Young Thug’s viral video for “Wyclef Jean” is the pinnacle of meta music videos and a primer for what to expect when embarking on a music video directing career. Ryan Staake beautifully illustrates the frustrations and pressures involved with juggling the expectations of a popular rapper and well, everyone else who isn’t one. Props to Mr. Staake and his crew for surviving such a shitty ordeal and being able to flip it into something truly entertaining. From my experience, every video director has some kind of crazy anecdote or war story. Here's a few of mine...
In my case, perhaps it was the time Action Bronson smoked so much THC wax my DP got sick and had to leave or when Joey Bada$$ flew us out to London for a video, only to miss his flight because of a headache and not show up. Or maybe it was the time Common arrived to shoot a beer commercial but A) doesn't drink beer and B) never read the treatment or how about when Busta Rhymes had me take over a video that a previous director abandoned, only to yell at me at 3:00am on Christmas Eve because he wanted to see a roughcut. All of these situations got resolved behind the scenes but it did take its toll on my quality of life. What began as pure passion for contributing something to the culture of hip hop eventually turned into a gaping hole of frustration. Occasionally I’ll receive a text from a former colleague asking “What you retired or something?” or “You don’t like hip hop no more?” and the answer is “sort of”, “well no”, and finally “it’s complicated.” My journey through music videos has helped me transition into video production within the tech industry - a world that celebrates rubbing elbows with rappers as much as sharing emojis on Slack - but it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was kind of depressing, until I put things in perspective.
I grew up in the 90's when music videos were big, major events. I thought of them as short films and I didn't even have to like the actual song to experience the artistry on display. I always wanted to tell stories through video and my passion for directing was birthed through many years of dabbling in other art forms, none of which I was particularly good at but somehow I was able to graduate with a fine arts degree. After working in motion graphics upon graduation, my first attempt at a serious project was an indie feature in 2005 and like many others, it was my “film school”. I made a ton of mistakes that somehow morphed into competent "skills". I didn't get into music video directing until 2006 and it was completely by accident. Here I was, a wannabe indie filmmaker who suddenly got some buzz because I directed a video "trailer" for Jay-Z. I didn't get paid by the label, I wasn't commissioned to do it. I had an idea and I executed it with my heavy Panasonic HVX because Jay's name was attached to it. I wasn't even really sure what I was shooting because it was so top secret. That day was the beginning of my addiction to music videos.
The 90's were over and my reality of the modern music video industry in 2007 was that there were absolutely no rules. Music videos gave me a quick fix and media driven exposure for any artist who was buzzing. If the budgets were low or nothing at all, I still wanted to shoot. It was about building my reel by any means necessary, regardless of cost. Getting press for standing next to these artists and putting photos on MySpace and my fledgling Twitter account was exciting but also depressing because I didn't actually hang out with these guys. Sometimes I felt like a director stepchild, getting hand me downs from the iconic directors I looked up to in the 90's.
Back then and maybe even the early 00's if my research is correct, the music video industry was not yet in its wild west situation. It was general industry practice to put 10% of the budget into director's fees no matter what. Remember those videos I grew up on? Those ended up landing on the reels of young and exciting directors like David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Chris Robinson and Spike Jonze. They were able to gain some practical experience while at the same time earn a living through their production companies. Most of them were not mainstream famous yet, but they managed to pay the bills through music video directing and shooting commercials.
Fast forward to 2007 and those directors from the 90's had moved into television, features and commercials garnering critical acclaim and bigger budgets. This mass exodus was caused directly by the crash of the music industry. They no longer made real money from music videos. MTV refused to pay for content so there was no desire to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce music videos. I knew that coming into the industry but I didn't care. If these guys didn't want to shoot the artists I worshipped like Nas, Snoop Dogg, The Roots, Busta Rhymes, etc. because of budget constraints then I sure as hell would. I made a lot of music videos from 2007 until 2015, mostly for the internet and usually at a loss or barely breaking even. It was never a problem getting artists to appear in my videos, most of them love getting in front of a camera. The problem was that some of them were used to the old model which included all the creature comforts of a 90's music video set. It was frustrating to be treated less than professional because I didn’t have a crew of 20+ people.
The music industry didn't stop producing valuable products, but the internet blew a fuse in their business model and wiped out profits that would be allocated to music videos. While money is still spent on music videos, almost every director I know has had to take a hit on either their creative vision or their fees. But we still love doing it, it's addicting because it does feel like a real job when we're on set. Some directors even like using the #setlife hashtag just to show how much fun they’re having!
I've come to the conclusion that the music industry doesn't really respect directors as true filmmakers, partly because directing music videos isn’t really about our art, it’s more about narcissist babysitting. Hell, some artists even like to slap their directing credits right on the front of the video because really how hard is it?
The current reality of music videos is that everyone, from label commissioners to managers and even artists themselves expect directors to work for free indefinitely. Well maybe not free but I'll sometimes overhear recommendations like "Yeah Rik can make that budget look like it's double!". Okay so that puts me into a weird position: either I make the video look double it's worth or I look like a selfish, greedy asshole.
We are required to put the entire budget on screen, regardless of actual costs. The intangibles of music video directing are not a concern for anyone in the music industry except for the directors. Most music video directors I know that started around '05 edit all of their own work, which means we have to live with a video long after the shoot is done. Sometimes this work is allocated into the line budget, but most of the time, it isn't. If you give a damn about the song or the artist you'll take a hit to make the overall vision come to life and stay up until the wee hours of the morning to get it done. Young music video directors are shamelessly exploited and told to keep taking financial hits for the big "win". Here's what they aren't telling you: you are exceedingly unlikely to ever see any real money from music videos. And on the rare occasion you do get a "decent" budget, you better make sure all of that is spent on production value.
The philosophical argument against music videos is that they are strongly anti-filmmaker. I've done videos that I've poured my heart and soul into, mostly involving some kind of narrative filmmaking or storyline. Some unique work gets noticed but the most popular views come from meaningless performance setups. It's the same materialism/exploitation stuff from the 1990's but with the DSLR age and YouTube, you don't really have to pay people to do ignorant things on camera. It's as easy as learning how to turn the camera on. I am guilty as charged.
Will I ever stop making music videos? Probably not, there are a few artists who I personally care about and love collaborating with because their independence allows them to experiment visually. My beef isn't really about wanting more dollars or fish from the dead sea, it's about clearing up any misconceptions about what music video directing really is - "A cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." - Hunter S. Thompson
If you’re serious about making a living off video production, my advice to you is not to do what I did. Focus on other industries like branded content for media publications or in house content for tech companies. You will more than likely get addicted to shooting music videos because of the quick fix but none of that has any real bearing on the world of commercial advertising and narrative filmmaking where most of us actually want to belong to. Maybe in the 1990's but not now. There's just way too much content to sift through considering that 72 hours of mostly music related video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. High end commercials are hard as hell to break into, but you will very rarely be asked to work for free, and you will develop more professional relationships that will come useful in securing freelance work. The pay is better, prospects are better, and commercials have considerable benefits in terms of filmmaker development. You will most likely have to deal with agency creatives looking over your shoulder while you direct, but compared to the endless demands of rapper entourages and managers, it feels more like a real job and not indentured servitude.
In conclusion, the more talented you are as a filmmaker, the more jaded you will get by involving yourself with the hip hop music video scene. You will eventually hit a ceiling because that need to execute an exciting and original concept that is completely birthed out of your own imagination will always get batted down. If you can earn an income outside of the music industry, you'll be able to focus on what you really want to do instead of living check to check from an industry that will never really respect you. Plus less stress and frustration is proven to increase your lifespan. But if all you've ever aspired to become is just a hip hop music video director then hurry up and wait. The rappers and their entourage are on their way.