With VMAs, MTV celebrates an art form that’s more vital — and viral — than ever
By Chris Richards,
At Thursday night’s Video Music Awards, MTV will squeeze a fleet of pop stars into the Staples Center in Los Angeles to honor music videos, those radio-star killers that the network popularized in the ’80s, then left for dead in the ’00s.
But music videos haven’t vanished. They’ve stormed the pearly gates of YouTube, where they’re enjoying an influential afterlife.
According to an August report from Nielsen, nearly two-thirds of American teenagers get their music from YouTube. That makes the Google-owned video site the most popular music medium for an eternally prized demographic — and its dominance marks a continuing shift in the ways pop music is experienced, shared and marketed.
“Video now is way more important than it ever was,” says Jonathan Simkin, manager of Canadian pop sensation Carly Rae Jepsen. “By a mile. It just opens up a whole new avenue to promote a band.”
Like the rest of us, Simkin watched Jepsen’s career explode on YouTube this summer with “Call Me Maybe,” the inescapable caffeine kick of a song that has earned the 26-year-old singer two VMA nominations. The telecast is MTV’s biggest annual ratings-grabber and this year’s program promises performances from Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and One Direction.
And while these might be the YouTube generation’s stars, it’s still the MTV generation’s party.
“Today’s music fan has access to millions of artists and millions of songs right in their pocket,” says MTV spokesman Kurt Patat. “So in a world full of video search engines, we feel like our role is to do what we do best and connect artists to fans.”
MTV has loaded up on reality programming over the years but still airs oodles of music videos on its sister stations — MTV2, MTV Tr3s, mtvU, etc. The network now positions itself as a “multi-screen brand” that extends to the Web and social media. There, fans have cast more than 50 million votes for “most share-worthy video,” a new VMA category celebrating videos that have been passed around incessantly, inspiring viral tributes and parodies the way soap makes bubbles.
Jepsen’s nomination here is a no-brainer. The official video for “Call Me Maybe” — the one that features Jepsen fronting her band in a two-car garage — only tells half of her fairy tale. Justin Bieber gave “Call Me Maybe” its first viral spark by posting a video of him and his friends lip-synching to it. Then came a video of the Harvard baseball team trying to dance to it. Then, a parody sung by Cookie Monster. There were countless others, but those three clips alone have amassed more than 70 million views.
“There’s the song, and there’s the phenomena that built up around the song,” says Simkin, who sees these viral spinoffs as an invaluable promotional tool. “It helps the record, it helps her, it helps everything.”
Videos are equally important to the already famous. But when a video for Swift’s new single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” appeared on YouTube last month, it didn’t include a close-up of Swift strumming her guitar. It featured the song’s lyrics zipping and tumbling across the screen.
The animated clip was a high-budget version of the fan-made videos that have been springing up on YouTube for years. The goal was to share this video with fans before fans could make their own to share with one another.
“And with the way the single has blown up and the instant demand, it made all the sense in the world for us to be ready for it,” says Scott Borchetta, president and chief executive of Swift’s label, Big Machine. “It’s an online world, and you have to have a visual attached. . . . When it’s an artist in demand, then we have to be there.”
A traditional narrative video starring Swift landed two weeks later, but it hasn’t caught up to the original clip’s 12 million-plus views — “Insane just for a lyric video,” Borchetta says. What some labels used to consider a promotional expense is now a piece of content that can generate revenue through royalties and iTunes sales. (Swift fans can buy either “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” video on iTunes for $1.99 each.)
But after all the page views have been counted, a music video is ultimately a multi-sensory experience designed to bring listeners closer to the music. Boundary-bending rock troupe Animal Collective understands this and recently streamed its new album, “Centipede Hz,” as a series of videos, allowing fans to sink their eardrums and eyeballs into the whole album at once.
“It’s always really important for Animal Collective to present their music to their fans in a very specific way,” says Peter Berard, director of marketing at the group’s label, Domino Records. “I think it’s just an acknowledgment of the way people are experiencing music for the first time. It’s not just an audio experience, and a band’s visual aesthetic is just as important as ever.”
Animal Collective doesn’t appear in the “Centipede Hz” videos. Instead, its chattering tracks are scored with looping images that provide a sort of visual ambience. Other indie artists are making similar videos — no-frills, abstract, lava-lampy clips that establish a mood while staking out space on YouTube.
British rock trio the xx recently posted some superb examples — videos for “Chained” and “Angels,” two songs from the group’s sophomore album, “Coexist.” Both clips look like psychedelic surveillance footage from an alien petri dish. And they do what any great music video should do in the digital age: babysit your retinas while you focus on the sound touching your ears.
They won’t win any trophies at Thursday’s VMAs, but they’re absolutely share-worthy.