Now You See Us
Your Band's First Video
In the mid-Eighties, I fronted an odd little band called Buster & the Crabs. We were a very visual act, with props and occasional costumes, and I was also involved in making shows for public access television, so it seemed natural that we should do some sort of video for the band. Somehow, the members of the group ended up meeting a pair of gentlemen who said that they were video producers and were interested in producing a clip for the band for free. Well, "free" didn't end up costing us any money - despite what you were already thinking - but neither did it gain us much of anything.
The two would-be Spike Jonzes took us out to a picturesque area of Zilker Park at around dusk to shoot a vid for "What the Devil's Going On," a song about a dim fellow who think's he's crashed a party, but in reality has stumbled into a Satanic cult ritual. The "plot" was to be a simple one: The members of the band and our usual group of "grodies" (we couldn't afford both groupies and roadies, so we combined the two) were to portray members of the cult, and as I sang the song they would become more and more menacing until I finally was devoured (engulfed in a makeshift cape) by a demon (our bass player) that the group had conjured up.
In case the sun got too far down before we finished (it did), the "videographers" had rented and brought along a gas-powered generator (which they didn't use). My own experiences in video had taught me enough to remind them that, since we were performing along to a tape in an old boom box, any long shots would end up hopelessly out of synch with the audio when we went to edit the clip (their average shot ended up being over half a minute long). After seeing the dim, grainy, shaky mess of useless footage the day had produced, I took the tapes away from them and eventually guerrilla-edited the muck into a just-barely-watchable visual accompaniment to the song. To this day, it's never been seen outside of my home.
Why in hell would you want to put yourself through something like that? Well, frankly, you wouldn't. But this is 1995, well into the music video era. You're in a city with more musicians than fast-food joints (which is why so many of the musicians are unemployed), and to top it all off, the Austin Music Network (AM15), the city's primary showcase for local music videos, is gearing up to reach 24-hour-a-day status sometime next year. So, why does this mean you should make a video? Again, wipe Thriller out of your mind. If you're thinking in those terms you're just asking for trouble. There are reasons, however, for any band, from hotshot superstars hoping to coax a few more million CDs off the racks all the way down to garage-dwellers who just wangled their first gig at Charlie's Attic, to look into video.
Let's start at the bottom, with our garage gang. If you're playing small clubs and maybe working on putting out a cassette or single, you'd obviously be wasting your time and money creating a concept piece with a professional cast and crew. For one thing, if you managed to get it played outside of Austin, what good would it do you? - you haven't even started thinking about touring yet. However, if you can get access to a decent camera, a three-quarter-inch (professional) video deck and operator, and (important!) respectably good audio quality to match the video, you should be able to assemble at least a short live clip of the band. Getting in touch with access TV producers like Hank Sinatra or Dave Prewitt of CapZeyeZ is a considerably better way of doing this than getting Uncle Wally to break out his old camcorder. A simple but competent live clip is fine for showing on public access TV.
On AM15's Check This Action (CTA), a weekly peek at who's playing around town hosted by the Chronicle's Margaret Moser and local filmmaker Tara Veneruso, even a well-shot, single camera segment of a song on three-quarter-inch tape is adequate for them to run and give people an idea of what you're music is like. AM15's Tim Hamblin is incredulous that "there are so many bands in town that we don't have a minute of decent video of!" CTA regularly shows short excerpts of videos, including some that wouldn't qualify to be run in their entirety among the station's regular programming, in the interest of plugging a young band's upcoming performance. A few seconds of such exposure can do much to create or change a person's opinions of a band. Hamblin says he often hears from people who had no idea what they were missing. ("I had always thought Alvin Crow was some country bumpkin!" reported one newly converted fan after seeing a short Crow clip on the show.)
The clip can also be used as a demo to apply for a showcase in music festivals - although you should get clear confirmation that it's convenient to the fest in question; SXSW, for instance, lists video as an acceptable demo format for their music conference, but currently has no equipment with which to view tapes in their offices. CTA also can use such footage to promote your album release or other event, and since local TV news producers have gotten in the habit of utilizing the AM15 tape library, they can come in handy if a member of your band dies a horrible flaming death.
What if your group is a little farther down the fame freeway? What if you're at the point where you're touring and even have a contract with a nice indie label? Well, hell, boy, you know you need a video now! We're talking about more expense now, but if there's a common phrase that you're guaranteed to hear any time you talk to an Austin video director, it's "cashing in favors." Mark Shuman (yes, the same one who co-owns the Electric Lounge) has helmed clips for Eric Blakely, the Austin Lounge Lizards, Prescott Curlywolf, and Hamell on Trial. His work tends to be very professional and straightforward, focusing strongly on the band's personality. He sees a good deal of the problem with some new bands' videos in that they "don't showcase the performance - they're too tied up in experimentation." He also warns bands who are serious about their video to be prepared for one or two "long, intense days."
Though he works as an assistant on country videos with budgets of $50,000-150,000, Shuman managed to bring in his B&W Hamell on Trial clip and Prescott Curlywolf video to Doolittle Records last year for around $15,000 total ("I cashed in a lot of favors," he explains). The big guns at Hamell's new label, Mercury, were impressed with the stark and powerful imagery of the performer blazing through a song alone onstage - so much so that they've decided to reuse it as his first major-label video. Shuman's colorful, circus-themed Prescott Curlywolf clip is astonishing in that some people consider it too flashy and expensive-looking until they realize that the whole thing was done utilizing nothing but the existing decor of the tiny local Carousel Lounge (except for the juggling mime, anyway). Though his work is more traditional than experimental, he disagrees with those who dismiss videos as mere "commercials" for a band's product. Music videos "can be a high art form," he argues.
Heyd Fontenot, who has directed clips for Kathy McCarty, Sincola, Death Valley, and Ed Hall, is the antithesis of Shuman; though he doesn't shy away from the term "commercials," he bemoans the lack of risk-taking in videos and asks, "What music videos have you seen lately that you even remember?" In his perfect world, bands would step back and give him as much freedom as they themselves would expect from their record company.
Fontenot's video for Ed Hall's "Weird Song" definitely falls into the "experimental" category; it consists entirely of speeded-up, distorted footage of a beauty pageant/talent show for pre-teen girls, made to look as though it were "pirated" off of some strange cable channel, and somehow, though the content is all quite innocent, viewing it tends to make people very uncomfortable. For most young bands, it would be a terrible showcase. The band members don't appear at all, the imagery really has nothing to do with the song, and then there's that squirmy feeling it gives you. Somehow, though, for the enigmatic Ed Hall, it seems strangely appropriate. It also was cost-efficient; total expense was around $2,400. The little girls and pageant personnel appeared for free - as they do at actual pageants - leaving Fontenot "holding my breath" that every thing would work out. "When you're paying people you can demand certain things out of them, but when you're not..." The clip was shot on video rather than the much more costly luxury of film (video in this case was more appropriate for the effect, as well). Oh, and of course, Fontenot "cashed in a lot of favors"...
The debate over style and substance is largely a subjective one, but there are certain considerations a band has to make inasmuch as where they expect their video to be shown. Hamblin says that AM15 has very few restrictions, outside of "extreme tastelessness" regarding the content of the local videos they play, though regarding "Weird Song" he says he can't help but "wonder what other programmers would think of using that."
AM15's Kent Benjamin has a few suggestions for video creators to store in the back of their minds, including keeping things simple, not insulting the audience, and perhaps trying a touch of humor in the face of today's MTV-style pompousness. Hamblin has compiled a handy list of things a band absolutely must consider when making their first video. They are: Pick a short song, both to gain the favor of the programmers and to help keep down the budget and editing time ("Every second of a song means more work"); choose a tune that is representative of the band; ask to see your director's previous work before giving him the go-ahead; make sure your budget includes enough money for making copies of the clip to send out (each three-quarter-inch tape will cost you about the same as a good six-pack, but you'll just have to deal with that); and see to it that you properly label all those copies when you mail them out. Oh, and don't try to get too creative if you don't have the resources for it. Bad acting by your drummer's cousin is not the path to creativity.
Hamblin also warns bands to keep track of who has filmed/taped you and whether you liked the results. He's had to deal with more than his share of acts who have become camera-shy after some access producer shot a bad clip of them and then aired it repeatedly against their wishes. And if you use someone else's footage in your video, whether it be old B&W film of trains entering tunnels or whatever, make sure it's in the public domain or be prepared to deal with paying for the rights.
Once you've got your final product in hand, you can either pay a distributor or handle the matter of getting your tapes to the proper outlets yourself. There are distributors who can mass-mail your latest marriage of music and film to 400 or so video programs worldwide. You'll want to be sure your clip ends up in cities where you'll be appearing on tour, as well as wherever you want your albums to sell.
Oh, one last thing: don't expect to end up on MTV any time soon. With all its sports, game shows, and Beavis and Butt-head, Hamblin doesn't even consider it a real music video channel any more, and recommends a healthy regimen of local and regional shows instead. Shuman has yet to see MTV airplay, though his Austin Lounge Lizards and Eric Blakely clips reached medium rotation on the Nashville Network and Country Music Television, respectively. Trance Records' Craig Stewart says that the latest Trance vids (from Ed Hall, Sixteen Deluxe, and Starfish) will be sent off to MTV, but he doesn't hold much hope that they will ever be shown there, even on the supposedly new-music-oriented 120 Minutes program, since "every record label is fighting" to get their clips into that measly two-hour late-night slot. Nevermind. He's got 75 other tapes going out to places that have been more receptive, from access channels to USA's Up All Night, meaning there may be a lot of people getting the willies watching those talented little girls.
I know the next time I make a video, I'm gonna make sure things are done a lot differently than that agonizing day in Zilker Park. But then again, before I even think about that, I've gotta worry about getting a band together. And getting everybody to show up at rehearsals. And writing songs. And I really don't know if I can handle the cat shit again...