There’s no doubt that the music industry has changed dramatically since the golden age of consumerism and culture which was pervasive throughout the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium. The evidence exists not only in the way music is enjoyed, but the way artists release products to the public. It’s been almost three years since the last million dollar music video. We explore the contributing factors as to why.

From the moment the football field-sized yacht cut through the crystal blue waters surrounding Trinidad, those watching the music video for Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin'” knew they were in a for an extravagant affair. When it was released in 2000, the visuals an artist pumped out to a clamoring public relied on the “bigger is better” mantra – with Britney Spears, TLC, Janet Jackson, Puff Daddy and others – all intertwined in a game of optical one-upmanship. With people still heading to their local record store and big box stores like Target and Best Buy to pick up albums, and networks like MTV and BET still relying on music-related content to appeal to a youthful demographic as opposed to suckling at the teet of non-scripted entertainment like today, the music video was still a vital tool back then. While one could argue that the financial hardships endured by millions of people around the world throughout the new millennium contributed to the million dollar music video going the way of the dodo, there are a number of contributing factors outside of sheer financial resources that could have eliminated the big budget affair.

It’s been almost three years to the day exactly since an artist released a music video that cost over a million dollars. When Madonna enlisted the help of Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. for “Give Me All Your Luvin‘,” the Megaforce-directed video from her MDMA album cost $1.5 million USD. From a historical context, she and Michael Jackson hold the top five spots for the most expensive music videos of all-time – shelling out over $27 million USD for videos for “Scream,” “Die Another Day,” “Express Yourself,” “Bedtime Story” and “Black or White.” Of those five, no music video was released after 2002.

Going low-budget isn’t merely a reaction of independent artists who have been able to capitalize on the meteoric rise of YouTube in order to distribute their visual works. Recently, artists like Kanye West, Jay Z, Rihanna and Beyoncé have opted for more simplistic visions like “Only One,” “Picasso Baby,” “FourFiveSeconds” and “7/11.” While they’re decidedly different in their construction, the “feeling” evoked from watching them seems to favor intimacy and access instead of extravagance.

With all the cat videos and baby milestones that social media allows friends and family members to share with each other, the introduction of celebrities into the equation thanks to Twitter and Instagram has allowed each person to feel like they’re inside hard-to-enter inner circles. Each party or once in a lifetime experience can make those lurking in the cyber shadows feel envious of what fame provides. Similarly, social media can also highlight the normalcy of being rich and famous (look, they drink Starbucks, too!). No matter what is posted, the interest of the public is piqued. From both a financial perspective and “access” angle, a low-fi music video satiates the desires of record label marketing departments and fans because it’s an expanded peek behind the curtain that also enhances a tangible product. Videos used to introduce us to new artists. Today, they solidify superstar status. Who needs to spend a million dollars when everyone already knows who you are?

For everything social media provides an artist, so too does it add a ticking time bomb. Thanks to the ease in which things can be shared, the shelf-life on projects and media are exponentially shorter than they were at the start of the new millennium. Things spread like wildfire – going viral and being shared on multiple platforms – but are often only “hot” for 24-hour increments as they trend across social media. If the motivation is “views,” then star power alone ensures that. There’s no need to spend money on big budgets videos when you don’t have to.

Superstars have come to rely on other marketing endeavors to entice their fans – most notably the usage of “surprise albums” favored in the past by the likes of Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Kid Cudi, Skrillex, Wolfmother and others (add Drake to this list as well). A major-label president, who has not yet been involved in a surprise release, told Billboard, “This kind of event is the territory for maybe 10 artists in the world,” the executive says, suggesting Rihanna, Eminem, Adele, Jay Z, P!nk and Justin Timberlake as a few examples of the artists in that elite camp. The excitement that comes with surprise material doesn’t need fuel added to the flames. There’s simply no need for a huge music video for a “single,” when the entire project hits with a pop culture impact.

While “superstar status” still exists, the sheer number of albums they can move due in large part to streaming apps like Spotify and Pandora has shifted dramatically. In 2014, only two artists sold over a million records: Taylor Swift and Sam Smith. Consider the heyday of the music video – let’s say 1995 (the same year of the most expensive video of all-time) to 2000. During that stretch, 32 different artists/projects went 10x platinum each (diamond certification).

The big budget music video was the perfect stepping stone for directors looking to score an opportunity at making a studio film. The likes of David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michael Bay, Marc Webb, Hype Williams, Jonathan Glazer, Mark Romanek, Mark Pellington, Gore Verbinski, Antoine Fuqua, Tarsem Singh, McG, F. Gary Gray and more have all successfully transitioned from creating some of the most iconic music videos ever into overseeing production on large-scale movies. Whereas studios might be hesitant to hand a first time director a hundred million dollars, so too would music labels be weary to write a check for a million dollars for a director who hadn’t shown that he/she could handle a video of that budget.

While a number of the above directors still return to the medium, they are also the ones championing the “lo-fi” movement. Jonze’s recent work with Kanye West and Romanek’s work with Jay Z on “Picasso Baby” saw two able and qualified director’s opting for more subdued narratives. This could be for two reasons. One, superstars demand “name” directors who aren’t willing to spend exorbitant amount of time and effort on something short form. And two, those same directors who have been landlocked in the studio system making four quadrant films are looking to make something more personal and reflective of their earlier careers. When you pair a big director with a big artist, there’s no shortage of confidence. Thus, things get boiled down to “you, me, and a camera.”

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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