This Is a New Golden Age for Music Videos
This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week's worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we look at the current state of the music video, and try to make the case for how (and why) 2018 feels like a special time for the format.
The idea of the music video being dead has popped up every year or so for the greater part of this century, since MTV -- the channel that made the video an unavoidable part of international pop culture -- started to shift the format further and further from the center of its programming around the turn of the millennium. "Internet Killed the Video Star," proclaimed a 2010 album and minor alternative hit by The Limousines, both punning off the title of the first video MTV ever aired, and reflecting an increasingly common perception that the advent of YouTube and the rise of social media had reduced the music video to somewhere between a novelty and a formality.
And it's true that for a long time, the format appeared diminished. MTV exposure dried up. The Video Music Awards tried to pivot away from videos on at least one occasion. Video budgets were slashed by record companies who no longer saw them as profitable, in an industry that had much less money to go around in general than it did when artists like Michael Jackson, Guns N' Roses and Puff Daddy would spend seven figures on prestige clips. Even the YouTube video stars who went viral mostly by accident -- the Tay Zondays and Rebecca Blacks of the world -- appeared to have largely vanished from the landscape. Even if the music video was unlikely to ever disappear entirely, it looked unlikely to hold a pivotal place in the culture again.
But in 2018, the music video hasn't just turned around its sagging relevance -- it's absolutely thriving. In the last 12 months in particular, videos have once again become a central part of the pop culture discussion. They're not only shaping the way we perceive many of the country's biggest hits, they're one of the biggest reasons why some of them are getting that big in the first place. And now it seems like the proclamations of the music video's demise might have been wildly premature.
As has been the case since MJ, Madonna, Prince and Duran Duran became the defining artists of MTV's first era, the music video is always at its strongest when the biggest stars set the bar. This is undoubtedly the case in 2018. Drake, the most successful artist of the streaming era, has begun consistently treating new music videos as events in the way of his best-selling predecessors: with massive costs, star-studded casts and expert-level executions. The blithe "God's Plan" saw him literally giving away most of his seven-figure budget, while "Nice for What" assembled arguably the greatest collection of star female cameos in video history; the two singles spent a combined 19 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 this year, in large part thanks to the extra streams and word-of-mouth driven by their accompanying clips. And after a destructive feud with Pusha T threatened to rob him of his positive momentum, a new clip for third Scorpion single "I'm Upset" -- which reunited his old Degrassi: The Next Generation cast in an irresistible bit of fan wish-fulfillment -- turned the tides back in his favor, and helped the lukewarmly received song become another top ten hit.
He's far from the only superstar who's begun to wield the power of music video in such a way again. Kendrick Lamar, perhaps Drake's only remaining true rival for hip-hop cultural supremacy, has gone similarly wide with his visuals -- starting with the instantly iconic and pressingly timely videos for "Alright" and "Humble.," and continuing through this year's visually stunning and pulse-racing clips for his Black Panther soundtrack collaborations "All the Stars" (with SZA) and "King's Dead" (with Future, James Blake and Jay Rock). Planetary Top 40 force Taylor Swift entered the realm of pop video greats with 2014's gorgeously shot and darkly humorous "Blank Space," and now treats every video like the next chapter in her career's narrative -- whether it's about her swinging back against her critics ("Look What You Made Me Do"), growing up and enjoying adult life as a globe-trotting superstar ("End Game") or coming to terms with her place in the world ("Delicate") -- with the same level of visual detail that she puts into her lyrics. And following the champagne-and-Top-Ramen fun of 2016 mainstream crossover clip "Bad and Boujee," the hitmaking Migos clan have become masters of the easily memed high-concept video, whether it's The One Where They're Trappers For Real ("T-Shirt"), The One Where They Do Soul Train (the Drake-assisted "Walk It Talk It") or, um, The One With Ric Flair (Offset and Metro Boomin's "Ric Flair Drip").
And then, of course, there's Beyoncé. Queen Bey has been at the music video's forefront since her solo debut 15 years ago -- and arguably a half-decade even before that with Destiny's Child -- and at the turn of the '10s, she played a large part in restoring relevance to the form at arguably its lowest point. This decade, she's evolved into unquestionably the brightest star of video, with a pair of exhilarating, artful and immaculate full-length visual albums (2013's self-titled LP and 2016's Lemonade) that became blockbuster releases equivalent to nearly any feature film released in either year. Beyoncé has only released one clip in 2018, but it was large-scale enough to reestablish her place at the top of the video food chain: "APESHIT," a June visual that saw her and husband JAY-Z close down the halls of the world's most hallowed museum for their own version of high art, and has already drawn 80 million views on YouTube, helping the song debut in the Hot 100's top 20. (For his part, JAY has also stepped up his own video game in recent years, as a pair of subversive clips off 2017's 4:44 were similarly headline-grabbing: the Friends-reinventing "Moonlight" and the racially charged '40s-style animation of "The Story of O.J.")
Pop stars making big videos has never disappeared completely, and many of these artists have been making excellent videos for a while -- Drake's first truly viral clip likely came in 2012 with the Bar Mitzvah-set "HYFR," and obviously Taylor Swift's presence as an MTV difference-maker dates back to the '09 VMAs. The biggest difference in 2018, though, is the production standard these artists now seem to feel the need to live up to with every video -- previous rollouts from artists like Drake and Swift inevitably saw forgettable performance-based or half heartedly plot-driven clips mixed in with their more iconic visuals, as boxes that needed to be checked for albums that would try to spin off five or six hit singles at a time. In 2018, where the need for content is supreme and endlessly competitive, video platforms no longer exist to guarantee heavy rotation on name alone, and every video is a chance to change or advance the conversation around an artist, pop stars no longer have the luxury to waste such opportunities: Every video must be special, or risks being instantly left behind -- with, perhaps, the artist along with it.
But just as important to the format's health, the music video isn't just helping cement previously established stars, it's serving to mint new ones. As much as it now feels like he's one of pop's A-listers, Childish Gambino was still better known as a TV sensation and cult rapper with one fluke-y crossover hit until this year's "This Is America," whose incendiary and heavily debated music video propelled the song to a No. 1 debut on the Hot 100 -- Gambino's first visit even to the top ten. Less spectacularly but just as notably, British R&B artist Ella Mai has experienced runaway success this year with her breakout hit "Boo'd Up," in large part thanks to its music video -- one not nearly as explosive or headline-grabbing as "America," but nearly as viral. The clip, a charming, low-key romance set at a mini-golf course and featuring tab-away-and-you-'ll-miss-it cameos from Khalid and Kamaiyah, reached No. 1 on the YouTube US chart, and helped catapult the song to its current Hot 100 top five peak. And burgeoning British pop star Dua Lipa has made cleverly staged and creatively choreographed visuals a major part of her brand with the clips for "New Rules" and "IDGAF," which, not incidentally, became her first two major stateside chart hits.
Even at a commercial strata below that, the music video is finding vitality. Tierra Whack was a singer-rapper unfamiliar to most of the music world outside of her Philadelphia hometown as recently as a couple months ago, before the late-May debut of her 15-songs-in-15-minutes album Whack World, with an accompanying series of wildly imaginative and loosely connected shorts driven by Whack's off-kilter energy and compelling personality. The clip spread quickly across the Internet, earning Whack features in high-profile publications like Noisey, The New York Times and Pitchfork -- the latter of which selected the artist to replace Earl Sweatshirt at their upcoming Pitchfork Music Festival after the acclaimed rapper's cancellation. And similarly to Lipa, ascendant pop talent Hayley Kiyoko has made videos an inextricable part of her work with a series of self-directed clips for singles like "Feelings" and "Curious," whose evocatively captured videos are groundbreaking for their straightforward presentation of same-sex courtship in a manner typically reserved for pop videos told from a boy-pursues-girl perspective, earning millions of views for each.
Within nearly every level of the music industry, the music video is re-emerging as a potent force. And it helps that there are now more places to watch and share such videos now than ever before: Not just through YouTube, but over social media sites like Twitter and even Instagram (whose rumored new changes to allow videos up to an hour in length could be a game-changer), and more audio-focused streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify, with the vertical video format favored by the latter offering interesting new challenges and possibilities for the format. And while MTV, VH-1 and BET have essentially deleted the video block from their programming, plenty of deluxe-cable channels are still available to cater to viewers with an old-school attachment to the televised music video: MTVU, MTV Classic, NickMusic and BET Jams among them, as well as the more open-formatted programming of the Sean Combs-founded Revolt network. The monocultural influence of MTV in the '80s and '90s as a music video platform will likely never be matched again, but add up all the smaller platforms across different media through which they can reach fans in 2018, and the overall impact is likely comparable.
The transition of video's home base going from cable to streaming also comes with interesting financial consequences. In the days of MTV's dominance, videos were a sound financial investment because they promoted blockbuster sales for their accompanying albums and tours. In 2018, where album sales have shrunk nearly out of existence, but stream totals for the biggest videos are more robust than ever -- in the billions for the very biggest videos -- they become important revenue streams for artists entirely on their own: Billboard calculated last year that two clips for Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" had combined to produce over $4 million in revenue for Sheeran's label off YouTube plays alone. With that level of moneymaking potential, there's renewed motivation for labels to invest heavily in the budget (and ultimately, the quality) of their artists' videos; increasingly, it's showing in the final product.
Finally, the music video is expanding not only in format and platform, but in definition. Video is such an important part of the media universe in 2018 that visuals of all kinds are serving to promote music as effectively as the traditional music video, whether it be through lyric videos, lip dubs, commercial syncs, and perhaps most of all, fan tributes and memes. For as much time, money and effort was pumped into the three Internet-conquering Drake music videos this year, it's arguable that the most effective video for the star rapper this year was the Instagram clip filmed by online personality Shiggy which featured him dancing to Scorpion cut "In My Feelings," spawning a dance challenge that spread across the Internet with blinding speed and turned "Feelings" into the album's most viral hit essentially overnight. The future of music video may see the form evolve from a one-time statement to more of a two-way exchange between artists and fans.
But in the present, it's undeniable that at a time when the long-flailing music industry is starting to show signs of recovery for the first time in many years, the traditional music video is also making a major across-the-board comeback, and is currently at a healthier place as an artform now than at nearly any other point this century. Turns out, the Internet didn't kill the video star after all: It just forced them to adapt to and embrace new priorities and formats, and to find the continued relevance that was there for their taking all along.