Video is the future of online media. For musicians, however, it’s always been a part of the gig. Music videos were once events. Like The Buggles said, video did, indeed, kill the radio star. It also went on to change the television landscape, with MTV ushering in the golden age of music television that would last nearly three decades. Michael Jackson, the Beastie Boys, and Madonna, among others, produced cinematic visuals with in-demand directors. The first-ever MTV VMA ceremony in 1984 made the art form into something award-worthy. Now, you don’t have to wait for Saturday morning to see if your favorite music video made the Top 20 countdown cut. All you have to do is have wifi and the wherewithal to search them out. The experience is immediate and, as such, fleeting.
This type of instant gratification is appropriate for our times—and our attention spans, which are allegedly less than that of a goldfish. A study by Microsoft found that, since the rise of smartphones, the length of our attention spans have gone from twelve seconds to eight. Wistia, a digital video analytics site, reports that less than 50 percent of viewers will complete a video if it’s two minutes or longer; less than 40 percent will watch a four- to five-minute clip, the average music video length, until the very end. According to a 2013 Nielsen study, though, nearly half of streaming revenue comes from video. That makes music videos seem more like revenue drivers than pieces of content that exist for themselves, but arguing what’s more important is wasted energy. By now, we should know that art and commerce go hand in hand. What that study does do, however, is highlight our dramatic shift in music consumption. It’s more about noise than narrative, singles over albums.
Before social media, music videos were our look into a musician’s life. Like live shows, they were extensions of their vision and message. With Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, we’re exposed to the every day of many artists, however curated it may be. Music videos, though, still function the way they used to. It’s the hype around them that’s changed. Now, there’s the vicious content cycle of musicians teasing their videos, media outlets reporting on the preview, and audiences realizing the social callout they clicked on leads them to a tease. In her self-titled behind-the-scenes doc, Beyoncé recalls “the event” of watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on TV with her family. “I miss that immersive experience,” she says. “Now people only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods.” Or play a music video in one browser tab and move on to something else in another.
What we’re missing today is that experience. We’ve learned to multitask with music better and forgotten the value of seeing music. James Vincent McMorrow tells us music videos “can elevate a song to an amazing place. [They] can take an amazing song and turn it into something truly special.” In a press release for her 2014 video “Wallace,” Azealia Banks said, “Music videos are as much of an art form as the music itself.” They allow artists to personally bring their audiences further into their world. “Having a video for [a song],” McMorrow says, “is better than not.” Which is why we’re not yet that close to a post-music video world. Rather, we’re at a pretty neat place. With the rise of the visual album, artists are finding new and future-leaning ways to bring the music to their audiences. Beyoncé‘s 2013 self-titled visual album changed the game, with Kanye West’s short film for 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, called “Runaway,” paving the way before it. FKA twigs’ M3LL155X followed suit. It’s not a lost art, but an evolved one. The music video has spawned the music movie, a chance for, as Beyoncé says, “everyone to see the whole picture.” That is, if audiences can sit through it all.