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 try to guess what the video might look like in the years to come, with help of some of the preeminent experts in the field.
This year alone, music videos have stirred and started dialogue: Childish Gambino’s politically potent “This Is America”; Drake’s charitable “God’s Plan” and celebratory “Nice For What”; Janelle Monae’s subtle boundary-pusher “PYNK.” What makes a compelling visual in 2018 is often easy to identify, but when it comes to pinpointing what a compelling visual might look like in the future, it’s far less simple.
For answers about the direction the music video may take in the years to come, we turned to some of the format’s current gatekeepers: YouTube’s global head of music, Lyor Cohen; Snapchat’s VP of content, Nick Bell; Spotify’s head of content experiences, shows and editorial, Rachel Ghiazza; and video content management platform Vydia’s CEO Roy Lamanna all share why they think music videos are forever, and consider what the format might come to look like, from mood-based visuals to artificial intelligence.
Why do you believe that that intersection between music and visuals is so important?
BELL, Snapchat: Growing up, being at home and tuning in to MTV, [when a] new music video came on, you either sat there watching it with your friends, or picked up the phone and called your friend to share what you’ve just seen. There’s a strong likelihood, certainly with my friends, that they’d been watching MTV as well. So, I think that concept of shared enjoyment has always made music videos very powerful. And I think it brings to life a lot of tracks. The power of music and visuals when they’re brought together is it’s a common topic that you can discuss and share.
COHEN, YouTube: I think that video helps contextualize and bring another dimension to an audio art form. That additional context is always good. Especially if there is cleverness and attention and focus to the video.
GHIAZZA, Spotify: Spotify is all about fostering interactivity between artists and fans. Whether you are discovering an artist for the first time, hearing new music from an artist you love, or reconnecting with an artist, videos allow you to engage in a deeper way. They build connections with fans by providing a visual story to go along with a song. Mason Ramsey’s “Famous” Vertical Video took us behind the the scenes of him signing his record deal. When people heard the track, many for the first time, they also saw this adorable boy with a big guitar surrounded by his family, and it really gave context to him as an artist and “Famous” as a song.
LAMANNA, Vydia: Videos give insight to a culture, it drives a lot of what influences young generations across all different demographics. It’s important when you look at what actually is driving streaming and digital music [right now], and that’s hip-hop. It’s one of the only genres of music where there’s a lifestyle associated with it that makes it so compelling.
Have you seen music videos become more and less important in recent years, and why do you think that may be?
COHEN: I think that, first of all, music videos were super crucial and important with the birth of MTV. I think that video has suffered in line with the suffering and the changing during the period of hardship that our industry has gone through. Once there was lots of emphasis and capital deployed to videos during the heyday and as the business started to decline, you saw also video become deemphasized. And I think as we’re watching the tide rising and now video is not an expense item, but an item that artists can actually make money from — now we’re going to see an acceleration on the focus and attention spent on creating really dope videos.
GHIAZZA: Music consumption has become increasingly mobile; we pioneered Vertical Video as a music format to optimize the mobile viewing experience. The format allows artists to reach fans where they are already consuming music — within the playlist. The beauty of the format is that it feels personal, enabling artists to connect with fans in a way that feels natural, intimate, and real.
LAMANNA: I one-hundred percent think [people are] caring more. If you look at any group of people — I don’t care if they’re listening to music — they’re staring at their phone every couple of minutes, right? And so if they’re listening to music, they’re also, a lot of the times, surfing the web or online or just doing something that is keeping their eyes and their ears stimulated at the same time. I think that providing a companion video piece or visual component to the audio is certainly something that’s more and more important. One thing that we see is that there’s a direct correlation between a release of what would be considered an official music video and a song rising significantly.
BELL: I think that the difference now is that people are consuming content in a different way. This is something that we’ve really discovered at Snapchat. People are using their phones tens, hundreds of times a day and for short, short moments. So, this concept of sitting down, the lean-back experience in the living room, is very different. Not saying that people don’t do that anymore, but I think the concept of visuals and music combined is still as powerful as it ever was. It’s just changed. What you see with music videos now, a lot of the consumption is happening in a browser tab, and is almost as background music — not the focus of someone’s attention the way it was when I was growing up on MTV.
What do you think is making for a standout music video right now?
LAMANNA: That’s a lot of what we’re trying to figure out, really. When you look at “This Is America,” everyone was aware of that song once Childish Gambino dropped the video. Videos are just so iconic and I think that they tell the story — a missing element of the story — that I think makes it a little bit more digestible to the masses. If I were to think of an equivalent, I would say, imagine a book, like Lord of the Rings — it’s popular, everyone’s reading it. But then the movie makes it popular amongst everyone, you know? That’s a good analogy for how music is. The songs usually come out ahead of time, and they’re popular within a core group of people, but then the video gives it to a mass people who aren’t the super-fans who are now going to become more aware of the song. And then what happens, what do you do? You go back and rediscover their [other] music.
GHIAZZA: Vertical Videos offer another way for artists to express [themselves], and the standouts are as varied as the artists, from Sam Smith’s simple yet seductively intimate “Too Good at Goodbyes” to [electronic duo] AREA21’s super creative, “Glad You Came,” which tied the album imagery with the uniqueness of the format. Billie Eilish’s, “you should see me in a crown,” is as powerful as the song, and as skin tingling as the pulsating base.
BELL: I think it’s got to be hyper visual. It’s got to be fast-paced. If I’m sending a snap to my friend, I’ll highlight and doodle on it to draw attention to certain elements, and I think that’s the same with music videos or any audio and visual synch concept, where you’re trying to make either the audio or visual pop depending on which is the prevalent.
COHEN: There’s not any one secret bullet. What I do know is that having a magnificent record is the core, it’s like having a great script. You could make a great movie with a great script. I don’t think you can make a hit movie with great production and a bad script. So, I think it’s really super imperative that our script is a great song. And then, on top of that, I don’t believe that there’s a single method to getting the best video other than just surrounding yourself with really creative, incredibly creative people.
In 10 years, what is something that every popular music video — or how might they be consumed — might have in common?
BELL: I think augmented reality is obviously something that we’ve been pioneering. I think that is definitely something that’s happening. In a 12 months time-frame, we’ve got a really clear view of where that’s gonna go. But I do imagine a world in 10 years that the hardware that we’re using to consume is not necessarily being held in our hands, but is maybe even a technology that we’re wearing. Obviously that is something that we’re exploring deeply at Snapchat with the Spectacles, for example. I think that, for me, it’s the concept where you don’t necessarily have the barrier between you and the outside world in quite the same way that you have with a mobile device today. And so, augmented reality is reading that experience to you, and is probably even more immersive than it is now.
LAMANNA: The tricky thing with music videos, and the thing that MTV always had a difficult time with, is that everyone essentially makes a program decision every three minutes — every three minutes, you’re making a new decision whether or not you want to leave. And so the future of music videos I think is very much aligned with the future of music, which is that it’s going to be more mood-based. I think that a lot of that data right now is people are associating moods with playlists and moods with music. That’s what makes music so compelling, is that someone somewhere articulates something that you feel but are unable to put into words. I think that figuring that out is where things are going to be in the future.
In terms of your platform specifically, how do you see its role with music videos evolving?
LAMANNA: I see a lot of redundancy [right now]. I see Siri and Google Home and Alexa playing a larger role in music, in the AI portion of it. So what is required for that stuff to work directly is to have correct metadata, which is the unsexy part of music. But the thing about it is you want to have the correct metadata over many platforms.
So, what our platform is aiming to do is essentially take out the repetitive nature of delivering that content to Facebook, to Youtube, to Instagram, to Vevo and the next platform that might come. If that information changes, if the ownership changes, you want to have a centralized platform for changing that information. If you want to block a video, you want to have one central place where you can block it. If you have a new platform that’s around five years from now that isn’t around now, and you want to push out all of that content with the push of a button, that’s what we’re helping to do.
BELL: The power of music in terms of influencing culture and helping with human evolution, I think is really interesting as well and probably something that is undervalued. If you look at how the consumption of music is evolving and how music discovery is evolving, it’s no longer about going down to HMV, as it was in my day, and buying three or four singles. Or if, you know, you had a lot of pocket money that week, buying an album and then going home and listening to it. It’s no longer about discovery via TV or radio in the same way that it was, it’s now about music that is brought into your life in new and innovative ways.
At Snapchat, we think that that’s really powerful. The value of scarcity, the value of actually having an opinion about music and the ability to break a track and an artist on Snapchat is something that we’re really passionate about. I think that is something that as a company we’re thinking long and hard about. I think it’s less about having a whole library of content, and more about us having an opinion and us helping artists break that we feel are exceptional.
COHEN: The most important thing for us is to understand that we heard our partners loud and clear. The labels and the artists would like our consumers to have a choice — and that choice is whether to pay with their eyeballs or to buy a subscription. And so we’re committing to building a subscription business. As you know, we just launched it a couple weeks ago. And giving our consumers a choice and listening to our partners to me is mission critical.
Why do you think the format of music videos has such staying power?
LAMANNA: I’m nearly 40 — so when I was younger, you used to listen to the music and there was always a visual component to it. You would flip through the liner notes and look at the photos and that’s being replaced with video content. The behaviors have always been there, they’re just changing and evolving. If you talk to anyone who’s of a certain age or older, they’ll be like, “Oh, I remember the liner notes were so important, I used to flip through them.” And people don’t do that anymore. They still do the idea, they just don’t do the exact action, but they want to see something at the same time.
COHEN: Remember, be careful for what we wish for. The Internet broke the levy. We used to be highly tight curators of what artists were breaking, either through radio, MTV or traditional publications. Now, with the Internet, the levy is broken and there are hundreds of thousands, millions of bands available. And I think creating a video is a natural curation effort to set yourself apart from the pack.