The Economics of Taylor Swift’s ‘ME!’ and Music Videos In the Digital Age
In the '80s and '90s, record labels routinely budgeted hundreds of thousands for video production, because an MTV hit meant automatic, lucrative CD sales. The math is different in the YouTube era…
The hissing snake exploding into butterflies, the dozens of dancers in pastel-colored suits, Brendon Urie floating through the sky with an umbrella — none of these effects in Taylor Swift‘s “ME!” video were cheap. Music-industry sources estimated its budget in the seven figures. figures. But thanks to the new music-video economy, Swift’s label, Republic, could make up that money over the next few months; the video has been streamed 162 million times so far on YouTube, which, according to one source, means $150,000 to $250,000 in label revenue.
“I don’t think they were penny-pinching on that one,” says Bob McLynn, manager of Urie’s band Panic! At the Disco, adding that he has no knowledge of Swift’s video costs.
Labels are shelling out as much as ever on certain videos, in part because they now generate advertising revenue on their own — compared to MTV, which famously paid nothing. But whether the videos generate more money for artists and labels overall is a tricky calculation, since fans who view a certain video for free on YouTube may then be less likely to stream the song on a more lucrative paid service such as Spotify or Apple Music.
In the MTV era, big-budget videos were almost always worth the financial risk for major stars, since heavy rotation meant a smash hit and lucrative CD sales. Today, these kinds of videos come out 10 to 30 times per year, estimates JP Evangelista, senior vp of content, programming and marketing for Vevo. “ME!” has been streamed on Vevo more than 100 million times in its first week, generating roughly $90,000 to $150,000 in revenue for Universal-owned Republic, sources say.
YouTube pays out roughly $1.50 for every 1,000 views, according to data released by the RIAA in 2017 — significantly less in royalties than either Apple Music or Spotify, which emphasize audio tracks, not videos. By those calculations, $190,000 would have gone to Swift for the 127 million views of “ME!” as of early May, and nearly $550,000 to Ariana Grande for her 365 million views of “thank u, next.” (Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music and a former longtime label executive, estimated revenue at roughly twice that, but the revenue depends on many variables, like overseas income and whether an artist agrees to certain kinds of ads.)
For non-superstars, though, music videos are simply costly promotional tools. “The money you earn on visual content doesn’t match up with the money you put into it, by and large,” says John Fleckenstein, RCA Records’ co-president. “There’s a monetization aspect to it, but it isn’t like, ‘We should make five videos because we’re going to make a boatload of money.'”
Music-video costs range from $2,500 (for an indie-label project) to $700,000 or more (for a pop superstar like Swift, Grande or Drake). Vince Staples‘ 2018 video for “FUN!” cost roughly $200,000, says his manager, Corey Smyth, although it has just 3.7 million YouTube views. “It’s worth it,” he says. “They’re all calling cards. You don’t know what’s going to hit and what’s going to go viral.” Country stars spend $30,000 to $250,000 per video, according to Erica Rosa, royalties director for Nashville business-management firm Flood, Bumstead, McCready and McCarthy. “I saw one in the pop world that was around $850,000,” she says. “I almost fell out of my chair.”
Dave Meyers, who co-directed “ME!,” once said his typical video budget in the late ’90s, the end of the MTV era, was $1 million. (Neither he nor Swit’s reps was available for comment.)
Labels generally front the money for videos, although artists are frequently charged for the expense until they make enough in royalties to recoup the costs. If artists believe in high-cost projects, they occasionally add their own funds beyond their labels’ expense ceiling. “Videos are as important as they’ve ever been,” says McLynn, who manages Sia and Fall Out Boy and has made videos from $10,000 to $200,000. “When you’re rolling out a bigger artist, you want to double down — you want to make sure you have everything you need, so you up the budget.”
Music and video execs say the idea is the most important factor in determining whether to green-light a big-budget video. Beggars Group’s label Young Turks released FKA twigs‘ new “Cellophane,” depicting the singer floating through the air with a winged dragon and has 3.3 million YouTube views. “That video has to exist in order to fully kick off the project,” says Gabe Spierer, the indie label’s vp of content and strategy. “It’s an example that justifies big spending on a video.”
“The artist’s vision is usually paramount,” Fleckenstein says. “Some artists have extremely specific views they want to get across that can be elaborate and difficult to produce and therefore can become expensive.” Adds Lyor Cohen, a top label exec in the MTV era who is now YouTube’s global head of music: “When you’re void of great ideas, you try to blow up Rolls-Royces for production value. But when an artist and the label work hard to come up with a great concept and execute it, that’s the real ingredient of video success.”
Labels often calculate potential YouTube revenue when creating video budgets, then work backwards to figure out how much they can spend. “It does allow them to feel more comfortable commissioning higher-cost videos, knowing there’ll be some return on their investment,” says Vevo’s Evangelista. But few videos are hits: “The cost-benefit analysis is about controlling for the likely reality that [the video] is a relative footnote — unfortunately,” Spierer says.
In the old days of MTV and CDs, just about every major artist had to make an expensive video to launch a new single. After Napster and file-sharing forced labels to slash their promotional budgets, according to Smyth, spending dropped to $15,000-20,000 per video; now that streaming has returned growth to the business, he says, “We’re in a middle ground.”
While MTV-era directors such as Hype Williams and Spike Jonze could focus exclusively on music videos, at least until they broke into feature films, today’s directors have to supplement their income with non-music projects. New York duo BRTHR has directed videos for Travis Scott, the Weeknd, Charli XCX and Lil Pump, but, says the team’s Kyle Wightman, “To even survive, we have to be doing commercials.” Adds Alex Lee, his partner: “The money we make from music videos is honestly nothing. It’s about 15 percent of what we make [from commercials].”
Although Specter Berlin recently directed Rammstein‘s over-the-top “Deutschland” video, which is packed with lasers, period costumes and elaborate, controversial scenes depicting the holocaust, he’s frustrated labels won’t spend more money in a time of big-budget Netflix and HBO projects. “It’s a great time for music videos and there’s no reason why the budgets are not going up,” he says. “It’s convenient for the music industry to say, ‘Hey, this is a young artist shooting a music video and we only have $20,000.’ If everybody does proper work, nobody’s going to make anything.” Adds Tony Yacenda, who directs videos for comedian-rapper Lil Dicky, including recent charity single “Earth” and 2017’s “Pillow Talking,” which reportedly cost $700,000: “Nobody views it as the endgame. [Videos] allow you to create something fun to watch that shows you have style and a voice — but it’s not going to be your payday.”
Swift’s “ME!” is one of the big-budget exceptions. “I don’t think you should spend $500 grand on something you think is going to come and go — that’s for a certain type of artist,” says Smyth, Staples’ manager. “Taylor Swift was almost in Tron. Her glam is probably my budget.”
This story has been updated.