Commentary: Video May Have Killed the Radio Star — But Can It Help the Homegrown Star?10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
In 1979, English new wave outfit The Buggles declared with their chart-topping single that “Video Killed the Radio Star”. While the hit song was born out of anxiety and nostalgia, “Video Killed the Radio Star” would forever be associated with the sea change and excitement brought forth by MTV as it was the first song to be featured on the channel in 1981.
In the initial years, the song’s catchy hook was all but prophetic. Music on the 24-hours-a-day channel performed better in record sales than those that weren’t. In the early days, music videos were provided for free by record companies — a decision that would pay off massively. MTV introduced to the world a bevvy of superstars who thrived with the music video format. They not only shaped the industry in the 1980s and 1990s, the visuals and style of music videos also defined pop culture as a whole.
Fast forward to 2021 and streaming services are now king. They are now music’s go-to mode of consumption but it’s no secret that the royalties generated for artists are atrocious. Spotify, for example, pays USD $0.00437 per stream. These do give exposure but relying on streaming platforms alone seems too limiting for musicians to stand out or as a form of monetisation — especially for local artists with their constant uphill battles.
The problems of streaming services will not disappear overnight (or, perhaps, even disappear at all). The pandemic limiting any live performances further amplifies the issues faced by musicians. To survive and thrive, it seems more prudent than ever to recognise the importance of brand building, with music videos being a key component of the strategy.
The Internet and relative easier access to film equipment have softened the importance of record labels when it comes to brand building and creating music videos. A synergistic relationship between musicians and filmmakers — from all levels — could be even further explored here in Singapore.
In this article, we briefly examine how music videos and MTV became a key marketing platform for record labels and celebrate the medium as an art form. Afterwards, we review how brand building has become ever more vital in the Internet age, and how having deeper collaborations between local musicians and filmmakers can bring both creative sectors forward.
A Brief History of Music Videos
As soon as television found its ways into households, record labels determined the medium as a prime marketing platform for music. Throughout its two-decades-long run from 1948 and 1971, musical performances on The Ed Sullivan Show introduced millions of Americans to the superstars of the day. Across the Atlantic, Top of the Pops similarly made superstars throughout the UK.
About 40% of America’s population (74 million) tuned in to watch The Beatles’ American television debut
To circumvent the issue of musicians and bands travelling for live televised performances, the idea of recorded performances was born. The Beatles were among the first to tap on the new concept with their 1965 single “We Can Work it Out”. These videos mimicked live performances that could be broadcasted throughout the world.
In the following years, The Beatles would boil down the storytelling approach of their 1964 music film A Hard Day’s Night to promotional clips for singles “Paperback Writer” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. These proto-music videos were among the first of their kind. They are more than just static performances where creative decisions and expressions from directors and musicians could shine through.
The need to be differentiated pushed bands and directors to be bold with their experimentation, such as with The Rolling Stones’ video for “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll but I Like It” and just about every Pink Floyd promotional video. In 1975, Queen would find massive success with the promotional video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which solidified the medium as a regular marketing practice among record labels.
Back in the US, multi-hyphenate musician Todd Rundgren had already established himself as being at the forefront of the music industry, having produced numerous landmark albums of the 1970s.
By 1979, Rundgren and his manager Eric Gardner had plans to launch a satellite-based music video network, broadcasting licensed performances, promotional videos and music videos. However, technical failures beyond their control would lead to the same concept fulfilled by MTV in 1981.
MTV and How It Transformed the Music Industry
MTV arrived at the apex of television’s popularity and reach. It heralded fresh and exciting ways for music to be experienced by the masses. Visuals soon became just as — if not more — important than the music itself. Brand building had always been an integral mission of every record label. Music videos and MTV turned the need to stand out up to 11. These videos started to lean towards storytelling and memorable visuals to showcase the personality of the musicians.
It seems like no surprise that the 1980s brought an unprecedented number of one-hit wonders to the fold; they usually had memorable music videos. Modern English’s “I Melt With You” and its apocalyptic lyrics might not have made a splash if not for its tender music video. A Flock of Seagulls are largely remembered for the lead singer’s terrible haircut than being a criminally underrated act. And there’s a-ha with “Take On Me”, which is still celebrated as one of the best music videos around.
The rise of music videos also led to strides in minority representation. The music videos of Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson amplified African-American voices. Prince and Madonna empowered the LGBTQ community (although Prince would be rather half-hearted about being an LGBTQ icon in his final years). Together, they transformed the shape of popular culture, where their influence is still felt today. Rap continues to dominate today’s pop charts while LGBT-themed media have become mainstream. These may not have been possible without the work of MTV.
Director David Fincher first gained recognition directing commercials and unforgettable music videos
By the 1990s, music videos became a key platform for auteurs to express their creativity. Before then, successful directors were tapped to direct music videos but this decade showcased how the medium could be both a training ground and a launching point. Perhaps more importantly, the works of these directors would also be inseparable from the musicians; the music videos became integral to their brand.
When we think of the genre-pushing discographies of The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, the mind-bending visuals of Michel Gondry might come to mind. When we think of Weezer, we might be reminded of
their phenomenal ability to consistently disappoint fans and their adorkable personality perfectly showcased by Spike Jonze. These directors — and plenty more — would go on to be commercially successful figures.
Importance of Brand Building and How It Relates to Local Musicians (and Filmmakers)
Although MTV would abandon its roots by the 2000s, music videos have remained integral in the Internet age. More so than ever, the arrival of YouTube and social media further amplified the importance of brand building for artists. Musicians are no longer just competing for television airwaves, they are competing for attention on a global scale with talents from around the world.
Brand building is the reason why the masses know about Snoop Dogg or Dr Dre even when a large number have not heard their music. In the local sphere, it’s the same reason why Singaporeans are able to name a specific group of musicians and bands even when they are not familiar with their music.
Furthermore, it’s no surprise that they have expanded into other areas of showbiz beyond music as well.
The Internet age has made it necessary for contemporary musicians to be defined by more than just their music — especially with the issues surrounding streaming platforms and their revenue models. Musicians have to become brands to tap on sponsorships and endorsements for a comparatively steadier revenue stream. Their social media presence, music and music videos are all brand-building methods. The pandemic bringing live shows to a prolonged pause has only made this direction paramount.
Music videos are vital for brand building because they tend to be more engaging than audio alone while being able to bring across the identity and personality of the performers. Most musicians signed to labels have the capital and support for marketing blitzes and large-scale music videos. However, being large-scale doesn’t necessarily always translate to success.
The iconic music video for A Flock Of Seagulls’ “I Ran” was shot with a shoestring budget through clever use of funhouse mirrors and aluminium foil (and a ton of hair gel). OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” was one of the first viral videos of the Internet and that consisted of treadmills and sheer determination. It would be one thing if they were established superstars creating videos on no budget (e.g Drake prancing around his estate) but both examples were relative unknowns.
Music videos aren’t a technology arms race either where there is a need for cutting edge special effects or camera techniques. While Michel Gondry is largely known for elaborate sets and wild visuals in his music videos, one of his more memorable ones consists of his vacation footage mimicking soundwaves. The best music videos capture and translate the audio’s mood in the most creative ways. Storytelling is key to all filmmakers and it just so happens to be paramount in brand building as well.
There is a ton of talented music video directors in Singapore who have showcased their craft in outstanding ways. Throughout the history of the medium, music videos have also shown to be a creative playground and launchpad unlike any other. Times are tough for all Singaporeans with restrictions in capital and with the production process itself. Yet music videos is one arena that has proven to be limitless in creativity. Couple more up-and-coming musicians with budding filmmakers and there is magic just waiting to happen.
One of the first Singaporean music videos I saw was Ronin’s “Black Maria”. I was fortunate enough to have MTV Asia back then. I guess it was only natural. The band and their hit song were everywhere in 2005/2006. I think it ended up on 987FM’s year-end countdown with Electrico too. I fondly remember the video because it’s something that a 12-year-old probably shouldn’t have seen. Yet, 15 years later, I can’t find the video anywhere on the Internet. The only evidence is a post on the SOFT music forum.
The search reminded me of an issue about Singapore’s creative industry that tends to be brought up when reading and listening in on conversations with veterans: the new generation not being able to connect and learn from past generations; every new generation has to pick up the skills and know-hows again.
Music videos of the past generation are on YouTube but they are all scattered to the winds. There’s a fantastic compilation on the SOFT music forum. However, I do feel like there should be more concerted efforts to compile and archive these and every following music video. Maybe NLB’s MusicSG can step in. There’s a lot to be learned, appreciated and celebrated from these works. I feel it’s an important component of growth too. And contrary to the popular saying, things do disappear from the Internet.