The Rise of The Video (Again)

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Have you watched MTV recently?  VH1?  The networks that used to be tastemakers in the music industry have become no more than pop culture pipelines (oh, hi Snooki).  Spend an evening viewing the programming on either station and while you may see artists (Bret Michaels, Flava Flav) chances are you’ll see very little, if any, music.  These days it seems like the only time Music Television even mentions the word “music” is during one of it’s celebrity pageants, sorry…awards shows.  But before we start getting all nostalgic about shows like Yo! MTV Raps and The Grind, let’s try and look at the change through the lens of the modern music business. Maybe the networks just adapted in a way that major labels didn’t.  We live in a digital world; one of instant gratification and custom programming.  We don’t listen to the radio, we listen to commercial-free personalized playlists on our iPods.  Kids don’t buy albums, they cherry pick the singles they like from iTunes.  There’s a trend here: where does the modern consumer go for their music?  To the internet.  If you’re 17 years old, why would you wait in front of the TV screen just hoping that the VJ (remember those?) plays that new kick ass video from your favorite artist when you could find it on YouTube and watch it to your heart’s content?  Yes, when the internet changed the music business, it changed all of it.

But while the digital revolution spelled doom for the retail side of the record business, it could well be the savior of the video world.  Think for a moment about the videos MTV was showing right before the reality shows invaded.  They were nip and tuck cookie-cutter bites of what the suits thought the kids would buy.  Shows like TRL went so far as to air just clips of most of the videos on their countdown.  The video shows were turning into radio – get to the chorus and get out…and make it quick.  What had once been a relevant art form (think MJ’s “Thriller” or TLC’s “Waterfalls”) was quickly becoming nothing more than sexed up commercial fodder – a microwaved marketing tool controlled not by the artist, but by the salesmen.  Oh, and what’s more…they weren’t paying for it.  Artists and labels were so desperate for their share of the airtime that they were forced to grant the network gratis licenses for the airing of their work.  The law of supply and demand meant that MTV was able to muscle its way around like a bully on a playground.

Now fast forward to the present: the ever-polarizing Kanye West releases a 34-minute odyssey of a video, “Runaway,” that debuts simultaneously on VH1.com, BET.com, MTV.com, MTV, MTV2, and BET.  West is certainly a lighting rod of a pop-culture icon so it’s not surprising that the networks aired the premiere on their flagship stations.  But since the October 23 special, fans must turn to the websites or YouTube to see it.  When there’s little to no room in the programming schedule for videos, you can bet that at 34-minute video won’t find a place on air.  Again though, the fact that the video has found it’s home online is hardly surprising.  In fact, one could argue that this video was created for, and even made possible by, the internet.  Even if MTV were still in the business of airing music videos, it’s highly unlikely that they would allow one artist to absorb over half an hour’s worth of programming on a regular basis.  And with a new album on the way, Kanye would have had his hand forced.  He would have had to play the game and release a nice three-minute video just like everyone else.  His artistic vision that takes life in ”Runaway” would have been throttled.   Fortunately, there is no program director for the internet.  Since no one dictates what content ends up online, West was able to create and release the video that he wanted.  Regardless of your opinion of Kanye West, that has to be a good thing.

Ironically, the death of the true music video network has led to more creative options and control for the artist.  And the best part?  Fans are responding.  In just over a week, the official version of “Runaway” has over 3.5 million views on YouTube alone.  Lady Gaga recently eclipsed 1 billion views on YouTube.  Artists from around the world are creating and uploading videos that don’t require million dollar budgets and the subsequent indentured servitude to the record label and the networks. There’s even money in it for the artist now - well, for some of them.  YouTube grants the major labels a share of their advertising revenue whenever an ad appears on the same page as one of their artist’s videos.  The video is back in business.  And so is the creative opportunity that it used to provide.  Like West’s avian love interest in “Runaway,” the music video has risen from the ashes of big media.