Music videos represent a unique collaboration. Creative voices from two separate mediums, a musician and a director, blend to form a distinct new vision born of two.
A music video is in that sense often the first cultural artifact influenced by a new piece of music. While nearly everything about the way they are produced and consumed has changed over the past forty years, their magic is as alluring as ever, which fortunately means that the culture persists in carving out places for them.
So it is that I find myself among a young, artistic, almost painfully fashionable crowd at Cinefamily Silent Movie Theater on a Friday for the opening night of the fifth annual Los Angeles Music Video Festival. The aisles are lined with bodies; it’s standing room only and we’re all watching what is quickly becoming my favorite use of plastic vampire fangs in a music video since Astronautalis’s “Trouble Hunters.”
The new video for Lazyboy Empire’s “Vampire” makes excellent use of every detail; a first generation iPod, plastic sheeting, disco ball light, saxophone and of course, fangs.
The Los Angeles Music Video Festival (LAMVF) was created at a time when music videos were beginning to find their footing in a changed world. Between their disappearance from (M)TV, the movement away from the big-budget productions by labels from decade before, technological evolution and the uncertainty that for a time gripped the entire music industry, there had been drastic changes to the way music videos were produced. Yet they endured as an art form, finally re-emerging on YouTube as their platform of choice.
It was around this time that Sami Kriegstein and Colleen Curlin, now LAMVF’s Director and Director of Industry and Media Relations, respectively, recognized the opportunity, perhaps even need, to create a space dedicated to them. As they put it on their website:
“We’re the kids who clicked around on YouTube back in 2009 and realized something really special was happening – Music Videos were back. Television forgot about them. Labels stopped bankrolling them. But for some crazy reason, people kept making them and watching them and loving the sh*t out of them. When no one was talking about them, we kicked off a conversation.”
When they first began floating the idea of a music video festival in 2010, “Why? Music Videos are dead!” was a common reaction. However, they quickly noticed that among the people under thirty –the, shall we venture, more internet-savvy? – the reaction was one of recognition and enthusiastic support.
How could we not be loving the sh*t out of something like Jordon Bond’s LAMVF Narrative Finalist video for Tiny Little Houses’ “Every Man Knows His Plague and You Are Mine”?
What they created has now also become unique corner where the industry and public mingle and where independent musicians and filmmakers intersect to both enjoy the novelty of witnessing an audience watching to their work, but also discuss the challenges and idiosyncrasies of music video making as an art and a business.
The festival offered insights into both sides of that coin though its panels, one with a group of music video directors and the other an industry panel on major label music videos called “Art & Commerce.” (See more of our takeaways from that here.)
No surprisingly, the upshot on the art side is that the most important ingredient ends up being how the artist and director vibe. Video Commissioner at Atlantic Records Alex Bittan explained during the Art & Commerce panel that when pairing artists and directors he takes into account everything including personality, aesthetic or ideological similarities and compatibility of their working styles (starting with how much the artist wants to be included—is it a couple of meetings, or an hour on the phone every night?). None of those are guarantees, of course, but they are pieces assembled with the hope of chemistry once the two meet and begin working together.
“Chemistry between the artist and director is the best promise of magic,” Bittan says. Finding those relationships can be incredibly fruitful. He offers the example of the creative relationship between Childish Gambino and director Hiro Murai, which has yielded five projects since 2013 (four music videos and the trippy 25-minute short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons in which Donald Glover on and off hallucinates Abella Anderson). It’s also worth noting that Murai’s collaboration with Chet Faker for “Gold” also won LAMVF’s Nonnarrative Competition.
In the five years since LAMVF began, it’s become well established that places like YouTube and Vimeo offer an unprecedented platform for music videos. Money is tight, especially for independent productions, but opportunities have exploded. The price of producing videos has dropped and the barrier to entry is considerably lower for directors. A good DSLR in the right hands can go a long way.
The flip side of that is that for indie directors not working with big labels, the road has gotten harder. The first question at the end of the Art and Commerce panel, whose discussion focused largely on major label videos, was by a UCLA student who pointed out that many of the speakers that came to his music video class were more doom and gloom on the state of the industry lately. “Can you tell me,” he asked, “where’s the good news?”
“You can be edgier and more creative, because there are no more MTV censors,” Colin Wyatt, who does Video Content at Capital Music Group, offered immediately.
“More people will see your work – YouTube is basically global distribution,” Nina Soriano, a content producer at Anonymous Content pointed out.
“The ‘golden age’ of the big budget is over, and people think that’s directly tied to record sales being down, but really the price of equipment also fell and there’s access, openness,” concluded Atlantic’s Bittan. “A huge plus is that the playing field has been leveled and is wide open for anybody.”
Which is true. Music videos are now largely viewed as portfolio builders and passion projects among the filmmaking community. So, for those starting out they can be a real boon: shoot something and you have a chance of getting it noticed (and you can join a proud lineage –David Fincher, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze all got their starts with music videos).
The wider recognition of unofficial music videos has also offered opportunities for filmmakers working to gain recognition for their work. LAMVF in fact has an entire category of competition for them.
What LAMVF has done is really to build a community, stepping up while the new landscape was still nascent to give music videos a space to celebrate the medium. Founded on the belief that “Music videos are the most universal, accessible and entertaining art form in the world, it offers a giddying experience for all of us used to watching music videos on our laptops and phones; videos on a big screen with their cinematic details on full display, their music surrounding us and the excitement can be shared with an entire theater full of people.
That excitement was palpable through all three nights of screenings, panels and a charming and revealing interview with the festival’s first ever Artist Keynote, Kimbra, and her video collaborators Guy Franklin and Adam Sager (more on that to come as well!). Saturday night concluded with the announcement of the winners in each of the categories (check out MIP’s own look at the winners here) and all of the winners were played in a celebratory “Victory Lap” block the following night.
After a final round of applause for this year’s winners on Sunday, the fifth annual Los Angeles Music Video Festival was fittingly concluded by a nostalgic look back at how far the medium has come, with a screening of classic 35 mm music videos gathered from three separate collectors who jumped at the chance to share their finds on Cinefamily’s big screen. Among them were definite classics, like a-ha’s Take on Me and the full version of Madonna’s “Material Girl.” There were also some absolute, howl-inducing gems like a Tim Curry in “Paradise Garage,” Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” – which features a young Hugh Laurie and concludes with a still frame ad for Kate Bush’s The Whole Story, “Available on cassette, compact disc, and video.” – Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s Dancing in the Street, met by raucous cheering, and Hot Pursuit’s D.A.R.E Music Video, which takes place in a strange imaginary word where everyone seems to be trying to sell this one kid drugs. Like, specifically to this one kid. The program officially ended with the Adam Yauch- produced music video for Beastie Boys’ Shadrach. We were then sent off to the after party with a bonus “after dinner mint” “What a Wonderful World” video featuring scenes from Good Morning Vietnam.
“That was Louis B. Armstrong,” Robin Williams’ character says wistfully as the song ends. “The great Satchmo.” The screen fades to black. Ooh, yeeeah….
Til next year.
Stay tuned for a closer look at the LAMVF’s Kimbra Artist Spotlight from MusicInPress.
Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Music Video Festival