from the site because the labels were dissatisfied with the compensation.

Batt sees the most desirable future for VR as one where one company delivers the ubiquitous VR device that everyone from your kid sister to your grandmother would love to use. “It’s really about hardware for the consumer to get access to,” Batt explained. “So, we need Apple or some sort of iOS, really great virtual reality device to come to the market.”

For now, Google’s VR program — Google Daydream — is working to make hundreds of millions of Android phones VR-ready over then the next three years, and iPhones are now able to shoot 360-degree video using the Google Cardboard Camera. Cameras such as the Sphericam 2, which records spherical video in crisp 4K resolution could open the door for an influx of professional grade, amateur-made music videos. The gatekeepers of mass VR adoption are loosening the locks.

The price of hardware matters. The rise of YouTube coincided with the precipitous decline in digital camera prices and Apple introducing Macbooks with built-in webcams, which made creating content as easy as pressing a button. Independent artists, who previously did not have the financial means to shoot a professional music video let alone get it placed on TV, could now film a high-definition music video and have it viewed by millions, without a record label, for a fraction of what it cost just a decade ago. Don’t forget that preeminent pop star Justin Bieber was discovered as a teenager when his YouTube videos garnered millions of views.

With the number of virtual reality headsets expected to increase by nearly 400 percent and nearly half of all adults using the internet either interested in, or experienced with, virtual reality, you will be able to feel like you are living in Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, instead of just watching it.

Music videos may evolve past the TV screen, but the ubiquity of the visual aesthetic in popular culture ensures their immortality. Directors such as Spike Jonze and Hiro Murai have made music videos for internationally revered artists such as Kanye West, Daft Punk, Childish Gambino, and Queens of the Stone Age. Now, Jonze is the co-president of a TV network, Viceland, featuring programming which are imbued with his hyper stylized and frenetically delivered look, exhibited in music videos like Drop by Hip Hop group Pharcyde. Murai went from directing fourth wall-bending music videos like Sweatpants by Childish Gambino to being the sole director for FX’s Atlanta, the first TV series from Gambino’s real-life persona Donald Glover. The intermixing of surrealism and daily minutia in the show paired with scenes framed by music is a trait of his music videos that have now helped Atlanta garner historic levels of attention.

In the future, you may be able to control Beyoncé as she drenches you in Lemonade. In the future, you may be saying Hello right beside Adele. In the future, you may be able to see Lady Gaga make her Perfect Illusion live.

In the future, the music video will be an event, MTV or not.