Music Videos Versus Narrative Films

15 July, 2015
Music videos and narrative film are different things. But it is interesting to read an article by a film-maker who bemoans the non-narrative nature of most music videos.

A Critique of Music Videos, From A Film-Maker

Edoardo Nolfo has an interesting article How to Make a Music Video: Planning, Shooting and Editing. Ostensibly it is an article about how to make a music video, but in the second section Advice for success in the music video industry (includes rant) Edoardo complains about all the ways that music videos aren't like real films:

These observations are all true. But...

Music Videos and Narrative Films: Two Different Things

Edoardo has perhaps missed the main point, which is that music videos are not narrative films.

There was a time when people decided to make videos to accompany songs. And some of those videos told some kind of story.

But that time has passed (mostly), and the music video has evolved, to become an accompaniment to the music.

A music video is now, indeed, the opposite of a traditional film. Because in a film, music is added as an accompaniment to the the film, or at least to some parts of the film. Whereas in a music video, video is added as an accompaniment to the music.

Songs and Soundtracks

Consider how modern pop music is sometimes used as part of a soundtrack to a film.

It would be very unusual for a full four minute song to be included in a film soundtrack.

It would be even more unusual for a four minute song to be the full continuous soundtrack of a four-minute narrative film.

There is good reason for this: there are places in a movie where normal popular music "works", and there are other places in a movie where it doesn't "work". And the places where it "works" are usually much shorter than four minutes.

It follows from this mis-match between the four-minute popular song and the requirements of soundtracks for narrative film, that a four minute music video cannot be a narrative film.

If you really want to, as a music video creator, you can make a four minute narrative film. But it will not, by modern standards, be a very good music video. Also, even if it's an otherwise great movie, it will probably have a sub-optimal soundtrack.

The Purpose of a (Modern) Music Video

The purpose of a modern music video is not to tell any kind of story, although some videos do indirectly contain elements of something faintly recognizable as a story. The purpose of a music video is to enhance the experience of listening to the music.

The fundamental effect of music on the human mind is to partially disconnect it from reality. This disconnection allows the mind to feel the emotions associated with thoughts about things separate from immediate reality, whether they be in the past, or in a possible future.

If a music video has a strong narrative, then that narrative will invite the watcher to become connected to the story and to the characters in the story. And that connection will directly conflict with the disconnection that the music creates.

The modern music video has evolved in the direction of disconnection. All those jump cuts are in there to prevent the watcher from becoming too connected to any particular scene. And if jump cuts alone don't do the job, then there is slow motion and other editing effects to provide a sense of "maybe not being there".

In addition to a disconnected presentation of the video content, there will also be scenes where the characters in the video are lost in thought (or likely to be lost in thought), which provides an additional element of empathic disconnection, ie where the audience feels the disconnection in sympathy with that of the characters.

(For some specific examples of modern music videos and the features they have which enhance the experience of music, see my article "Daydreamish" Content in Music Videos.)

Music Videos, as a Career Choice

Edoardo asserts that there is no money in music videos, because there isn't that much money in music any more. He may be right about this, although obviously people are still making music videos.

He advises that directing music videos is not a good way to get into mainstream film directing, because of all the ways in which music videos are not like "normal" films.

He is probably right about this too – don't direct music videos expecting to become an expert in directing narrative film. Of course if what you want to do is make music videos, then getting into the music video industry is exactly what you want to do. And regardless of how much money there is or isn't in the music video industry, if you can do a better job than other people for the same amount or less money, then you can have a successful career doing it.

Edoardo attributes the anti-film nature of music videos to those in the music video "industry" who apparently decide what can or cannot be in a music video. But he ignores the possibility that the music video has evolved as an art form in itself which exists to enhance and complement the music (and not necessarily to tell a coherent story), and that it is the audience, responding to the music-enhancing techniques of modern music videos, who are ultimately driving the evolution of the music video.

If you are one of those people who cannot watch any video without expecting there to be a story-line and a hero and a plot with tensions and conflicts to resolve, then you may never "get" what it is that music videos are about.

On the other hand, the music video has evolved to where it is today, but it probably hasn't finished evolving. There will be new music video directors who will push the boundaries of what works and what doesn't work, probably after a lot of trial and error, and those directors will evolve music videos to be even more sophisticated accompaniments to music than what we have today.

So I will have to disagree with Edoardo, when he asserts that the creation of music videos is a dead industry.