Are Music Video Directors Being Fairly Compensated?

As music videos become the most important weapon in a new artist's arsenal, the people creating them end up with less and less.

Dec 4 2014, 5:14pm

We all remember the first time a music video left a mark on our impressionable teenage selves. Mine was Spike Jonze’s Big City Nights, the companion piece to Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”. I was immediately taken aback by poor Charles—an anthropomorphic dog with a broken leg—as he wandered through the chaotic streets of Manhattan after dark, helpless to the deafening kick drums of “Da Funk” blaring from his boombox. There was something oddly captivating about a house anthem by then-unknown French producers being used as the backdrop to a mini-movie about an outcast dog and his urban woes. Who were these mysterious Daft Punk? Why were New Yorkers so rude to this affable half-dog, half-human? And why didn’t Charles just ditch the boombox to board the bus with his lady friend? So many questions remain unanswered nearly two decades later.

It’s said the 90s were the golden era of the music video, with the likes of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry cutting their teeth on wild experimentations with the form, spurred on by risk-prone musicians like Daft Punk, Björk and Beck. Although the days of the “$100,000-plus budgets for your basic rotation-ready clip” are long gone, I’d argue that rumors of the music video’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The scene is actually chock full of inspired young image-makers. That was my takeaway from the first edition of the MUVIs, or Montreal Music Video Festival, held as part of the M for Montreal industry showcase in late November. From deaf dancers moving to the intangible synth vibrations of Jamie xx’s “Sleep Sound” (Dir.: Sofia Mattioli) and an astute, channel-flipping exploration of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (Dir.: Vania Heymann—Best Interactive Video), to an unflinching portrait of a music connoisseur confined to an asylum in Tommy Kruise’s “Hers” (Dir. Martin Pariseau—Best Script & Concept/ Grand Jury Prize), there was a seemingly endless supply of whimsical, heart-rending and truly sublime works.

Working with a mere fraction of the budgets afforded to their forebears, today’s music video directors nevertheless devise ever-ingenious ways to confront viewers and subvert expectations. A good case in point would be French filmmaker Vincent Moon, a member of this year’s MUVI jury, whose Take Away Shows on La Blogothèque breathed new life into music videos for the YouTube set, with on-the-fly, long-take scenarios. Moon and his Blogothèque posse spent years shooting indie bands in offbeat, intimate settings, from Arcade Fire performing “Neon Bible” in a freight elevator to Beirut’s Zack Condon belting out the haunting “Nantes” in an echo-y stairwell. “We wanted to tell music-related stories that went beyond merely playing songs,” Moon pointed out when I reached him in Brazil, where he’s currently shooting a feature film. “Even though I grew up admiring a certain 1990s video aesthetic, with Gondry, Cunningham and Jonze, I quickly sought ways to go beyond that, to create an improvised dialog between film and music that transcends the promo-y video. I really wanted to destroy this idea of a ‘poster boy’, to level the playing field between music lovers and music makers.”

Martin Pariseau is at the forefront of a new generation of Montreal directors who are tapping into that same status-quo-fighting spirit. His video for Ryan Hemsworth’s “One For Me,”, conceived as the most boring video ever made, dispelled myths about the glamorous DJ grind by showing the mundane reality (and loneliness) of life on the road. At the MUVIs, Pariseau won both Best Script and Concept and Grand Jury Prize for Tommy Kruise’s “Hers.” The latter is his moving portrait of friend Bogdan Chiochiu, a guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of music who’s confined to a mental health institute because of Asperger’s. “He’s one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, and his predicament just goes to show you how our society makes no room for people with Aperger’s,” Pariseau says.

Things get a tad more disheartening, however, when I broach the topic of compensation. When I ask Pariseau about this, he knows we’re venturing into contentious terrain. “We made ‘Hers’ with $3,000, so once you rent the camera, there’s not much left.” When I mention that many top video makers on this side of the Atlantic aren’t getting paid a dime for their work, Pariseau isn’t surprised. “Me neither, I haven’t really been paid for my videos. The only one for which I got an actual salary was [Ryan Hemsworth’s] “Snow In Newark”. The people I’m psyched to work with simply don’t have the means or structure... People like Tommy Kruise don’t have access to [Canadian funds such as] MuchFACT or MaxFACT. The new reality is that there’s no money available to young people, and I think that holds true for the art world in general. Creating art has become so accessible to everyone, that there are no financial means at our disposal. It’s a very strange time.”

While Pariseau works his magic on videos for emerging acts such as Dead Obies, Kaytranada, and Solids, fellow Canadian Emily Kai Bock, who sat on this year’s MUVI jury, has given life to gorgeous mises en scène for indie world MVPs Grimes, Arcade Fire and, most recently, Lorde. At the New York Film Festival last month, Paul Thomas Anderson—arguably America’s most revered contemporary filmmaker—singled out her otherworldly “Oblivion” video for Grimes as inspiration for his upcoming Inherent Vice. Surely she’s getting paid for her work, right? Nope. All pro bono affairs, with the exception of Grizzly Bear’s “Yet Again”. “And that’s because [Grizzly Bear] put their foot down and said, ‘You’re getting paid, Emily.’ I think I got $2,000. That was the one exception,” she explains. “I’ve even put money out of pocket into some of them, although that’s probably my own fault, because I can’t ever not give myself over completely to a project. I shoot in 35mm, and if I need more film, or a second day of shooting, or an additional location, my director’s rate (if there is one) would be the first thing to go.”

In both Emily and Martin’s case, bands don’t come a-knockin’ with fully realized visions; these videos are their creations, through and through. Which makes the practice of not paying any of them a dime all the more upsetting. “I’ve kind of been pushed out of the game because you have do it because you love it,” says Kai Bock. “But after making 15 music videos and never getting paid, you start to understand how the industry works: Musicians and labels definitely profit off these videos, but it never trickles back to the music video director,” she argues, echoing the acceptance speech she gave at this year’s UK Music Video Awards upon winning Best International Alternative Video for Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife.” “And that goes for a lot of my peers, who feel the same way about it. Like, ‘shit, I don’t know how long I can keep this up because I can’t pay my rent.’ The industry needs to change.”

When I mention this pro bono practice to Juliette Devert, co-founder of the MUVIs, she sounds just as confounded. “Emily is someone who’s quite influential in the music video industry. During our event, many people came let us know how delighted they were that she sat on our jury. The fact that she doesn’t get paid, even though she works with big artists, is a perfect illustration of the current music video paradox. These clips are of pivotal importance to an artist’s promo campaign. On social media and the Internet, if an artist doesn’t have a music video, there’s a huge piece of the puzzle that’s missing. But given that their economic impact is not easily measurable, music videos are consistently under-valued in terms of budget.”

Alongside Félix Brochier, Devert launched the MUVIs this year to provide visibility to local music video talent, galvanized by similar prize-dispensing initiatives in Berlin and Paris. With over 200 submissions from some 22 countries in its inaugural edition, it’s clear the music video industry continues to be a magnet for top creative talent. But according to Brochier, a former label manager at Indica, the budgets British or French directors work with are much more generous than what homegrown creatives must contend with. “Our reality is quite different from bigger markets like France or England, where music video budgets for an artist signed to a major easily hover around $50,000. In Quebec, when you have $15,000, you’re working on a big-budget production.”

Emily Kai Bock believes some of that has to do with how record labels interpret information about where their income comes from. “[Labels] say they now make their money through live shows. Well, yeah, absolutely, but who is making art about their artists so that people will want to see them live? Music videos definitely help sell tickets. Actually, in Europe, they even call them ‘promos,’ so it’s all a matter of perspective, really.”

It goes without saying that an attention-grabbing visual identity will go a long way toward cementing an artist’s appeal. From Deadmau5’s ubiquitous helmet with giant ears to M.I.A.’s fluorescent patchwork of political imagery, our culture kneels at the holy altar of image. “You see music more than you hear it these days because of YouTube,” remarks Kai Bock. “Beyoncé just released her latest album with music videos, so if you were to play them on your phone, the videos would play as well.”

Pariseau, for his part, understood very early on how a single music video could set careers in motion when he released “Tony Hawk” for bilingual rap supergroup Dead Obies. “It was my first video. After we put it out, Dead Obies were signed to Bonsound the following week, and I joined Roméo & Fils’ roster of directors that same week.”

In our post-Madonna and MJ day and age, music videos are considered de rigueur promo tools. Their power and relevance are no longer up for debate. They spark conversations and feed imaginations. But, for the time being, they’re not feeding creators. “You have to be okay with not getting any credit or money and doing it because you love it,” says Kai Bock. “That’s a beautiful place to be: to be proud of your work, and enjoying the process. It’s a really pure form of art making.”

The medium has provided many generations of aspiring filmmakers with a blank canvas for boundless experimentation. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry went from staging robots and synchronized swimmers walking around in circles (Daft Punk’s “Around the World”) and a guerrilla-style choreography outside a movie theatre (Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”) to becoming two of the most influential storytellers of our time. So how about giving this generation a fighting chance? The next Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Her might be waiting in the wings.

Michael-Oliver Harding is a culture writer living in Montreal. Follow Michael-Oliver Harding on Twitter.