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So you want to be a music video director?

By Alex Topaller

So you want to be a music video director? That’s a terrible idea. No, really. Don’t do it.

Stop right now and choose something else while you can, before we find ourselves discussing this very moment in two years when I can pompously say, “See! I was right! Now you understand that it’s more of a complicated love affair than a career!”

Are you still here, dear reader?

You are? Huge mistake, but oh well. Since I can’t change your mind, I can at least fulfill my civic duty by arming you with a few pointers before sending you into the reverberating tunnels of the music video world in search of non-existent treasure.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The Music Video Industry
“The Industry” sounds like a massive word, but it’s extremely misleading when applied to music videos. The reality is that the professional music video world is a tiny community made up of hordes of music video directors, four-five worthwhile reps, and only a handful of major labels and commissioners.

Stone Temple Pilots Cinnamon   Aggressive copysmal

Stone Temple Pilots Cinnamon video.

Since there are only a few real labels left, your pool of potential clients, (people that can actually hire you to direct a music video), can fit into a small bus.

So imagine this: a small bus of tired, overworked Sony, Universal and Capitol music video commissioners marooned in a never-ending sea of hungry, at times, loony music videos directors.

That’s the music video industry today.

Treatments
Nobody reads them! And frankly why would they?

With shrinking budgets and few jobs to go around, most high-caliber professional directors traded their music video careers for advertising and film, while the sudden vacuum got overrun by scores of ambitious rookies.

I personally witnessed cases where a commissioner had 30-40 treatments to sift through for one low-budget video.

Krewella's Live For The Night.

Krewella’s Live For The Night.

With supply so heavily outweighing the demand, and most ideas being lame rip-offs of the latest Vimeo “Staff Pick” or another music video, who has the time to carefully go through hundreds of pages, trying to decipher what you meant by “they are all dancing underwater for a while” or “giving it a surreal iconic look which is unlike anything else”? No one.

So, at best, label and management will scan through the reference images you ripped off from Vogue or a design portal, and only if something strikes their fancy will they bother reading about the surreal iconic look you had in mind.

Let’s go back to the bus for perspective. Imagine this: now you are chasing the bus like all the other directors, jumping up and down trying to plaster your treatment across one of the bus windows in hopes that one of the passengers will read it… Can the passenger possibly read it carefully under such circumstances? No, he can’t. He can only tell what color the paper is.

It’s a bit gloomy, but unless you have a personal relationship with a great label commissioner, management or artist, it is close to impossible to sell a truly innovative, creative concept. You’ll fare much better with simple, visually striking gags — it’s epic, she looks great, the floor is red.

Budgets
So, you got lucky! Your rep was able to signal one of the commissioners to roll down the bus window and snatch YOUR treatment from a sea of sweaty hands. He then showed your surreal iconic idea to the management, which miraculously liked it without any changes, and sent it to the artist who was surprisingly rested and available to also approve your genius without coming up with his own concept. Do you notice how many “ifs” there are along this route? Never mind.

Anyway, congratulations! The doors of the bus are magically opening, everyone is clapping and trying to help you to climb in and, wow! You are inside the bus!! This is it… where is the champagne? I’ll have one and my assistant will have one. What do you mean there is no champagne? Where is everyone?

Cris Cab featuring Pharrell Williams "Liar Liar."

Cris Cab featuring Pharrell Williams “Liar Liar.”

What are today’s budgets? I don’t know the low budgets very well, but my guess is most videos live in the zero to $20K zone. $50K to $75K is considered a good budget. $100K is a high budget, and finally $150K to $200K is the Justin Bieber, Britney Spears on a good day zone. If you have experience in professional production, you know how little this actually is, so you’re biggest challenge will be to figure out how to shoot your surreal epic idea without putting in your own money into the project.

A few years back we directed a music video for Michael Jackson. It had a very high budget, and at the end of that adventure my wife said, “You should really stop shooting Michael Jackson videos for free.” She was right.

Alex on set.

Alex on set.

The reality is, there is no end game in music videos. A stepping-stone to commercials or other formats… perhaps. But that’s a different article.

If you can find satisfaction in creating artistic, inspiring short form content for very low budgets in an impossibly competitive, shrinking environment, then this is for you. If you are looking for a good career path or a business plan, this is definitely the wrong side of town. Music videos — you either like making them or you don’t.

Now excuse me… I feel like I lost my spot next to the bus and dropped my treatment. Anyone see my PDF here? It starts with, “This will be an iconic surreal look which is unlike anything else.”

Alex Topaller is a Grammy Award-wining commercial and music video director, and co-owner of the New York based live-action and design studio Aggressive. Follow them on Twitter @Aggressivetv.

 

One thought on “So you want to be a music video director?

  1. Francky Desravines

    Very good read. I started to film music videos 3 years ago, and I enjoy each and every second of it.
    It is in fact a very saturated field now, but if that’s what you like to do, like Alex mentions in the article.
    Roll-up your sleeves and work hard.

    Reply

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