‘In [the teen music] market, where you have so many artists and clones of established artists, you want a video that’s going to stand out,’ observes Lynda Simmons, senior director of video production for Jive Records. Since a typical music video costs around US$150,000 per day to shoot, Simmons’ goal is understandable. The question is whether there’s too much on the line to try something radical. After all, most videos with teen appeal seem to share the same elements: fashionable hotties; familiar locations such as dance clubs, beaches and high schools; elaborate choreographed dancing; and simple, straight-forward story lines that focus on the artist.
The problem with adhering too closely to the proven formula is that videos ‘become a little cookie-cutter,’ according to RCA music video commissioner Lorin Finkelstein. ‘Get some nice-looking kids, dress `em up and let `em bounce around on the screen works for maybe the first one or two videos in the teen genre, but after that, you’ve got to do something a little different.’
When you’re trying to break through the clutter, sometimes the riskiest strategy may be to play it safe. Even mainstream pop acts like the Backstreet Boys chose to shake things up with the second video from their sophomore album Millennium (Jive). Not that there isn’t a strong dance component in ‘Larger Than Life’; it’s just that this time, the dance-fest is set in the year 3000, and the guys have invaded a planet filled with extraterrestrial women.
The unusual setting would have been premature early on, Simmons says, but once a group is established, ‘it isn’t such a risk.’ Album sales certainly indicate that differentiation is good for the coffers. While the Backstreet Boys’ self-titled first album went platinum (one million unit sales) 12 times over in the U.S., the second has sold 10 million in just six months, after only two singles (the last CD generated five). To Simmons, the idea of a ‘high-concept’ video ‘was just going to the next level.’
For scatalogical pop-punk pranksters Blink 182, the next level was trashing groups like the Backstreet Boys. After streaking through the streets of Los Angeles on ‘What’s My Age Again,’ the first video from their current CD Enema of the State (MCA), their follow-up, ‘All the Small Things,’ is a cheeky parody of classic scenes from boy band videos.
A group that has made brash infantile humor its calling card, Blink 182 never had to worry about their videos getting lost in the shuffle. The naked video saw to that, generating much viewer response on MTV’s Total Request Live, which helped spark album sales.
‘It became the gag all summer,’ recalls Dennis Boerner, VP of video promotion at MCA, ‘and it helped us gain exposure for a relatively unknown pop-punk band.’ The label did have initial concerns though, enough to run the treatment by MTV before committing to the video. Ultimately, the concept was deemed acceptable because it was ‘done in a comedic setting.’
Beyond the fear of censorship, there were other risks in relying on edgy humor. All summer long, live appearances were dominated by calls from the audience to ‘get naked.’ The band often complied, but as the VP of video production at a rival label points out, ‘you do want to be careful not to turn your band into a one-time joke that everybody’s going to quickly forget.’
That prediction hasn’t materialized, mainly because the group followed up with a video the label considered even more outrageous. ‘We actually took a bigger chance with the second one,’ Boerner says, acknowledging that if the humor misfired, ‘Blink 182 [could have been] written off as a cheesy band.’ So far, so good. While the ‘What’s My Age Again’ single scored a respectable #5 on the alternative charts, ‘All the Small Things’ reached #1 and propelled album sales close to three million units.
Humor also helped Fatboy Slim (British techno-pop whiz Norman Cook) break through, though much of his audience wasn’t even in on a big part of the joke. With music videos running anywhere from US$75,000 to well over a million, one industry source estimated the budget for the ‘Praise You’ video at around US$10,000 to US$15,000. The directors turned the lack of resources to their advantage, creating a distinct ultra low-tech look that stood out from-and implicitly parodied-the exquisitely choreographed, bloated productions that dominate air play on music video channels.
But the homespun approach to humor extended beyond the content to marketing. The credits for the ‘Praise You’ video list one Richard Kouffey as director. When the video began attracting attention, industry folks-including those at MTV-started asking about this total unknown. When the clip won three MTV Video Music Awards, savvy viewers noted that the man accepting the award for ‘Best Direction,’ introduced as Kouffey, looked a lot like industry legend Spike Jonze (Sonic Youth, Björk, The Beastie Boys). It turned out Jonze concocted Kouffey as an alter ego along with co-director Roman Coppola (Presidents of the United States) and the Astralwerks label’s marketing team.
The myth was designed to create industry buzz. ‘It’s a better story than hiring Spike Jonze,’ explains David Levine, director of video production and promotion at Astralwerks. Levine shrugs off the prank as merely ‘icing on the cake,’ yet there’s no way to dismiss the scheme’s success. Its first week, the Fatboy Slim CD You’ve Come a Long Way Baby sold 11,382 units. The week after the MTV Awards, that number had skyrocketed to 889,894, and at press time, well over a million copies had been purchased.