SubMachena are not always as dark as this, but when they do dark, they do it right. It astounds me that this video was made without a single professional actor, cameraman, director, gaffer, bestboy or keygrip. History is an ever-turning wheel, fashions and trends are as accurate an indicator of what stage of the cycle we’re at as any. I write this sub-Matrix rot mainly because I was drinking coffee in a bar yesterday which had VH1 playing on a telly in the background, and I couldn’t help but have my eye drawn by the music videos that were playing thereon. There was a decent gamut of them, mainly from the 80s and early 90s. One that stood out was Nena’s 99 Red Balloons. If you’re as old as I am, you’ll have no problem remembering the song – it was number one in the singles chart for so long that Top of the Pops actually played the original German-language version of the song just to break the monotony of the song’s seemingly unbreakable run as the chart-topping final track played on the show. The song had an unforgettable bassline and a manically energetic performance on vocals by a girl who made up for any lack of raw talent with her sheer enthusiasm for the task in hand. Pure pop, it also caught the Reagan-era zeitgeist by choosing the scenario of mutually-assured nuclear destruction as its subject matter. What was interesting, seeing the promo video again for the first time in about twenty years, was the sheer cheapo amateurishness of the whole thing. The budget, which can’t have been more than a hundred deutchmarks, was mostly spent on filling a field with smoke and plopping a few balloons (multi-coloured, there didn’t even seem to be enough cash to pick just the red ones out of a big bag) around the place. The singer and band wander around the scene, attempting to be picturesque. That’s about it. This song sold MILLIONS of copies, more than Lady GaGa’s entire catalogue. And it sold them on the strength of the SONG, not the controversy surrounding the promo video, not on the cut of the bikini that the singer might have worn or the strength of their live following or how innovative their social web presence was. It was a good song, people bought it. That was all.
Another standout on the VH1 show was Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine. Again, the video cost about tenpence to make. This time it was made in a studio, just the band making a video about, making a video. Cool-looking people hanging around in the background, a cheap cloth backdrop behind the drummer, but essentially – long haired blokes posing about with their instruments. But the song, oh my, the song! It matters not an atom whether you like rock or not, the opening guitar figure of that song burns itself into the memory like a cattlebrand, and it just builds up from there. Another song that sold millions. Can you IMAGINE a metal track selling units in the mainstream market now? Can you remember the last UK number-one that wasn’t marketed predominantly at the under-15s? (Rage Against the Machine was a protest, so doesn’t count.)
See, what’s gone wrong is that the video is now becoming more important than the song, and that’s screwed. The last time that happened we ended up with Duran Duran’s lame Reflex, then Peter Gabriel’s pretty-forgettable Sledgehammer and a spate of mediocre songs tied to the monthly press-release describing the promo video as ‘the most expensive ever made’. It took grunge and acid-house and US punk to clear that dross out of the system, and it’s still not fully purged. The problem now is that, because streaming sites and P2P servers and YouTube and blogs divert so much of the attention an act gains into non-revenue areas, the amount of hype it takes to deliver a revenue from music is triple what it was in the 80s. Any act releasing a record now has to factor into its equations the effect that all those lost sales, whether they be lost to streaming or P2P; or to other entities such as phone credit, video gaming, reduced discretionary spending. That means that only the most sickeningly over-hyped products have any chance of making the kind of economic returns that need to be made by the entities that create the hype. In a nutshell – the amount of publicity and promo needed to propel Lady GaGa to number one costs millions. It brings in millions too, but the investments are enormous. The only bodies with that kind of investment capital are the major labels, so anyone who feels that they are helping bring about the demise of the majors by filesharing have got the wrong end of the stick altogether. They’re actually doing the very opposite – bringing the majors to the point where they are only willing to invest in a reduced number of acts which they know can be monetised. Right now, a couple of million invested in a GaGa video makes a whole lot more economic sense than spreading that money over five acts. Five acts will need just as much effort each to break through the audience apathy surrounding new acts. There is no easy way to break this cycle. If people really want the major labels to go away, for whatever reason they see fit, the only way for that to happen is by buying music by non-major acts. No low-budget act or label can afford to take the kind of losses to non-revenue music sources that the majors can soak up. Put your faith back in the power of a great piece of music and try to bear in mind that it doesn’t matter if it’s GaGa schlock or even if it’s highly-aware MIA killing redheads – in the end, these are just promotional videos, their job is just to promote the tune, not replace it.