The YouTube Music Awards air this Sunday, Nov. 3, live at 6 p.m. on YouTube -- and creative director Spike Jonze still isn’t quite entirely sure what to expect.
“None of us have done anything live before or an awards show -- in a way we’re all like amateurs on YouTube ourselves, making our first video. So even if it’s messy, it’ll be live,” Jonze says on the phone from outside Pier 36, where the show will tape at New York’s Basketball City.
Jonze is overseeing YouTube’s first-ever Music Awards alongside fellow music-video vet Chris Milk and executive producers Vice Media and Sunset Lane Entertainment, an event that, despite its easy comparisons to MTV’s Video Music Awards, is aiming to be a more guerilla take on the typical award show. Sure, the night’s performers include expected superstars like Eminem, Lady Gaga, M.I.A. and Arcade Fire, but their songs will all be performed as live music videos across multiple sets -- with the artists themselves often minimized or not present at all. “You may not even see Arcade Fire, for example, until halfway through the song, or maybe Avicii will appear in his video but not as the character you would expect Avicii to be,” says Milk. “Just like music videos, some are visually more of a narrative, and some are more about a really compelling performance from the artists. The audience who’s there can see it, but sometimes they’ll be looking at it on a screen.”
As of Friday afternoon, a total of eight live music videos were planned -- Arcade Fire (featuring actress Greta Gerwig), directed by Jonze; Avicii, directed by Jonze and Milk; Lady Gaga, directed by Jonze and Milk; Earl Sweatshirt feat. Tyler the Creator, directed by Tyler The Creator; Eminem, directed by James Larese; Lindsey Stirling, directed by Ray Tintori; M.I.A., directed by Fafi; OK Go, directed by Damien Kulash and CDZA, directed by Joe Sabia.
Such elaborate production demands means that Milk, Jonze, the Vice crew and even YTMA hosts Jason Schwartzmann and comedian Reggie Watts are getting a crash course in the necessary cameras, lenses and prep time necessary to make eight multi-camera music videos happen during a planned 90-minute livestream. “If a lens isn’t changed, then Jason or Reggie will have to do some tap dancing until the cameramen are ready,” says Jonze.
So why would YouTube tap Vice for its first crack at an awards show? For starters, Vice has an expanding portfolio of media properties that touch music, from its joint venture with Warner Bros. for Vice Records, to music-based YouTube channel Noisey, re-designing the lighting and mainstage of 2011’s Coachella, the spring launch of EDM vertical Thump, ongoing live event and online video series Creators Project and its recent production of Arcade Fire’s 30-minute post-“Saturday Night Live” concert, directed by Roman Coppola. “We believe that music content or music entertainment can be more visionary than it has in the past,” says Vice chief cretaive officer Eddy Moretti. “And it’s fun for us to keep our finger on that and changing music entertainment.”
Nominees for the awards are a mish-mash of videos that are super-popular in the YouTube community and in the mainstream, with Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, Gaga, and Bieber all sharing Video of the Year nominations with clips from Epic Rap Battles of History and K-pop collective Girls Generation, for example. Elsewhere, in the Innovation of the Year category, popular YouTube musician DeStorm will compete against rising indie acts like Atoms For Peace, Bat For Lashes, Toro Y Moi and Anamanaguchi, and a whole award will be dedicated to the best “Response of the Year” from musicians who recorded a highly-viewed cover, remix or parody of a well-known song. Only Artist of the Year brings the highest volume of usual suspects from other awards, including Katy Perry, Eminem, One Direction, Taylor Swift and Psy.
Tyler, The Creator pointed out such similarities in a series of tweets Oct. 23, including the memorable missive: “YOUTUBE AWARDS COULDVE FUCKING HAD NOMINATIONS ON COOL CREATIVE VIDEOS SHIT BUT NOOOO AGAIN ITS THE MOST TEENY BOPPER POP SHIT. YOU ARE BUTT.” But the Odd Future rapper is still on track to direct and perform Sunday, and Moretti welcomes the debate such tweets inspired over the past week.
“If you’re a part of this culture and community, it keeps everyone kinda honest,” Moretti says. “I think the nominations are based on real viewing habits, so we didn’t skew those. The algorithms are very transparent -- this is what comes up. It’s not just a popularity contest, it’s actually based on engagement and sentiment. It’s not just about volume of video views, but how much do people actually care about things? I think once people see the awards part of this platform, I think even [Tyler] will go, ‘This is new and different and a step in a new direction.”
As for how the awards themselves will be presented, Milk teases those might be a surprise, too. “Jason and Reggie don’t necessarily know the typical structure of the envelope, the ‘And the winner is…’ So we may or may not stick to that convention, and Jason and Reggie may or may not be aware that it’s sticking either,” he says. “We’re still building in room for surprises, so no one really knows what the broadcast is really gonna be at this point. And my prediction is that it’s going to be a really beautiful catastrophe.”