Sunday, 18 November 2012

Videos: get the concept right, then worry about the budget

When radio stations check out new acts, they often use YouTube to see what sort of numbers a song is scoring. It’s a very rough guide to interest in an act – useful, but tricky. 

Here’s why. Firstly, with much-loved bands, fans can and will post hand-held clips, and this can dilute the impact of a key video. It’s not all bad though, if you see it as evidence of a band’s following. Bands also post multiple mixes – if you search on  YouTube  for Poppy and The Jezebels 'Sign In Dream On Drop Out', you'll find 6 clips, including this one, breezily shot in Spring 2012 on the streets of Birmingham:
But in addition there are five other videos of the same song: three are inventive and nicely produced variations on a theme. But the other two are live, and one does the band no favours at all. 

Secondly, YouTube (and Vimeo) numbers can be just as easily manipulated as the charts were back in the day. Then, having a chart return shop that contributed to sales totals for the weekly charts was the key to a never-ending flow of ‘favours’ from record companies tying to fiddle the chart numbers. Now, there are companies who will hype your YouTube numbers - for a price. 

And different genres get different responses. So - not perfect. But that's just one side of it. The video makers I talked to said something completely different again. 

Just as new tools have empowered musicians, so their equivalents have done so for video makers. Affordable digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) can double as surprisingly cheap and effective video cameras, for example. 

Click around to check out local vids; you’ll find a dizzying range. But what interested me most in researching this piece was the question of cost. I talked to lots of local video makers and bands… but at no point could I extract precise fee information paid by the band to the video maker. From anyone. I did get the impression that everyone worked themselves into the ground to deliver for their clients. But - people are really rather cagey. It’s understandable. 

Here’s Matt Watkins of Beat 13, who has done some great work for Evil Alien.
"Evil Alien came to me as I'm in the same studio as them and I had previously done a video for a mutual friend.  I was offered a small budget and attempted to produce something in as little time as possible. In the end the budget didn't reflect anywhere near the effort that went into the production! Of course, the Youtube/DSLR combo is great for new bands - the quality of work achievable is way beyond what was expected 10 years ago. However, I have been doing this sort of thing professionally for a long time now and I still struggle to complete something 'cheaply'. 
 It’s a continual challenge. If the bands are cash-strapped – and of course they are, it’s a given – then how do they scrape together a video for a budget?  Caroline Bottomley at Radar Music Videos, where bands can look for video makers, sets a basement entry-level price of £500, and posts this note of instruction 
"Some people are unsure why the minimum budget that can be posted on Radar is set at £500 / c$750 / c€600. We think it is important Radar helps labels and artists (to) generate good and great music videos. We encourage labels and artists to post briefs with higher budgets, as in our experience budgets below the minimum amount don't tend to attract many talented and experienced directors. If your video budget is below the minimum allowed on Radar, you need to find another place to commission your video.
"Some ideas:ask friends or fans via Twitter, Facebook, your mailing list, google film student websites and headhunt directors, make a slideshow from stills (where you own copyright), make live or rehearsal room videos. Good luck and we hope you'll use Radar when you've got more funds.
How many videos were commissioned, say in the last six months, in each price bracket? 
"Ooh, difficult to be precise on that as there are some videos commissioned a long time ago which still aren't released. And some we just don't know about. But if it helps, there were about 130 briefs posted in the last 6 months. About 2/3rds generally go to commission. About 4/5ths are for minimum budget, ie £500. The biggest budget in the last 6 months was for £10k. 
How realistic do you think video makers are on cost, and does this change as you go from the £500 mark up to the premium market? 
"Hmm, also a bit difficult as I'm involved at the introduction end and only get to hear about whether directors are unrealistic about costs if things have gone wrong. I have to say this is not very often. Some bands/labels are very unrealistic on cost. They're disappointed when they don't get a world class video for a £500 budget. The irony is that for not much more - say £4k, they're very much in with a chance of getting a world class video. 
Am I right in thinking that the main promotional area for band videos right now is YouTube, and does this have a bearing on production values? 
"Yes, and will continue to be for a long time I think, as long as bands can make money from having their videos there. YouTube are extremely keen to encourage more bands to use YouTube for monetisation. Does it have a bearing on production values? Simple and clever videos trump expensive production values on the whole, so yes I guess so. But only in so far as small screen/internet videos are shareable, so shareable is the holy grail now, rather than being playlisted by TV schedulers. 
How would you feel about the assertion – frequently made in an area I work in (voiceovers) - that web sites that offer work can lead to a downward pressure on price? I personally don’t think it’s a major factor at the top end, and that cheaper and more accessible tools can be a significant factor across the board? 
"Yes. I think there is a downward pressure on price. In fact we introduced minimum budgets to stop the worst examples. Some bands really can't afford much, and they have great music, and there's no doubt directors who'd love to make the video anyway. But if you allow one person to post a brief with a budget of £100, then another person with maybe £1000 to spend, thinks 'Oh, I could get a video for £100'. A big challenge for us is making a clear connection between budget and quality. The main issue is not production values so much, as directors have pride. Under £10k, directors are going to be pulling in favours anyway. But it's easier to pull in favours on a £2k video than it is on a £500 video. 
 Back in Brum, David Cawley produced this fantastic video for ADO…. 
...and he's got some thoughts
"The current landscape is: there’s still the big budget projects, but they are few and far between. I think where a lot of video makers get scared is (because) there’s a lot of video material out there, and it’s often bands with me and friends – a bit like me and the ADO.You do things for people – but that undercuts where you used to make your money. There are also vanity projects, which can be quite lucrative. A friend of mine runs a Grime YouTube Channel…
 …where just conceivably there’s might be quite a lot of ego floating about….? 
"You said it… but there are people monetising that. People paying just to get their face on YouTube. But that has led to bigger deals in some cases, where people have built a channel around a brand, with videos and content, and record companies getting involved. If, say, thirty thousand 16 to 20 years olds who all like Grime music, are logging in every day, with a stream on twitter, people who see themselves as wanting music careers try to fast-track that process by buying into that particular channel. 
Which, of course means work comes back to you. But they are buying a reach – but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. 
"Yes, but that doesn’t matter to them! It’s ego. 
Most bands feel they have to have a video 
"But they don’t know why, though. 
And some of the numbers just don’t match the quality. How does that work, what is the payoff? 
Let’s say a cheaply done vid that still costs a substantial sum – say £1500 - but only scores 1500 views over a year, for example, is that cost-effective? Might they be better off shooting themselves on a smartphone and calling people up…? 
"Maybe they should have spent their time making better music, or promoting themselves first. When I work with a band – ADO were a great example – the main thing that I look for is that they have a plan. I believe in their project, and I get exposure. So it was a no-brainer. 
So sometimes it’s a co-operative thing 
"Yes. But with compensations. I got to go to (shoot at) Shambhala for free, which was nice. I don’t like to undercut the profession, but with things like ADO, there were payoffs. And my email’s on the video, and it’s now been seen by 6000 people. 
The bar is being raised all time. What would you suggest? 
"The most common mistake people make is to put the camera first. If an idea is a good idea, if a story is a good story, then it can be shot on anything. If the concept is strong, it will succeed. A video only builds on what you’ve already got. I had a friendly altercation with someone on Facebook who posted a great video, but then mentioned that they did this for £500. Over the conversation they did mention that the person who made the video put hundreds of hours in. 
So, no facts, except that nobody's getting rich here.  Here's the last video clip for this blog,  just out and shot at Highbury Studio in King's Heath, South Birmingham, featuring Hannah and The Gentlemen. Fresh, clever, fun, directed by Merlyn Rice and produced by John Mostyn. 
And when I talked to Hannah, on the night of ADO's 2nd birthday gig, guess what? She wasn't giving any fiscal secrets away either.

Radar Music Videos

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