Video definitely did kill the radio star!
When did music become a second class citizen?
In my previous blog I described how Mr Smith had produced our first music video for a long time (more on the way by the way!). The subsequent online plays provided stark clarity as to the importance of having a video to accompany any musical output.
Simply put, in the first couple of weeks of our new single “Takeaway” release, Spotify streams were still dawdling in the hundreds. But as soon as a video was available, video plays were very quickly in the thousands.
This was further highlighted for me when even members of my OWN family started to compliment the new song, several weeks after it was already available to stream, only after a video was attached to it.
Of course, this should be no surprise, the music video has long been THE vehicle for getting your music heard ever since MTV played the Buggles video for Video Killed The Radio Star back in 1981. The music video without doubt made music more popular and accessible, but at the same time was it the start of the demotion of music itself as a primary art form?
Fast forward to the YouTube era and any band would be lost without some kind of video presence to accompany their latest track. In the absence of a video in the first days of a release, some artists (including us) often resort to cheaply produced “lyric videos” or studio/gig footage to fill the YouTube void. In essence, something visual, ANYTHING visual, is now mandatory for people to listen to music.
When was the last time you listened to music for its own sake? I’m not talking as a backdrop to another activity such as driving, working, sweating on the spin bike or having a BBQ. I’m talking about sitting down, headphones on, pressing play on an album, closing your eyes and actually enjoying the music until the very last track as the main (and only) event? In the 90s I remember rushing home to devour the latest Oasis CD or the new album from Radiohead, Seal or Crowded House in this way. Every note, drum fill and vocal nuance of those albums is firmly engrained in my brain forever, from the studied repeated plays. I don’t remember the last time I did that.
This is, most likely, the cause of the recent revival in popularity of record players and vinyl. This format forces you to make an event out of music listening. Once you commit the needle to the groove, it somehow feels like a crime to interrupt it’s journey. If you have one of these, you most likely do still make time for music in its own right.
That brings me to the subject of short attention spans, a subject that risks making me sound like an old duffer ranting on the Spotify generation. Far from it, I now very much include myself in this bracket. Attention spans have greatly diminished for everyone, whether we like it or not. Its an inevitable consequence of the amount of entertainment choice we all now have on tap.
A recent study demonstrated how intros of songs for example, have dramatically shortened since the 80s. Most modern tracks are into the first verse or chorus within 5 seconds. The slow build 30 second (reduced from the 1 minute album version) intro of the classic Dire Straits track Money For Nothing, for example, just wouldn’t get the attention of the modern listener! Imagine that, they’d never even get as far as hearing Mark Knofler’s opening guitar riff! These days, everything you need to know about a track has to hit you in the first 10 seconds or you’ll be clicking that Next button faster than you can say MTV.
When you publish a video online, one of the most interesting statistics is that of “Viewer Retention”. In other words, how long did the person watching the video stick around before they got bored and moved onto watching cat videos. On Facebook, the shortest measure of retention to still count as an actual “play” is 3 seconds! 3 seconds, that’s how short attention spans are now! Of course, this is exactly the premise that the likes of TikTok is based on. No more than 15 seconds is needed, as no one ever sticks around that long anyway!
So, where does that leave a band or musician or wants to make music and get it heard?
For the big hitting single, sure a big budget professional video can be shot, assuming there’s time, money and inclination. But what about the rest of the songs? All those little tracks that would have previously been album gems? All those songs that were our personal favourite precisely because they weren’t big commercial hits with glossy widescreen videos? Just the thought of never having heard Oasis’ Cast No Shadow because it didn’t have a video gives me chills!
Of course, If you are Dua Lipa you can knock out a great looking video with every track. But smaller artists today are faced with a simple choice. We can either film and produce a low budget video ourselves to accompany each and EVERY song, or else release the audio in its loneliest state ‘sans visuals’. The Coronavirus lockdown has provided a unique opportunity to produce these low budget outputs as the homemade element is unavoidable (and expected) at this time, but what after?
As for the audio-only option...There’s a secret hope in every musician that they’ll record their latest composition in the morning, throw the audio up on SoundCloud in the afternoon and it’ll be charting at Number One by the evening. Of course that’s never going to happen as it’s just a fantasy. But more than that, in reality NO ONE ever got traction from SoundCloud or for that matter any other streaming platform alone. Even those who make a big deal out of large followings on SoundCloud are essentially swimming in a small ego pond, the modern equivalent of being a popular act in your local pub.
All of this means that when a musician sits down to write a song, he/she basically knows that it likely won’t be heard. If it is heard, it will be because it is the backing to a video. And that video will most likely just be watched for the first 15 seconds. It’s a good job most musicians make music for their own creative enjoyment, and not for any particular aspirations of listener numbers, as otherwise we might not get out of bed!
The saviour here is live concerts, which are largely unchanged in the last 50 years. The ability to indulge in a full set of an artist‘s music as part of an enthusiastic captive audience, and without gimmick or distraction, is the direct antithesis of the online click happy world. This probably goes a long way to explain why live music is more popular than ever (pre-lockdown). I anticipate that when live music does return it will be bigger than it ever was before!
Mr Smith are very much looking forward to getting back on stage once we are able to. In the meantime, we’re taking the “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and working on our next music videos for some previously release singles, coming to you very soon.
When Buggles released their single they couldn’t possibly have known how true their words were and how applicable they would be nearly 40 years later.
Video definitely did kill the radio star.