The Changing Face of the Music Video and What We Can All Learn From It

The Changing Face of the Music Video and What We Can All Learn From It

The music we use in our work, whether for videos or slide shows for stills images, is an integral part of the narrative and story we are trying tell. The genre, artist and music track we choose, sets the tone for the entire story we wish to tell. I treat music as the keystone that underpins the visual story of a BTS video, commercial work, documentary piece or creative editorial shoot that I am working on.

Just like the music industry, the music video industry is undergoing unprecedented change. Budgets have been slashed. It’s forcing everyone to be increasingly creative and innovative with what they can do for the small budgets they work with. This change has set some very creative, dynamic work in motion. We can learn a lot from what’s happened in this genre and apply it to any wedding, commercial or BTS video work we like.

Over the last 30 years, music videos have helped cement the emotional connection between visuals and music, and have been used as a tool for communicating the message of the artist or musician who is performing. Music videos became a genre of video production in their own right, peaking with budgets to rival some small independent movie productions in the 1990s.

While I want to take a look at the world of music videos specifically, the key learning points at the end of this article can be applied to anyone shooting any commercial job that has to work to a budget, or has a desired outcome to achieve from the shoot (even if it’s just a no-cost, for fun project).

For BTS video (or even those of you shooting wedding or commercial videos), much of what we shoot eventually ends up cut to music. For me, music and video are inseparable – I can’t imagine editing video without the musical foundation on which to build the story. As visual artists, we sometimes over look the importance music can play to deliver a greater emotional depth to our video and the changes in the music industry provide a good story to explore this, as well as the wider changes in the industy and how we can apply that to our wider work.

Music Video Budgets - Then and Now

If you’re old enough to remember the photo I’ve used at the start of this piece, you’ll undoubtedly recall the era of the music video, kicking off a proper when MTV launched in 1981, kicking off with the fittingly titled Buggles hit “Video Killed the Radio Star”

While the music video existed before mTV, this heralded in an era of non stop music videos on a dedicated tv channel. Visual stimulation to go with our aural listening pleasure had arrived.

The 1990s was truly the decade of high budget, high impact music video for many artists looking to ramp up their marketing efforts. Downloading and purchase of single-only tracks instead of albums was not even on the horizon, and the record company budgets were incredible.

Iconic videos for Madonna, Michael Jackson and other big names in the industry heralded in an era where music videos broke records for their production costs.

Michael Jackson's "Scream" tops the chart at a whopping $10.5m dollars in today's money.

The Top 10 most expensive music videos with inflation adjusted costs and year of production are outlined below:



Song title


Original air date

Production costs (PC)

Inflation-adjusted PC (2013)

Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson "Scream" Mark Romanek[2] 1995



Madonna "Die Another Day" Traktor[citation needed] October 22, 2002



Madonna "Express Yourself" David Fincher[citation needed] May 17, 1989



Madonna "Bedtime Story" Mark Romanek [6] 1995



Michael Jackson
(featuring L.T.B.)
"Black or White" John Landis[citation needed] November 14, 1991



Guns N' Roses "Estranged" Andy Morahan[citation needed] December 1993



Puff Daddy
(featuring The Notorious B.I.G. & Busta Add MediaRhymes)
"Victory" Marcus Nispel[citation needed] March 31, 1998



MC Hammer "Too Legit to Quit" Rupert Wainwright[10] November 1991



Mariah Carey
(featuring Jay-Z)
"Heartbreaker" Brett Ratner[citation needed] August 16, 1999



Busta Rhymes
(featuring Janet Jackson)
"What's It Gonna Be?!" Hype Williams & Busta Rhymes[citation needed] March 12, 1999






The Videographers Guide to Music Videos

Today, like much of the music (and photographic) industry, things have changed dramatically.

With commercial budgets slashed, and with record companies no longer supporting artists with more than very simple, low budget music videos, their has been a shift toward doing more for less.

In the Videographers Guide to Music Videos young directors, videographers and editors who are still making music videos (although not necessarily making a living off of them), detail what’s going on in the industry in this fascinating short documentary.

The Videographers Guide is being described as it’s creators as a “documentary web series documenting young filmmakers as they produce short videos for the web in a variety of genres. The makers of the series are aiming to pull back the veil that shrouds the new media landscape by providing valuable information from other filmmakers who are on the front lines. The goal is to present this information in a compelling, stylistic way that is as informative as it is entertaining.”

All but the biggest of artists today have little to no budget for their music videos, and even the biggest of artists are choosing to do things on the cheap – either because of budgetary constraints, or because actually, creatively things have changed. In a way to get their audience ever closer to their “product” (namely the artists themselves), music videos have actually begun to embrace more of a home-made/low budget aesthetic. Recent examples include Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ simple minimalist video. Gone are the lavish backdrops of a bling lifestyle and instead we have a very simple white background and simple lighting. Very clean, very minimal, very cheap to produce.

Similarities for Photographers and Videographers

Aside from the top artists in the world, there is barely any money spent on music videos now.  This isn’t to say they are less important, it’s just that the budget isn’t there.

How many jobs do you undertake today that you could say the same thing about, particularly compared to a few years ago? This forces us to do more for less, get more efficient with how we handle our budgets (pre-production is critical to get a handle on deliverables, costs and where you might be able to eek our efficiencies for a job).

There are many ways to skin a cat, we need to think about how we can achieve a similar look for what our client is paying us to do, for less money.

Aerial videography is a recent example, which is poised to deliver massively in the next few years. Suddenly with a DJI Phantom and a stabilized GoPro for a few thousand dollars, you can basically have your own personal helicopter for aerial shots, and actually get access to areas an real helicopter never could due it's small size

I personally got some great insights from the Videographers Guide to Music Videos, which I thought It would be worth sharing. All of these points  discussed very clearly in the documentary. I don’t see any of these as being exclusive to the music video world, we can and should be applying this thinking to our own work.

Most Of Us Cant Live Completely Off Of What You Love To Shoot - But That's Ok

I’ve met a lot of photographers who aren’t wedding photographers full time, but shoot weddings just to make up earnings. We all do work that we don’t necessarily market to earn income.

So long as we market this separately, away from the work we want to be known for, then there is nothing wrong with that of course, it’s just more a challenge to then do the work you want to be known for. As I mentioned in a previous article, if you can incorporate your “creative work” into your “client work” this area becomes a lot easier (and more fulfilling) to navigate

A Good Idea Is Just An Idea. Execution is Critical.

A good idea is just that – the people that really succeed understand how to actually turn a good idea into a fully realized outcome. Even then there is no guarantee it will hold people’s attention for any length of time, but at least you are getting your work out there which is certainly at least half the battle. When i got to New York last year, i identified a number of people i wanted to work for and did so for either free or low cost for some time but always put a limit on how much i would do before i wanted to see some kind of return (financial or otherwise) on the idea i proposed.

It's hard work, and sometimes we question why we do it, but make sure the idea has a sound plan around what you are trying to do and stick to that plan, and you're more likely to get a good result off the back of a great idea, than if there is no thought about how to put that great idea into practice.

Anyone Can Shoot A Video

Democratization of the music video industry means there are no excuses. Sound familiar? These days anyone with a reasonably good prosumer camera can produce some great imagery, the key is to get out there and shoot and when it’s good enough people will find out. It also means there are more people willing to do more of the work instead of paying us to do it for them - how are you responding to this?

As a prime example, who could have guessed even a few years ago that music videos would ever have been shot and directed by the performer? Justin Bieber, in his video “Beauty and A Beat”, did exactly that

Not only was this shot with a GoPro but Bieber himself actually was his own camera operator throughout parts of the shoot. From the outset, the narrative and stylization comes from purposely wanting to sound and look like a piece of reality TV-driven piece (outlined with the opening of some text pretending to depict the video as stolen footage from Bieber’s camera and then uploaded by some anonymous blogger).

This style plays completely to the “home made”, reality-TV, selfie-taking generation of young people who understand that all you need is a good idea and creative execution and you too could be “the next big thing” on YouTube. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that, but what it means is that we all have to think a lot harder about why clients can justify hiring us to shoot for them in the first place, rather than someone cheaper, or just doing it themselves.

It’s Not (as much) About Who You Know

I think this is especially important for those of us new to either the industry, a new location or a new direction in what we are shooting. It’s daunting for people looking to break new ground, but it actually is the lowest barrier to entry we have in today’s connected world. If you produce good work, consistently, you will be noticed and then you will get paid. Cream rises to the top. The strategy of worrying about being undercut by someone running around shooting for free and undercutting us is pointless and leads us down a street we shouldn’t be headed down.

It’s not sustainable for either party – the client won’t get the desired result, and the person doing the work won’t be able to live off of nothing forever.

To stop being considered a commodity, we should focus on being the absolute best we can, always doing a better job this time versus what we did time, and always looking for an opportunity to do an even better job on the next project or shoot.

Follow Your Instinct

Everything is cyclical – what is big today may be irrelevant tomorrow which is why it’s critical to follow your instinct and to have the courage of conviction to follow through with what you set out to do.

Having courage to visualize where you want to be, and doing things differently, and then actually go out there and doing it is probably one of the hardest barriers for most of us. It requires us to trust in our gut and then actively going out to do something about it

Don’t Rush

This is probably a side note to just getting out there and shooting. It can takes months, more likely years to get noticed, to do good work, to make better work, to make contacts, to have them introduce you to other contacts, to find a client, to find more clients – it’s never ending. There are so many others out there trying to do what you are doing. Always be thinking about how you can differentiate from those around you. There will always be competition, the most important thing we can do is make our work better each day, to improve ourselves and develop our output so that the next job is better than the current job, and the one after that will be better still. Constant growth is critical to putting out better product and getting noticed.

Connect to me on FacebookInstagram or via Twitter or drop a comment below. I would love to hear what you guys think, or how you might take influences from the changing world of music videos, from either a creative or client delivery side perspective to apply to your business.

David Geffin's picture

David is a full time photographer, videographer and video editor based in New York City. Fashion, portraiture and street photography are his areas of focus. He enjoys stills and motion work in equal measure, with a firm belief that a strong photographic eye will continue to help inform and drive the world of motion work.

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'single ladies' is a great example for a super simple video that became a huge hit

thanks and great point Noam, that video is actually a brilliant example - it's because of the simplicity of the set you focus on Beyonce and her 2 backing dancers which is what makes that video so compelling to watch.

someone told me that MTV used to play music videos?
THAT must have been amazing!

Maybe I'm wrong but I think after the novelty of lo-fi wears off... How many time can you look at a seamless background? Isn't an ugly, unappealing shot, well, ugly and unappealing, making the artist look unattractive? Its' common sense that doesn't really work, certainly not for everyone all the time.

I also think that once people figure out that music video is essentially hopeless as a pursuit - meaning "doing it this one time without making money" only leads to other times making the same 0$, that only a tiny number of rich kids and/or masochists will want to bother. You talk to young film students today, very few are considering music video anymore. "Why work for free for a label when you could make a short film for yourself for the same $0?" is a totally valid question they seem to be asking themselves.

interesting points Rob, but I think Noam's example above pretty does well to counter the fact a simple/unappealing set or backdrop makes the artist look ugly. It's because of that stark minimalism and simplicity that Beyonce stands out so much in that video he mentioned.

I can't see the music video going away any time too soon - look at Youtube, Vevo etc - the most viewed videos on these sites tend to be music videos. I think while we still live in a world like that, you'll always have kids coming up trying to produce music videos on the cheap, trying to carve out a slice of that viewer count for themselves. Just my 2c

But they do this in the hope of getting "discovered" for something bigger/better where they will not starve. Once word gets out there basically is no "better" anymore, just more working for free, these people will loose motivation. Even if they don't, the rental companies, and other who give them free favors will. "I'll help you out this time" can't work if you know the person will need free help every time.

I am not saying Beyonce's thing didn't work, only that how many times can you do something like that until viewers grow tired of it. It was a novelty - once.

The variety of things you can do with no money is much smaller than the variety of thing you can do with some money. Audiences for music video channels in general will shrink if everything on there looks kinda lame/amateur. People want to be delighted and amazed, to be seduced by beauty, to be blown away. "Simple/honest", at least for many viewers, quickly becomes boring, especially of almost all new content is only that.

That and "aiming for lots of hits on Vevo" brings $0 to directors and producers of the videos - the labels take all that $$$ for themselves. So why would the directors really care - glory is fine and all, but at some point you've got to pay the bills, or at least have hope that you will in the future.