Seen Your Favourite Indie Band On TV? Why Not?
Published Jun 01, 2003You've just spent the last year getting your new album together. You've begged, borrowed and stolen to finance the recording, the mixing, the mastering, the artwork and the manufacturing. Your indie label has helped out however they could, but your credit card is still maxed out. Gigs are okay, but mostly they just cover the cost of your rehearsal space and other expenses. You're about to book a tour econo-style, and you're trying to figure out if you should just quit your job because you can't get the time off. The next question is: should you make a video? After all, these days you don't even have cable.
How Much Does It Cost?
"Necessity is the mother of all invention, but if you're shooting on film, I would think $10,000 would be the bare minimum," says Justin Stephenson, who has directed videos for the Rheostatics and Sigur Rós. "If you're trying to get stuff into MuchMusic, you have to shoot on film, there are no two ways around it. It has to have a certain production value to make it to air."
Surprised? "All bands are shocked when they find out how much it's going to cost to shoot on film," Stephenson admits. "I remember [Rheostatics guitarist] Martin Tielli saying, Wow, I could make ten albums for that amount of money.' I'm saying this, but then there are the real DIY guerrilla indie videos; you can do all of this more simply and less expensively if you have creative ways of making high production value. But it really takes a lot of passion on the part of the filmmaker to pull something like that off."
Sonic Unyon Records has helped make videos for plenty of its artists over the past ten years. Some like the new video by Toronto band Tangiers have gone into rotation, some have been ignored completely. "We've done videos for between $300 and $3,000, and those videos sometimes get played as often as videos that we get [$20,000] VideoFACT budgets for," says Sonic Unyon's Mark Milne. "Some of those Tricky Woo videos are examples of that. There was one where they were just being idiots, running through the park with a bear; it was a short two-minute song that got played a fair bit. It was never added to rotation, but it just kept showing up."
Marcus Rogers is a Vancouver video director with Cinestir Productions. He has helmed all of DOA's videos and the 1985 lo-fi classic "Have Not Been the Same" by Slow, as well as recent videos by Strapping Young Lad and Three Inches of Blood. He describes the latter as "a very low budget video but a lot of fun."
So how has the definition of low budget changed? "The Slow video cost about $600. The Three Inches of Blood video was $20,000," says Rogers. "That's a low budget one in the grand scheme of things these days. Your average major label budget for a video in Canada I'd estimate at $60,000, and in the U.S. I'd say $150,000.
"When a band asks, How much does it cost to make a music video?' the parameters are so variable," Rogers continues. "It should always be based on creativity. To throw money at the problem which is something major labels do a lot is not always going to work. Whether it's indie or commercial, every penny of that video is going to be recouped from record sales. With Strapping Young Lad, who is on [indie metal label] Century Media, their label easily would have spent another $10,000 on the video we just did. But we scaled it down a bit and didn't spend the entire budget, and the label realises that we didn't gouge them."
Carolyn Mark of Victoria, BC just finished her second video, shot on digital video. How much did it cost? "Free!" she exclaims. "Okay, it wasn't free, it cost $80 to duplicate it onto Betacam tape for MuchMusic [a submission requirement]. Oh wait, we were had some drinks while we were editing, which is a thankless task. If you wanted to include that, it cost $240."
"As a producer," says Rogers, "I understand why a huge video will cost $250,000 in the U.S. market. But I also understand that we can make a video with a digital video camera and a Final Cut editing system for the cost of a ten dollar tape. You just need creativity. When I ask people what their favourite video is, a lot of them mention that Replacements video for Bastards of Young,' which was one simple shot of a speaker. People have spent trillions of dollars on music videos, and that's the one people remember. People want something unique and intriguing to them."
Of course, if you have a major label behind you, they're capable of funding the whole video themselves, which comes with its own price for the director and artist. "Whenever I've made VideoFACT videos, you don't have any contact with them while you're making the video," says Nick Craine, a Guelph, ON video director who went from making low budget videos for Feist and Stephen Fearing to a $50,000 video for BMG country act Prairie Oyster, which involved uncomfortable product placement with a truck company. "The record company gives you these two babysitters to sit there and ask you questions for eight hours a day while you shoot: What is that line on the screen for? Are you going to do this? Make sure you have enough of this.' And they're money people, not visual people, so it's very difficult to explain."
How Do I Get It Made?
If you don't know anyone willing or able to be your own private Spike Jonze, you can approach a production company, whose job it is to hook up artists with directors. "They sell their services based on a roster of directors, that they push on different record labels or bands," explains Justin Stephenson, who works for Oz Media in Toronto. "The second function they serve is that once a job has been landed, they take care of the production process. They rent the gear and studios, they have the correct insurance, etc., so you're not sweating that yourself. I did my first Rheostatics video [Stolen Car'] on my own, and it's a real headache to do it all yourself."
Most directors you're likely to encounter early on are hungry film students looking to cut their teeth. "Doing independent videos is not a money-making venture by any stretch of the imagination," says Stephenson. "You're generally doing it for the love of it or as a résumé builder. You either really love the artist you're working with or you want something really great on your demo reel."
Because more than a few musicians are film geeks with an encyclopaedic knowledge of DVD commentary tracks, a director will often discover he's not the only cook in the kitchen. "Sometimes you run into these bands who want a video done cheaply, but they have a million ideas of how to do it right," says Stephenson. "It's difficult to balance that with a tight budget. I've seen some friends, who are doing it for the love of it, go through the ringer with some bands who keep wanting to change the idea on the day of the shoot. But on the other end, there are some directors who are less interested in collaborating. That makes it hard for bands who are fronting their own cash to do these things."
Says Craine, "Keep in mind that people who make rock videos treat the performers like objects. You forget that they're living people with emotions sometimes. You ask them to do something ridiculous like stand in three feet of tomato sauce. And they'll say, What the hell! I'm not doing that.' There's no real argument, because it's their persona on screen and if you force them it's ridiculous."
Will It Get Played?
Because she spent next to nothing on it, Carolyn Mark isn't going to lay awake at night praying for MuchMusic to air her video. "It's for the song Dirty Little Secret,' because you know, no one's going to see it," she says, only half-jokingly. "My expectation is that they'll play it once, and then again if I go to Toronto, and if I die they'll play it."
It's a common perception among indie musicians, particularly indie rockers, that independent video on MuchMusic has been marginalised to a two-video "Indie Spotlight" in the middle of the day and The Wedge, the alternative show that airs late Saturday night. Craig Halket, Senior Music Programmer at MuchMusic, disagrees.
"Overall, we're probably playing more independent videos than we ever have before," he says. "More people are taking advantage of VideoFACT. Almost 50 percent of our Canadian videos are independent. Some of those artists have then got distribution, but the set-up and the video costs are independent. Swollen Members are still on Battle Axe. Other people we're playing now are Not by Choice, Live on Release, Brass Munk, Bless, Shyne Factory, Tangiers, the Salads, Clarknova, Alexisonfire, Broken Social Scene these are all independent videos."
For Canadian hip-hop, it's another story altogether. Without question, MuchMusic pretty much single-handedly built the Canadian hip-hop scene long before radio and major labels got involved. "The Canadian hip-hop scene is independent," says Halket. "We were playing the Rascalz, Choclair, Ghetto Concept and Kardinal Offishall in the early '90s."
As for the perception that an indie hip-hop video has a better chance of making to air than a rock one, Halket says frankly, "A lot of people are putting interesting things into Canadian hip-hop videos. There's more that you can do. With rock videos, you can fall into the trap of it being just another performance video in a dark, smoky club. Sometimes it's harder to distinguish yourself with a rock video. We're certainly playing a lot of hip-hop, but we also played Sam Roberts before the Universal deal came through."
YLook is a Toronto MC whose video "Relate To Me" became a MuchMusic hit this past winter. He's happier that more Canadian hip-hop videos are getting made and played, even though he wonders whether the reasons are more monetary than artistic. "I think the majority of VideoFACT grants from the last year-and-a-half have been predominantly urban," he says. "Times have changed, and aggressive, street hip-hop or political hip-hop is getting a large push. MuchMusic is youth-oriented, and they're going to do whatever it takes to grab the youth. If kids want to see hip-hop, that's what they're playing. Independent hip-hop artists in Canada can take advantage of that, which is cool."
For hip-hop, which is always more of a singles market anyway, it's not uncommon for a Canadian artist to make a video before they have an album or even a single available. Six months after "Relate to Me" was added to rotation, YLook is only now releasing it commercially, on the B-side of a K-OS single. (K-OS, it should be noted, had two video hits in the '90s, with nothing commercially available until his 2002 debut album.)
"I had other reasons behind doing the video," says YLook. "One was just community involvement. I've been involved with youth organisations and multi-ethnic organisations in the Muslim community, and the video opened a lot of doors for speaking engagements. I made it out of love for my community and my love for hip-hop, and it's doing everything I hoped it would, devoid of any stress of being commercially successful. If MuchMusic gave it low or high rotation, I couldn't have cared less, because I knew the message would get out. And it has sometimes I'll go on Kazaa and there will be 80 people downloading my song."
Halket says it doesn't matter if a video is independent or major label or if there's even product available. "If you can hear a good song and there's a good visual attached, we're going to play it and expose it and hope something happens," he says. "It's not a concern of mine, in terms of what we can do to help an artist sell something. But if you're going to make a video, make it a part of a whole plan. And if you want to make a living as a musician, there aren't always a lot of opportunities that present themselves, so you gotta be ready."
Halket also says that a non-mainstream song with an excellent video also has a chance of sneaking into rotation. The best example of that was the beautifully sparse seven-minute video for "Nothing Matters" by Hamilton space rock band Sianspheric, which in 1997 was being played every day. It was the first video by then-teenage Ante Kovac, who has gone on to work for Revolver Productions and helm videos for Sarah Harmer, Matthew Good, the Tragically Hip and even Aaron Carter.
"Another example of that right now is Alexisonfire," says Halket, who has put the "Pulmonary Archery" video by the St. Catharines metal band into rotation. "The song is not anything you'd hear on the radio before 11 o'clock at night, but the video is spectacular. It's one of the best of the year, and the requests for it are pretty huge. But I don't think you'd hear that track anywhere else but here."
If Not MuchMusic, Where?
You've got the grant. You've made the video. You knew from the beginning that it didn't look like Björk or even Alexisonfire and musically it probably wouldn't fit in at MuchMusic. Where do you go next?
Mark Milne says, "There's also MTV Canada and all the other new digital stations. But I don't really see much different on those stations than I'd see anywhere else. But I don't think there are enough people subscribing yet for them to make much of a difference. On MTV2 in the States, Chore had a video added and it got played occasionally, but it didn't help a ton."
Marcus Rogers, along with his business partners Nicole Steen and Frank Yarr, decided to provide shelter for some of his favourite homeless videos. Last fall, they launched the first Indie Music Video Festival in Vancouver at the Blinding Light Cinema, which showed seldom seen clips by the Weakerthans, the Dears, the Snitches, Datson 4, I Am Spoonbender and a host of local Vancouver bands: the Organ, Nasty On, the Evaporators, Canned Hamm, and Rogers' and Steen's own band, Coal.
Says Rogers, "The concept behind it was that we felt a lot of indie videos in particular are transcending the medium of music videos, and a lot of people are putting a lot of effort into clips that might be shown once or twice on national TV." The festival will be held in a larger venue this fall, and they're currently taking submissions until July 15. So far, videos by the Frenetics, Carolyn Mark, Spookey Ruben, Tijuana Bibles, and the Sadies have already made the grade. Rogers has talked about eventually taking the festival on the road.
Is It Worth It?
You've weighed your options. You've checked your bank account again. You're still not sure if it's worth it.
Lisa Moran of Three Gut Records says, "Royal City just got a grant, but I don't know if the video will get made because we still need to come with more money than we spent on the last record."
Three Gut recently licensed Royal City to the UK's Rough Trade label, and the Constantines signed to Sub Pop in the U.S. "It's interesting to talk to Rough Trade and Sub Pop about it because they don't seem to place any value on video at all," says Moran. "They view it as kind of a phase two' thing, after they see how things are going. It's not in anyone's initial marketing plan because of the cost involved. Part of that is because there are no grant agencies in the U.S. or the UK. By virtue of the kind of music that we're releasing or that Sub Pop and Rough Trade are releasing video seems more of a major label marketing tool, rather than an interesting art project that might get people excited about your music." She won't rule it out, though. "We're still applying for grants and we're all still interested in doing it."
With Tangiers, Sonic Unyon once again has a band in decent rotation at MuchMusic. Has it made a difference to the band's profile, sales or concert attendance?
"Totally," says Milne, without hesitation. "I went out on the recent [Exclaim! Anniversary] tour in Western Canada, and the Tangiers video got added when we were in the middle of the tour. And after that, their merchandise sales would go up in comparison to Frank Black's every night. Everyone would say, I saw your video!' People were making sure they got there early to see Tangiers. It amplified everything."
MuchMusic's Craig Halket says a band should make sure a video is a part of the overall package. "If you have it all sorted out, a video is essential," he says. "Know your image. Too many artists make their video before they've fine-tuned who they're going to be. And to me, there aren't a lot of radio stations playing independent music. Ultimately, the only game in town for broad exposure is still MuchMusic." Milne agrees, noting that Sonic Unyon hasn't had an add at radio in four years: "For radio, if Americans aren't playing it, they won't take a chance on it up here."
Marcus Rogers urges anyone with the drive and the means to go for it. "It's all about a beautiful, simple idea that people want to see but doesn't have to cost a lot of money," he says. "I think you can make a video that people will really enjoy for ten dollars. Obviously they can't hire a professional for that money, but they have to be creative and be DIY which is what being a musician is about anyway."
When MuchMusic was founded in 1984, a condition of their broadcasting license was that they had to put 2.4 percent of their gross revenue, or a minimum of $100,000 into a program called VideoFACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent). That's been gradually bumped up over the years to 7 percent. Last year that amounted to almost $4 million, which funded 327 videos in 2002. There are obvious reasons for this act of private philanthropy MuchMusic, MuchMoreMusic and MusiquePlus need Canadian content (30 percent, just like radio) and, just like any other broadcaster, they should have to pay for content. It's in their best interest to fund Canadian videos in a way that they can have some say over quality control.
If you're lucky enough to get a VideoFACT grant, it will cover up to half of your projected budget, to a maximum of $20,000. You or your record label is on the hook for the other half. If you landed a recording grant from FACTOR (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent On Record), which is another private granting body run by a consortium of broadcasters, you'll likely have a better shot at getting a video grant from them as well which is separate from VideoFACT. Some people dip into both. FACTOR will only contribute as much towards the video as your record cost to make; if your FACTOR-funded album cost $5000 to record, you're only eligible for a $5000 video.
As to what gets accepted, as always, it's a crapshoot. Only about ten percent of proposals get grants, and getting a VideoFACT grant doesn't guarantee airtime for your video on MuchMusic even though they technically paid for it. Says Sonic Unyon's Mark Milne, "We've done some with VideoFACT that never got played at all, and some that got played a lot: Thrush Hermit, Tricky Woo, Hayden, and going way back, Treble Charger. But others, like the New Grand or the Dirtmitts, were VideoFACT videos that got played maybe once or twice and that's it. It's very frustrating for bands who feel lucky enough to get the grant, and then the video doesn't get played."
There is also BravoFACT, run by MuchMusic's cable sibling. The stunning black-and-white clip for Martin Tielli's "I'll Never Tear You Apart" was funded by BravoFACT. Explains the video's director Justin Stephenson, "Bravo has a mandate for the performing arts, so it has to be music that sits on the artistic side of things. The way we worked it was that we were filming a live performance along with the shooting of the video. But it's difficult if you're an independent band outside the grant loop unless you have a record company that has money or your friend is a filmmaker with a fridge full of film."
CMT's Payday Glory Days
Country or roots artists also have Country Music Television (CMT), which used to be quite lucrative. In the beginning because they didn't have their own equivalent of VideoFACT, CMT paid you $450 a day if your video was in rotation (three times a day), up to a maximum of $18,500. Later, the CRTC allowed them to switch to a grant-based system similar to VideoFACT.
Marcus Rogers directed videos for Coal, Herald Nix and the Blue Shadows that went into CMT rotation. He says, "They used to play cool indie alt country when a good video came in, based on the quality of the video and band. Now they pre-select and provide a grant. This limits them to artists they are familiar with and to those with lobbying power and pretty much eliminates artists they have not already heard of and with no larger label. My videos got lots of play and the artists got paid because they were good. Now that they don't pay to play the artists there is no incentive to make spec videos for them, and we stopped completely. I don't even apply for their grants as I think they have no idea what's cool."
All Request, All the Time
"I think the internet will be the new way to watch music videos," says Marcus Rogers. "You can go to a website with 200 titles and pick the five you want to watch, instead of sitting in front of MuchMusic for three hours in the hope of seeing the video you want and being bombarded by commercials that are louder than most rock music."
Many websites have videos available for streaming, whether it's an indie label, a production company, or a video archive. Whatever you do, make sure you find Yo La Tengo's legendary clip for "Sugarcube."
www.ozmediagroup.com: Toronto production company responsible for clips by IRS, Choclair, LAL, Rheostatics, Martina Sorbara, Be Good Tanyas.
www.revolverfilms.com: Toronto production company responsible for clips by Sigur Rós, K-OS, Interpol and more.
www.clipland.com/index.shtml: Hundreds of videos from Aphex Twin to Zumpano.
launch.yahoo.com/musicvideos: Thousands of videos from A Tribe Called Quest to Zoobombs.
www.sonicunyon.com: Sonic Unyon recently put all of their videos up on their website for streaming, everything from Gorp to Tangiers.
www.unionlabelgroup.com/Avid/index.htm: Over a dozen videos by the Planet Smashers, Kingpins, Subb, and others.
www.hiphopca.com/video.html: A handful of clips by Monolith, Checkmate and D-Sisive.