Why Music Videos Thrive Against All Odds

On Aug. 1, 1981, MTV transfixed the youth of the nation with a serving of more than 200 music videos. The channel appropriately premiered with the video for “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, in which a child fusses with the dials on a radio until it explodes, revealing a sci-fi-esque film studio where the band plays on, singing, “we can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.”

In many ways, this refrain encapsulates the trajectory of the music video–an art form that sits between the music and film industries and occupies a rather inscrutable purpose in the marketplace. In the 1990’s MTV started to move away from the music video, but rather than fade away one could say that the internet killed the video star–and music “videos” found new life online.

The network days of yore have given way to a more egalitarian space where aspiring filmmakers can rub shoulders with music video auteurs and even well-known feature film directors. Budgets can be as basic as an iPhone camera and a band or as big as Taylor Swift’s entire girl gang.

Brooklyn film and theatre-maker Allie Avital Tsypin has been making videos since 2011 when she realized that music videos were her best chance at morphing her multi-media, music-oriented aesthetic into a career.

“One day I realized that making music videos was the closest thing to a real “job” that I could do that combined all my interests,” she tells BTRtoday. “The next day I emailed about 100 bands I could find online asking for someone to let me make a video. One of those bands wrote back and that was how I got my first shoot.”

Now a professional filmmaker represented by Partizan, one of the best production companies in the world, Tsypin has a number of music videos under her belt and has worked with artists like Moses, Autre Ne Veux, and even directed a collaboration between Esperanza Spalding and the brand Ray Ban.

The music industry has evolved significantly since 1999, when Tsypin attended the MTV VMA’s with her father, an opera set designer who worked on the show. As the internet has provided access to more bands and more music, the accompanying music video experienced a renaissance of sorts. But that doesn’t mean that the rebirth hasn’t come without complications.

“Just like most art online, we have to function in an economy of hype, likes, and view counts, so as a creator it’s hard not to keep that in mind when coming up with concepts. The days of forcing viewers to sit through an entire video on TV are behind us, so the pressure to be extraordinary and compelling is real,” says Tsypin.

Music leads content on YouTube, with nine out of 10 of the most-viewed Youtube videos being music videos (Gangnam Style leads the way with 2.79 billion views). When the music video was born back in the 1980s, many of its critics cried that videos distract from the music, but so far this claim seems to be unfounded. In fact, artists increasingly see the music video as a necessary promotional tool for their brand and an alternative outlet for artistic expression.

Last year, Beyoncé spectacularly released an hour long “visual album” to accompany her latest release, “Lemonade.” The album is a political, personal, and artistic statement in which Beyoncé enlisted a diverse community of artists and seven film directors to realize her vision. By releasing the music video before the audio album, Beyoncé linked her music inextricably with its visual manifestation. This tactic may have stymied any appropriation of Beyoncé’s lyrics in order to place them squarely in the context of the black female experience.

Other artists have also subverted the music video form. Pharrell’s “Happy” touts itself as the “world’s first 24-hour music video.” In it, “Happy” plays on loop while different groups of people around L.A. dance and mime along. The video spawned a number of tribute videos and covers. Justin Bieber’s most recent collection of videos for his album “Purpose” is notable because he does not appear in any of them. Similarly, Sia’s clips mainly feature teenage dancer Maddie Ziegler. While usually used as a promotional platform for the artist, an artist’s absence from the video can underscore a particular perspective–in Bieber’s case, a coming of age and renewed sense of humility.

The true value of music videos, however, remains elusive. Oftentimes, the work is not quite a direct product of the musician, the song, the director, or the YouTube culture, but rather a dialogue between all four. While some videos have undoubtedly launched a song into virality, that’s not always the case nor is it always the goal.

Typsin quips, “As far as videos’ commercial value, I think music labels are still evaluating how music videos affect sales and Spotify numbers. As in all media, everything is changing so quickly that it feels like a bit of a free for all–the relationship between musicians, directors/creatives, labels, brands (which are becoming increasingly involved in videos)–it’s all quite murky.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear that as listening audiences we crave music videos as a way to connect more deeply with songs and artists we love. Tsypin shares memories of cutting class to watch music videos with many in her generation, and in the age of the internet, demand for music videos has not abated.

Thus, the music video industry is fertile stomping ground for aspiring filmmakers. Tsypin notes that while the industry may be oversaturated, that characteristic can work in favor of young creatives beginning to define their style and learn the film business as a whole:

“I’ve learned everything I know about filmmaking through music videos: how to come up with ideas, how to communicate them to a label, how to collaborate with crew, how to direct on set, how to edit, how to find creative solutions and problem solve,” she says. “All of those elements are integral to all types of filmmaking. Along the way, I’ve evolved in terms of my lighting aesthetics, narrative style, camera movement, and how I work with actors and performers.”

Indeed, Tsypin’s videos are frequent Vimeo staff picks and she has been featured as a director in The New York Times, on NPR, and on Buzzfeed. Although the musicians she’s worked with may have had more name-recognition early-on, Tsypin has used the music video medium as a way to launch her career as a filmmaker in her own right. Her unique perspective has been noted in the critically acclaimed video “Worth It” by Moses Sumney, “ “World War Pt. 2” by Autre Ne Veut, and, most recently, “In the Morning” by Nao – which ThisisRnB calls “pretty powerful stuff.”

About two-thirds of music listeners experience frisson, or a physical manifestation of thrill, while listening to music. Perhaps, for viewers, the music video is a way in which we hope to get closer to that feeling, to transport ourselves to the very heart of a song. Not all videos do the job, but when a visual syncs seamlessly with music we love–like Beyoncé wielding a baseball bat in “Lemonade” clips or the way Martha Nichol’s muscles ripple in Moses Sumney’s “Worth It” – then we feel a little closer to the source of the thrill, more connected to the song, and to our own multi-dimensional emotional world.