Many of the past year's biggest pop culture moments have one thing in common: They revolved around music videos. There was Drake’s “God’s Plan" video, where the rapper embarked on a million-dollar donation spree — and inspired a meme in the process. The visual for Childish Gambino’s political masterpiece, “This Is America,” sparked a national conversation that likely played a role in the song’s Grammy wins. Still other videos brought acts like NBA Youngboy and Doja Cat viral fame that they’ve since parlayed into careers. And, of course, there was Ariana Grande’s record-breaking video for “thank u, next,” which has helped catapult the singer to a new peak as an artist.
According to industry players like “thank u, next” director Hannah Lux Davis, Vevo director of music programming and content Justin Prager and Vydia music and tech company CEO Roy LaManna, the influence of music videos on pop culture — and an artist’s standing — will only get stronger.
Speaking at the South by Southwest panel “Breaking Artists Through Video: Your How-To Guide,” LaManna argued that what appears as the golden age of music videos is really a reflection of the industry’s overall resurgence. The U.S. recorded music industry generated roughly $9.8 billion in 2018, marking the industry's third consecutive year of double-digit growth.
“It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was talking about, the music industry is going to die,” he said. “Now, I see a ton of money coming into it. I’ve seen a lot of artists that were spending $5,000 a video, who are now spending $50,000 a video, because the views justify that.”
As the format continues to grow, Prager said his team combs through hundreds of new videos every day for new talent. The company is currently funneling its efforts into playlisting, with an emphasis on highlighting new acts. “We go through every single video that comes in, whether it’s a Drake video or some baby artist out of Nebraska,” he said. “So not only do you have the big playlists like Hot New Hip-Hop, but Discover Hip-Hop.”
On that note, as hip-hop consumes the Hot 100, it’s also the genre driving music video consumption. Amid Vevo’s catalog of roughly 300,000 videos, Prager says that hip-hop is “by far” the dominant genre, followed by pop and Latin. The company named Drake its top U.S. artist of 2018 on the platform; of its top 10, eight were hip-hop or R&B artists. Recently, YouTube has become an incubator for young rappers looking for a viral breakthrough, like the previously mentioned NBA Youngboy or Memphis rapper NLE Choppa.
As social media continues to permeate daily life, artists are also met with increasing demand from fans for content. Their enthusiasm is good for artists — but also challenging to satisfy. In response, the window between releases has shortened, and many artists sprinkle behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers and “the making of”-style documentaries across their music video rollouts. And that’s not to mention the lyric video that often precedes the real deal.
To meet that demand, Davis says she has one word of advice to artists: “You should be filming everything.”
Davis worked with Grande on four music videos including "7 Rings" and "thank u, next" over the course of six months, the same window during which the singer worked tirelessly to release thank u, next in February after her previous album Sweetener dropped last August. Each video was coupled with several bite-sized teasers posted to Twitter and in November Grande released Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman Diaries, a four-part YouTube series of backstage footage.
“Yes, she wants to be putting out content, but [her fans] are just demanding it,” Davis said of working with Grande. “When I’m with her, she’s always saying stuff like, ‘God, I’ve got to feed them again!’ They’re so used to getting things all the time.”
As such, Prager estimates the shelf-life of today’s music videos at two months — “if you’re lucky.”
“After that 60-day window, you start to see views drop way down, so we encourage everybody to make as much content as possible,” he adds, “and that for every song, you’re creating multiple pieces for that.”
Of course, some powerful videos manage to get around that threshold. The tropical music video for Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's blockbuster "Despacito" reached 6 billion YouTube views last month, more than two years since it hit the web. And the animated visual for PSY's 2102 hit "Gangnam Style" is a mainstay on YouTube's all-time list of most-watched music videos.
According to Davis, transcending that music video shelf-life all comes down to the music itself. No matter how big the budget or flashy the music video, it takes a particularly well-crafted song to rise above the noise.
“Without that, the video is frivolous, and it doesn’t go anywhere or do anything,” Davis says. “First and foremost, it starts with a really great song.”