Home » Video Music: The Record Industry's new pitch

Video Music: The Record Industry's new pitch

Billy Joel hurtles headlong into a splash of showery liquid. Stevie Nicks wafts through a mobile Magritte painting. The Go-Go’s turn into Gumby-like clay figures, shimmy onto a rocket ship and zoom to the moon. And the Clash, decked out in turbans and combat gear, strut around an Ali Baba backdrop, arm in arm with a rabbi and a sheik.

Recording artists, from Top 10 contenders to obscure British new-wavers, are making a beeline for video and film studios, where they have been adding pictures to their songs. The results of this media alliance – three- and four-minute promotional video clips – are quickly becoming an almost- essential marketing tool.

They are shown in clubs and record stores, on network talk and entertainment shows and on cable TV to increase exposure and – if all goes well – sales of the groups’ latest records. They are the latest hope of an industry still in the throes of a severe sales slump.

Although they are made by independent producers and directors, promotional music videos – which cannot be bought or rented for home playing – are financed almost entirely by the artists’ record labels. Production costs for a one-song tape range from $15,000 to $50,000, although some – such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” – are rumored to cost in excess of $100,000.

The videos, which generally fall into three categories – concert performances, straight-narrative mini-movies and conceptual, imagistic
interpretations – are often elaborate affairs involving sets, special effects and large casts.

A video for the Motels’ single “Only the Lonely” is set in a mock-up of Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca. Michael Nesmith’s “Rio,” considered by many to be the prototype of the music-video form, depicts the performer flying through outer space and dancing the rumba with a Ginger Rogers look alike. Others feature antique trains, World War II battleships, pirate galleons and numerous props. They have been shot on studio back lots and on locations as far-flung as New Zealand and Ghana.

Mark Robinson, a Los Angeles-based director who has made promotional videos for the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, George Thorogood, Santana and Bob Marley, said that he usually works with a crew of 10 to 15 people.

“It’s possible to do the whole thing – from the time the record company contacts you to a finished videocassette – within a week,” he said. Robinson, whose firm is called Modern Productions, recently was presented with a gold record by CBS Records for his Eddie Money video.

“CBS claims that the video is responsible for keeping sales going” on Money’s most recent album, “No Control,” he said. “It sold 750,000 copies – which they couldn’t understand because it wasn’t being played on the radio – and they found out it was because of the video. Or so they tell me.”

Once the videos are completed and approved, record companies and management firms make them available to a variety of outlets, including TV shows such as ”American Bandstand,” “America’s Top Ten,” “Entertainment Tonight” and “MV3” (a sort of new-wave “American Bandstand” now airing in Los Angeles and planned for syndication).

The videos also are available to the RockAmerica Club Network, which distributes monthly reels to dance clubs throughout the country, retail chains equipped with in-store video displays, movie theaters and cable television. Although Home Box Office, Select-TV, ON-TV and Theta Cable play some music videos, the primary cable markets are the Atlanta-based Video Music Channel and, most important, MTV (Music Television).

More than any other outlet, record-company executives credit MTV – the 24- hour cable channel produced by Warner-Amex – for increased sales and the chart success of many acts. Being added to the channel’s play list can make the difference in a song’s chance to become a hit.

‘Radio with Pictures’

The all-music satellite station has been called “radio with pictures,” replete with veejays (video disc jockeys), commercials, interview segments and live concert features. According to MTV vice president Les Garland, MTV has more than 8 million subscribers – about 35 percent of all homes now wired for cable.

“The best case (of a success) that can be attributed to MTV is our group Dep Leppard,” said Len Epand, vice president of video communications at PolyGram Records. “Their album had around 300,000 sales units when it was added to MTV. The album turned gold (500,000 sales), and the only real action we’ve had on the album promotionally has been the play of the video clips on MTV. The MTV action has brought the band to places that the radio promotion hadn’t.”

Many of the acts breaking big because of MTV and other video exposure are new recording artists who were being ignored by the heavily formated, album- oriented rock radio stations. In a survey by Billboard magazine late last year, record stores reported increases of 15 and 20 percent on sales of albums by acts shown on MTV.

Great Potential

The promotional video’s potential for generating sales is now so great that record labels find themselves competing for MTV’s attention.

“When MTV first started about a year and a half ago,” recalls PolyGram’s Epand, “if your video was relatively decent you’d get it on – no problem. But now it’s an incredibly competitive area. Everybody has smelled out that money is to be made here in record sales. Consequently, not only our production has increased, so has everybody else’s. It’s growing geometrically, to the point where some weeks MTV’s getting as many as 30 new (video) clips a week.

. . . So you start hearing the same kind of reasons for not playing something that we’ve been hearing from AOR radio these last few years: ‘It’s not the right image for us’ or ‘It doesn’t have a hook.’ ”

MTV, however, has received criticism for a problem long associated with radio programming: racism. Like its FM counterparts, MTV plays mainly contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. For a video by a black act to be shown on on MTV, that act, almost without exception, must have proven its acceptability to white audiences. Gary U.S. Bonds, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley – with their acknowledged crossover appeal – are not uncommon on the 18-month-old channel; the Busboys and Prince, whose audiences are still mostly black, are less visible on the channel.

MTV executives say that their selections have nothing to do with race, but rather the music that’s being played. “We don’t play Barbra Streisand, either, and she’s big,” said Robert W. Pittman, vice president for Warner- Amex, in a recent interview.

For Black-Music Fans

To serve fans of black music – and, in turn, record labels promoting black acts – both the Apollo Network, owned by the New York-based Inner City Broadcasting, and Black Entertainment Television, a black community cable company in Washington, have plans to establish black-music channels. Both hope to broadcast their programming nationally.

Recording companies pushing videos to boost sales of records by black acts have had greater success with the Video Music Channel’s broader programming policy. MTV, contends Mike Green, vice president and general manager of Video Music, is aimed at the suburban viewer. “We’re much more of an urban music form.”

According to Green, his service airs black rhythm and blues acts that can’t be found on MTV. “We play Judas Priest; we play Kool and the Gang,” he says of the station, which broadcasts on a live local-origin system in the Atlanta area and also offers a flexible syndicated system for cable nationwide. “If you watch for an hour, I can move you back and forth very subtly between five or six different musical genres two or three times.”

According to Green, the Video Music Channel’s Atlanta audience is about 72,000, a number Green hopes to double within two years. Its syndicated division has about 1.5 million subscribing households including some in the Allentown area. Green hopes to penetrate cable markets in other cities where the racial balance calls for a more varied play list.

Bullish on Video

Clearly, the growing popularity of rock cable channels explains why the recording industry is bullish on video promotions. Even Arista Records president Clive Davis, who had gone on record opposing the heavy use of video to sell recorded music, has changed his tune since witnessing the impact videos have had on sales. Though Arista was the last major record company to produce promotional music videos, it is now as active in the field as the rest of its competitors.

A majority of the promotional clips – like television commercials – have been mediocre: a band pretending to play its instruments while it lip-syncs lyrics into a camera is pretty dull stuff.

Also, like commercials, a lot of the videos use sex as their main selling point. An RCA Records group known as 805 has a clip featuring a Penthouse magazine Pet of the Year in bed with members of the band. And MTV refused to play a clip for the Duran Duran song “Girls on Film,” directed by musicians- turned-filmmakers Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. The video featured topless models, mud wrestling and women in leotards straddling giant wooden poles.

The number of rock videos sporting women in slinky lingerie, spike heels and garter belts is literally in the hundreds. The consensus among leading directors of promotional videos – a list that includes Robinson, Godley and Creme, Steve Baron, Ethan Russell, Brian Grant and Russell Mulcahy – is that the days of nymphets in negligees are on the wane.

More than Packaging

Says Russell, who has filmed videos for Emmylou Harris and Rickie Lee Jones: ”I think people are beginning to make (tapes) about something, as if they were important, rather than simply packaging these songs with sex or what have you.”

“That soft-core porn aspect is certainly out of my work,” notes Robinson. ”And I hope it’s gone altogether. As the medium, the form, gets more and more sophisticated – because we’re being educated as we go along – that whole thing will no longer be fashionable.”

Only a handful of the thousands of music videos produced by the record companies in the last five years have been made available to consumers. Though many in the industry see music videos as just another “commercial” to sell records, there are others who see the marriage of the two forms as an art form in its infancy. Michael Nesmith, a star of the ’60s TV series “The Monkees,” now heads a home video and production company called Pacific Arts, based in Carmel, Calif. He is among those who are actively pursuing music video as a means of artistic expression.

Nesmith is, in part, responsible for the inception of MTV. When the Warner- Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. was first toying with the idea of a music video network, it commissioned Nesmith to work on the project. He came up with something called “Pop Clips.”

“There was a lot of dialogue about just exactly what was music video,” Nesmith recalls. “The thing seemed to fall into two separate camps. One was the fact that it was radio with pictures, and the other was that it was an art form unique to the medium and that you had to deal with it with a different set of standards. The winds that prevailed were that it was radio with pictures, that they were just going to program it like a rock ‘n’ roll radio station.”

As a result, Nesmith left to pursue his own ideas of music video. In 1981, Nesmith’s “Elephant Parts” was awarded the first-ever Grammy Award for ”Video of the Year.”

“I don’t have any idea,” Nesmith continues, “why Warner Bros. or somebody wouldn’t compile their music videos – of which they have some pretty decent ones – and put it out for sale. But they won’t, because they maintain that the legal problems (of distributing royalties and fees) are insurmountable. Well, that’s not true. I know it’s not true. I’ve demonstrated it’s not true.”

Thus far, however, executives at the various record companies maintain that their promotional videos will remain just that: promotional videos. “We see it as an additional outlet for exposing artists,” said CBS Records spokesman Bob Altshuler. “We welcome it but it’s not displacing radio by any means. We’re still in the record business, not the video business.”

While record companies continue to wax ecstatic over MTV and the other music video markets, the fact of the matter is that the best-selling album of 1982, “Asia,” logged sales of 2.6 million, while the best-selling LP of the previous year, REO Speedwagon’s “Hi Infidelity,” amassed sales of more than 6 million units.

“The record business is just simply moribund,” says Nesmith. “They’re living off the inertia of the ’70s now. And rather than look at music video as what it is – the wings of a new bird – they’re looking at it as a way to advertise and sell a relic product.”

Steven X. Rea / Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) / January 31, 1983