Inside Encounters #3- The Evolution of the Music Promo

Fade Away- Vitallic by Roman Chassaing

Fade Away- Vitallic by Roman Chassaing

Saturday’s Music Video Showcase proudly displays some of the finest, wackiest creative talents currently working in the world of music promos. Here we take a look back at the history of a film medium that came to define a generation.

12:01am. 1st August 1981. Cable television is still in only 25% of homes across America and yet, for a select audience, the cultural landscape is about to evolve. Music as we know it will never be the same “Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice declares. “Rock and roll.” On screens across the US, The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star, blares out in all of its synthesized glory. MTV is born and the music industry is changed forever.

Today, while we may view the music promo as little more than a staple part of the music industry’s marketing powerhouse, the format has evolved into a cultural monolith. Sometimes literal, often abstract and, just occasionally, offensively absurd, music videos have somewhat justly attained their own unique cultural status in society, making their mark in all facets of the entertainment industry. To this day, these short films remain some of the most high profile collisions of art and commerce and the story of their unprecedented rise to popularity spans the lifetime of film itself.

Whilst Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s arguably paved the way for their existence, standalone videos designed for the sole purpose of promoting a song or artist didn’t emerge until the late 1950s, with the introduction of the Scopitone in France, a jukebox featuring a 16mm film component. Musicians such as Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy produced short films to accompany their music and the equipment’s popularity soon spread abroad. It wasn’t long before recording artists around the world were spotting potential in the moving image and a trend began to emerge.

The 1960s marked something of a formative period for the format. While The Beatles toyed with film in their feature endeavours, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, it wasn’t until 1965 that they started producing their own standalone promotional clips in order to substitute appearances in person on television programmes. The likes of Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones soon followed suit and the following year Bob Dylan made waves with Subterranean Homesick Blues, a stark promo featuring Dylan stood in an alley, shuffling large cue cards. Noteworthy in its conscious decision not to replicate a performance or tell a story, it remains the subject of innumerable parodies and affectionate homage to this day.

With television’s rise in popularity during the 1970s, musicians increasingly found themselves becoming a staple part of entertainment programming. Australian TV proved instrumental in normalising the music video format, with popular music shows increasingly find themselves in need of film footage to accompany songs for which there were no purpose-made clips. The BBC embraced the promos too, although their reluctance to outsource video content meant that strict limits were put in place with regards to the number that Top Of The Pops could show at the time, therefore creating a competitive element among artists to make their work as striking as possible.

With the launch of MTV the format was popularised immeasurably, with many record labels recognising its twofold potential of boosting an artist’s profile and assisting with the sale of records. Ease of access to video formats and editing equipment also meant that projects could be turned around relatively quickly and cheaply, resulting in a barrage of grainy content for the channel to air. Meanwhile, other artists were eager to fully embrace the music video’s storytelling potential and in 1983 the medium evolved even further with the release of John Landis’ iconic video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Shot on a budget of over $500,000 and running at just over 14 minutes, the video incorporated standalone narrative elements and emerged as a benchmark of what a music promo was capable of achieving.

With the 1990s came larger budgets, the dawn of digital video and a greater awareness of the creative talents behind the camera, with MTV electing to list a director’s credit alongside the works. Music videos were increasingly becoming an auteur’s medium and it wasn’t long before the likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham were becoming famous for their own distinctive styles and subversion of the format.

The arrival of video on the web in the mid-2000s shifted the paradigm forever, with user-created videos becoming the norm and a wealth of new talents emerging. Further emphasising an increasing shift towards the web, MTV itself changed tack in 2010, with its primary focus moving to reality television. The videos themselves continue to develop en masse and, with the ease of access now facilitated by tablet devices, the humble music promo has come to take an increasingly influential role in majority of Internet users’ day-to-day activity.

By Paul Weedon