- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — The music video is shrinking.

With the music industry in crisis from falling sales and file sharing, labels have less cash to subsidize elaborate videos that will mostly be seen in miniature on computers. The result has been a major shift in the art form, as artists increasingly embrace the YouTube aesthetic with cheap, stripped-down, low-production videos.

The shrinkage of the video will be obvious at tonight’s MTV Video Music Awards, where grandiose, ambitious videos will seem like an exotic species facing extinction.

“The business is changing radically. It does feel smaller, cheaper,” says veteran music video director Samuel Bayer, whose many clips include Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Blind Melon’s “No Rain” and Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which won six awards at the 2005 VMAs.

When MTV’s award show kicked off 24 years ago, the network was ushering in a new era where the video was king: a branding tool and an art form rolled into one. Today, the channel broadcasts mostly reality shows, while YouTube, ITunes, MTV.com and various other online destinations have become the dominant viewing platform for videos.

Directors are gradually adapting to the smaller-sized medium.

Chris Applebaum‘s video for Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is nominated for five VMAs, including video of the year and best director. It’s a sleek, beautiful creation, and Mr. Applebaum was conscious of where it would be most watched.

“I had a lunch with Rihanna and Jay (label head Jay-Z) and we talked about the fact that most people are going to watch things on their laptop,” says Mr. Applebaum. “It’s important to be bold and simple and to find the elegance in simplicity.”

Mr. Bayer’s video for Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around … Comes Around” is nominated for numerous VMAs, including best video and best director. Starring Mr. Timberlake and Scarlett Johansson, the video has a distinctively cinematic feel, complete with a car chase and end credits.

In this way, “What Goes Around” feels old-school — like a rebellion against the new aesthetic … more like Michael Jackson’s landmark 1983 “Thriller” video, directed by John Landis.

“I said, ‘We gotta go big,’ ” says Mr. Bayer. “ ’If I’m going up against an OK Go video with four guys on a treadmill that plays millions of times on YouTube, how can I do something that is the opposite of that?’ ”

In the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, budgets and ambition ran high. Mark Romanek’s 1995 video for Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” is considered the most expensive ever, at an estimated $7 million. There have been many videos in the $2 million range, including Brett Ratner’s “Heartbreaker” for Mariah Carey, Hype Williams’ clip for Busta Rhymes’ “What’s It Gonna Be?!” and David Fincher’s “Express Yourself” for Madonna.

“What Goes Around” cost about $1 million, but Mr. Bayer thinks it could be one of the last big-budget videos.

“A comet hit the Earth, and the dinosaurs are dying,” he says. “There’s a new age coming.”

Stavros Merjos, founder of HSI Productions and a longtime producer of videos for acts ranging from Britney Spears to Will Smith, doesn’t expect to ever see another $2 million video: “The record industry as a whole has shrunk. There’s not as much money to throw around.”

Mr. Merjos sees the effect particularly in hip-hop, where sales declines have been the steepest and extravagant videos by the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Diddy and Jay-Z used to be commonplace.

“You were expected to have a big video if you were a top-flight or a serious up-and-coming hip-hop artist,” says Mr. Merjos. “They’re not doing the size that they were doing in the heyday.”

Many artists and directors are now creating videos knowing they’ll have to compete for eyeballs on YouTube. OK Go’s famous treadmill-choreographed video for “Here It Goes Again” was perfectly suited for viral distribution, but the power pop band is far from alone in its reconsidered methods.

The Decemberists and Modest Mouse both asked fans to fill in the background to a video shot in front of a green screen. Jessica Simpson did a version of “A Public Affair” composed entirely of fans dancing and lip-syncing to the pop song.

Last year, Death Cab for Cutie sponsored professional videos for each of the 11 songs on their album “Plans.” For his album “The Information,” Beck personally created a video for every track. The silly, lo-fi videos — which ranged from puppet versions of the band to someone dancing in a bear mask and poncho — were posted on YouTube, and many copies of the album included a bonus DVD.

Perhaps no one has taken more advantage of the freedom of the Internet than R. Kelly, whose absurd and expansive “Trapped in the Closet” series is ideal for the Web (although it has also run on cable TV).

None of the aforementioned videos will wow you with special effects or giant yacht parties, but they are all refreshingly unconventional.

“The new aesthetic is that it’s very low-budget, lo-fi, very do-it-yourself,” says Saul Austerlitz, author of “Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes.”

“This is more a punk-rock aesthetic,” he adds. “It’s very exciting.”

Mr. Applebaum wouldn’t disclose the budget for “Umbrella,” but said he voluntarily did the video for free. Like many music video directors, he’s increasingly making most of his income through commercial work.

With budgets slashed, being a music director doesn’t pay like it once did — which could threaten music videos’ status as a breeding ground for directing talent. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Mr. Romanek and Mr. Fincher are just a handful of video directors who have gone on to become acclaimed filmmakers.

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