From helping artists to damaging an industry: Understanding the role of music videos in the streaming era
If YouTube is so ubiquitous, then is a music video essential for scoring a hit these days, like it was back in the 1980s during the early days of MTV?
In the Indian Music Industry’s recently released Digital Music Study, the name YouTube is mentioned over a dozen times. According to the study, for which 2,000 internet users between the ages of 16 and 64 were surveyed in Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and Pune, 97 percent of the visitors of the video streaming site use it for music. YouTube also takes up the largest share of consumers’ listening time (14 percent) and is cited by more than half the respondents (52 percent) as the reason why they don’t pay to stream music. It’s also mentioned as the main source for the nefarious activity of stream ripping and one of the chief contributors to the ‘value gap’.
The findings were similar for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Music Consumer Insight Report, which covered a similar demographic in 18 of the world’s largest music markets. According to the report, video streaming makes up over half of on-demand streaming and 47 percent of this 52 percent is spent on YouTube. The site, 35 percent of the consumers surveyed said, has “anything they want to listen to” so they don’t feel the need to subscribe to an audio streaming service.
If YouTube is so ubiquitous, then is a music video essential for scoring a hit these days, like it was back in the 1980s during the early days of MTV? The answer, it appears, is that it depends on the genre. All the biggest hits on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart over the last year have benefitted from buzzy videos, perhaps none more so than those by Drake whose hat-trick of hits broke a record for the most weeks at No 1 in a calendar year by a single act.
Each of his videos had their own USP. He gave away a million dollars to strangers in ‘God’s Plan’ and featured a number of female celebrities in ‘Nice For What’, a trick repeated by Maroon 5 in ‘Girls Like You’, the song that finally wrestled the top spot away from Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’, the tune that inspired the Kiki Challenge and generated countless viral clips even before its official video was released.
While hip-hop has thrived in the age of audio streaming, music videos often provide tracks that extra push they need to reach the top of the charts. Drake, of course, is huge enough to hit No 1 with each of those singles but his run of 29 weeks at the top was made possible by the success of his videos. Similarly, Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ became a chart-topper on account of the massive views for its essay-generating provocative video, which were never quite matched in numbers by sales or radio airplay.
It’s notable though that Drake didn’t make any videos between ‘Hotline Bling’ and ‘God’s Plan’. Could it be that he was just too embarrassed after the former inspired thousands of memes? But then he realised that even though he managed to get to No 1 without a video for ‘One Dance’ in 2016, YouTube was just too big to ignore in 2018?
But it’s not just hip-hop, which has dominated both the Billboard Hot 100 and YouTube’s country charts for the United States, for which videos are vital. The growth in the global popularity of Latin music has been attributed to YouTube, the global chart of which is regularly topped by stars such as Bad Bunny, J Balvin and Ozuna. Cardi B enlisted two of those three for her summer smash ‘I Like It’, aided it with a vibrant video and expectedly scored the biggest hit of her career, even if it didn’t quite become the next ‘Despacito’. And while pop has lost a substantial amount of its fizz, at least on the US charts, over the last year, the genre’s recent best performers, Camilla Cabello’s ‘Havana’ and Maroon 5’s ‘Girls Like You’ are both songs that are hard to separate from their hit videos.
In India, because of the dominance of Bollywood, we have always associated music with visuals but YouTube, despite the fact that playback singers Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan and Kumar Sanu are fixtures on its global Top Artists chart, may have actually done more damage to the Hindi film soundtrack industry. Because of the ease with which it’s possible to watch a hit now, fans no longer feel the need to buy a ticket to the cinema to experience it in all its big-screen glory. In fact, some of the most viewed Bollywood videos of all time are from flop films, for instance, ‘Nashe Si Chadh Gayi’ from Befikre, while some of the highest grossing movies in recent history, like Sanju for example, did not have any chart-busting tunes.
Outside of Bollywood, videos seem to be a necessity in the Punjabi pop and Indian hip-hop scenes. Whenever rapper Divine has released a new track, it’s arrived in the form of a video. And when MCs Emiway and Raftaar traded diss tracks over the last couple of weeks, they didn’t just upload audio clips but videos.
Though the cost of making videos has fallen considerably in the recent past, most other Indian independent artists don’t feel it’s always worth the time, money and effort, especially when they make most of their income playing live. Videos for them are marketing tools. When guitarist and vocalist Dhruv Visvanath released his album The Lost Cause, the anthropomorphic mop-featuring video for the single ‘Wild’ that preceded it got as much press as the album. But singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad, who is known for his eye-catching videos, didn’t put out one for his new EP cold/mess, one of this year’s most popular releases.
On the other hand, Hindi rock band The Local Train, whose sophomore set Vaaqif is also among 2018’s biggest albums, has been producing videos even before they released their debut album. The quartet credits YouTube for exponentially increasing their fan base. Like Kuhad, The Local Train, which frequently sells out venues, have put audio tracks of their albums and EPs on the website. They’re clearly aware of what might just be a uniquely Indian phenomenon: that of using YouTube as an audio streaming service.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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