Why I Abandoned Music Videos for the Tech Industry

Ryan Staake’s super meta “Wyclef Jean” music video for Young Thug

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…

Making Action Bronson’s “The Symbol” was a balancing act of ego and practicality

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.

My “style” back in the day was once described by Wired Magazine as “Grime Noir”, uhm sure why not?

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.

Quavo almost left the set and fought with my AD when I asked him to please not use his loaded gun as a prop for the robbery scene at 3:17

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.

Pre-DSLR revolution meant big bulky cameras, media cards and chin strap beards

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.

Explaining the vast amount of special effects work I planned on doing in post (without having the proper budget) to Busta Rhymes

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.

That time I had to tell Pusha T that Cam’ron wouldn’t get out of his car to film his scene in a barbershop so we had to follow him to Lodi, NJ and pick it up at a Popeye’s

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 lost money making this video

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?

You know you’re running behind when the entourage outnumbers the amount of people who are actually working

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.

I was commissioned by Pepsi to make this video, only to have the artists launch their own version because they didn’t like their angles

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 Roots gave me a lot of support and trust early in my career to the point that they didn’t even have to be in the video at all

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.

Joey Bada$$’s “No. 99” was a logistical nightmare yet a true collaboration between artist and director

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

This Jonathan Simkhai x Carbon38 branded content video for Harper’s Bazaar was a dream because well, professionalism

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.

My work for tech company Duo Security sometimes dips into narrative territory, a creative burst of fresh air

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.

I’m still that same hungry kid from Queens, but with a better perspective and less stress

  • Corn Jimmy

    Great read. Thanks for the insight Rik! The industry seems a bit saturated as well because of the cost of cameras & tools. I guess it’s a gift and a curse. And it doesnt help that most of the videos look the same. A lot of my friends who did videos have moved on to weddings or production spots within companies.

    Thanks for the advice and inspiration.

    • Rik

      Thanks for reading Jimmy! It is a gift and a curse. I feel partly responsible for the demise of the industry – sort of like lowering the value of the property so to speak – but the enduring friendships and professional relationships from all those years were priceless and worth the frustration. Ultimately I hope my article was not to discourage but to prevent any young, aspiring directors from getting taken advantage of because of the false economy.

  • Corn Jimmy

    Oh and that Harper’s Bazaar video is dope! I see you used the FS7 hand helded for that one. SMH. Crazy. The grading is amazing as well. If you ever find time I think you should offer some courses or manuals here on RPB.com. Id pay to see how you graded/colored the Harper’s Bazaar video.

    • Rik

      I wish I could take credit for that awesome grade but it was done by my friend Josh K. Brede. Check out his work here: http://joshbrede.com/

  • Rob W

    This was a GREAT read Rik! This should be mandatory reading for all upcoming video directors especially as it pertains to hip-hop. I’ve never had the desire to shoot music videos I have shot a few for upcoming artists that I personally knew and were friends with around 2009 – 2010, my first camera was a Panasonic HVX200 and I couldn’t afford a lens adapter at the time so I feel your pain lugging around the heavy camera. With that being said again this is great insight for upcoming directors to educated themselves so they do constantly get ripped off and taken advantage of simply because of there passion for directing.

    • Rik

      Thanks Rob, hope it didn’t come off as too rant-y. I really have no regrets, but if there was one thing I would have changed back then, it would be to attempt to secure a semi-steady job creating branded content, instead of waiting for that one big video or commercial. But I figured it out eventually and it all worked out 🙂 And you’re right, no one deserves to be ripped off and most importantly everyone deserves to be treated with respect and humanity – something very lacking on most music video sets.

  • Raul Sanchez

    Very enlightening article. I applaud your forthcoming and candor about the music industry. I too fell victim to the oohs and ahhs of the music video world in the early to late 2000’s. I felt the sting of rappers wanting to do more than expected for the small amount they budgeted for as well as the inconveniences their people put me through, such as their friends playing extras not showing up, or people didn’t want to be a part of the video anymore because role-playing and getting “knocked out” would ruin their cred, or when we were expecting a buddy’s nice ride to show up at a coordinated time and place, they decide to get the car detailed at that scheduled time even though we were only going to need the exterior shots of the car. And, don’t get me started on the promises of “my label wants me to shoot a bunch of promo music videos, let’s start shooting them and when I meet with the lawyers this week I’ll get the money for the videos. I’m still waiting on the rest of the money. And yes, some of these “clients” were long time friends.

    However, I am glad you are still in the world of cameras, gadgets and tech. That was another reason I was inspired with the RedRock Micros because I am a gadget guy, plus the fact back in the day I couldn’t afford the cameras I wanted but loved the cinematic look of the prime lenses. Heck, I couldn’t even afford RedRock so I went the Cinevate route because it was cheaper to get a Canon HV30 and still have HD footage.

    I guess I got burned out shooting and editing and producing. So I turned my energy into photography. i still use the same principles when shooting still camera as I do video but I also like the quick turn around with photography. There were times I would shoot video for days and end up editing for weeks. I just wanted to create and it just became discouraging.

    Anyway, if you remember back a few days ago on my Instagram I wanted to ask you about some advice on business and career. I had that picture on New Years Eve with the welder’s mask and roman candle. I don’t want to hijack this thread but I don’t feel right asking here or would it be better to write you somewhere else?

    • Rik

      Hey Raul, thanks for sharing some of your personal “war” stories 🙂 Pre-DSLR revolution was a really interesting and exciting time for digital filmmaking and music videos but for me, it just wasn’t sustainable as a business without making a lot of personal sacrifices and adjusting my ethics.

      • Raul Sanchez

        you make a valid point. I didn’t think I would make a lot of money doing music videos but I thought I would at least get further ahead than I did. I just liked the whole filmmaking process in music videos and the turn around was quicker than some TV shows and DVD’s that I produced. I could spend weeks shooting content for DVD’s, or receiving content (miniDV’s from other producers), than around a month to edit. If I wasn’t making money in between that then income would suffer. I still love the filmmaking process but now photography takes up most of my time than video nowadays but I jump at the chance when video projects come my way.

        I dabble in the tech gadget world myself. I am a contributing writer for The-Gadgeteer.com.
        I review gadgets and products but I like to review on more of a non-techie consumer view so the people who aren’t so tech savvy can get a perspective that won’t intimidate them than if I spew a lot of product specs and jargon. So I keep tech talk to a minimum or at least enough for techies to relate.
        If you have time I’d appreciate it if you checked out my articles and let me know what you think.

        Quick questions. What way do you feel is more beneficial or advantageous to advertise oneself? Social media, emails, posts, etc?
        How did you get your name and work out when you first started? I mean as far as promoting yourself for the work that you do.
        Thanks for your quick responses!

        • Rik

          Hey Raul, that’s a good question – do you mean my work in music videos or like what I do now?

          • Raul Sanchez

            I guess I my initial question was for when you started in music video but now I’m thinking because times have changed so I guess the question is really aimed at what you do now. Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?

            Have we become lazy as artists of showcasing our work to attract paying clients by just posting our pieces on social media hoping to get noticed or should we go back to grassrooting by “pressing the flesh”, distribute flyers, cold calling, send email blasts, etc. to let potential clients know that we are available? Is word of mouth enough?

            Obviously, the market is saturated with “photographers”, “directors” or anybody with a credit card and a camera so how would you separate yourself from the masses and grab the eye of the right client?