No Respect: Music-Video Directors Fight Back

As the music industry struggles to recover from the impact of streaming services, is it taking music video directors down with it?

September 30, 2019

In early September, Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and hundreds of CEOs from companies such as American Express and Target signed a lofty statement outlining the fundamental activities of a corporation. Commitments included “investing in our employees,” “dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers,” and “respect[ing] the people in our communities.”

Not long after, presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who’s stumping on the promise of giving one-thousand, no-questions-asked dollars to every American on a monthly basis so they can, he argues, stop living in crisis and start living with self-respect, was profiled by The Daily, where he repeated his election-trail mantra. “The goal,” he said then, “should be to try and optimize, not for this GDP measurement or stock market profitability and prices, [but] for how we’re doing — our health, our mental health, our childhood success rates, how clean our air and water are.”

Are American companies starting to see the wider benefits of investing in the dignity of people who aren’t celebrities or billionaires? If so, it'd be a 180-degree swivel from the time of economist Milton Friedman, who argued that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”  (literally the title of his 1970 New York Times Magazine think piece) and that anyone advocating otherwise is “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.”

Maybe the old “socialism” jab doesn’t have the same sting today, despite what conservatives may believe, because research is starting to show the economic benefits that businesses enjoy when they invest in the good of all. A recent study by academics at the University of Chicago and Washington University revealed that,  when a company frames its goals as socially responsible, they’re able to attract more productive workers with better skill sets because the employees believe they’re making positive contributions to the world. Social responsibilities, the study concluded, should be viewed by corporations as “an important part of profit maximization."

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In a glaring but sadly not surprising omission, none of the CEOs who signed the statement in September are from the “big three” that control around 80 percent of the music industry: no Stephen Cooper from Warner, no Lucian Grange from Universal, no Doug Morris from Sony. And the fact that they’re out of step with other captains of industry when it comes to corporate social responsibility has begun to show.

Where? In a growing movement among music video directors representing this misalignment. This small but visible faction of the music industry is calling not for increased wages or benefits, but simply for respect. Their campaign has kicked off with modest goals, but it highlights the unfortunate fact that labels don’t yet see what other corporations already do: that playing nice makes financial sense.

Turn down for squat

Last year, director Daniel Kwan, one-half of the directing team Daniels, tweeted that he and Daniel Scheinert had, all things considered, made about $4 per hour when making the video for DJ Snake and Lil’ Jon’s “Turn Down For What?” He said he and Scheinert were lucky; at least they’d been paid. Most music video opportunities come with such low budgets but sky-high expectations that directors typically put their own fee back into the cost of production and walk away without a dime. At the time of the tweet, the video in question had more than 800 million views on YouTube, the ad revenue from which all went to Columbia Records (owned by Sony).

The response to Kwan’s tweet was huge. Fellow music video directors recounted times they’d worked for no pay, received no credit, felt humiliated by pitch processes, and generally been treated like dirt by labels. Kwan noted that music video directors are the only directors without a union — music video productions become union when budgets exceed $250,000, which is rare these days.

“Whenever you start talking about money, people close doors.”

In the wake of his tweetstorm, Kwan formed We Direct Music Videos (WDMV), a group that seeks to push the “music video process to be more respectful and transparent” and to “minimize free work.“ Notably, their first initiatives focus on dignity.

“Whenever you start talking about money,” says WDMV’s Maegan Houang, “people close doors.” She says previous attempts to organize on behalf of music video directors came and went, their movements falling apart whenever topics like residuals were put on the table. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) hasn’t jumped on board with WDMV either, but it’s partly due to “a lack of interest in the past,” according to the group, and partly because the WDMV isn’t actively pursuing it. For the time being, they believe introducing better standards is what will best serve the directors facing mistreatment, many of whom are non-DGA and work with non-union budgets. The group thinks they’ll eventually get to the money issues, but they want to start with small, attainable steps. 

“We’re not asking them to reinvent the wheel,” says Dilly Gent, a freelance video commissioner and executive producer acting as an adviser to WDMV. “All we're actually asking is for the commissioning process to go back to how it was in the nineties.”

I heart the 90s

Gent knows how it was in the nineties. At Parlophone Records between 1992 and 1999, she commissioned videos for Radiohead, Tina Turner, Morrissey, and Blur. The industry was much different then. Music fans relied on curated platforms like MTV’s 120 Minutes, a program dedicated to alternative music, and labels could trace a direct line from the amount of airtime videos received to brisk album sales. 

Life was good, and it showed. The passion of directors who loved the music video format was valued by labels and successfully harnessed into some of the most widely viewed and artistically groundbreaking videos of all time: Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s The Limit,” Sonic Youth’s “Bull In the Heather,” and Missy Elliot’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” These videos were career-making for directors Chris Cunningham, Mark Romanek, Spike Jonze, Tamra Davis, and Hype Williams, respectively.

Gent attributes the magic of that era not only to the luxury of experimentation afforded by higher budgets ($50,000 was considered a low budget then; most videos now are made for much less), but also to simpler things like time and trust. As commissioner, she could invest in her artists, bond with them, and learn their aesthetic. She spent days researching new directorial talent in an effort to match them with her artists — and her bosses trusted her to do so without too much intervention from higher up. The handful of directors she’d tap per video would have time to thoughtfully hone their pitches. When one director had been selected, she'd inform the others that the label had gone in a different direction, not only to maintain relationships with them for future opportunities, but also because it was the decent thing to do.

Today, those practices seem like relics of a bygone era.

Ripe for the picking

The music-video format is a rare creative opportunity for an emerging filmmaker. Often, the only requirement for helming a video is knowing the band and having a camera. If the video turns out well — the director has talent, the concept is solid, the label likes the video, and the band has a following — the end product will be seen by a much larger audience than directors could hope for with something like a student film.

That’s what happened for Aaron Brown in 2009. “My buddy Ben [Chappell] said ‘Yo, I’m coming [to San Francisco] with this fancy movie camera,’” he recalls. They thought shooting music videos would be a good use of the Red One, then new to the market, and spent a week lining up their musician friends, including Cass McCombs and the duo Girls, for the shoots.

The videos ended up impressing the bands’ labels, as well as coinciding with and contributing to each artist’s climb up the indie rock ladder. They also marked the start of Brown and Chappell’s careers. They’ve since shot videos (both together and separately) for King Krule and Arctic Monkeys, in addition to directing commercials and short films. But money, Brown says, was never the inciting factor.

“I just never expected to get paid.”

Vince Haycock [, who's directed videos for Lana del Rey, Florence + the Machine, and U2,] had told me he’d never been paid for a music video and that he always put his rate back into the video, so that was one of the first things I ever heard,” says Brown. “I just never expected to get paid.”

Cat Solen, who now directs Adult Swim’s The Shivering Truth, tells a similar story. “I did music videos for eight years straight, and it was, technically, my primary source of income,” she says. “But I wasn’t making any money at all.” Solen side-hustled as a prop-builder and bellhop, as well as cleaned Disneyland rides, while simultaneously directing videos for major acts, such as Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sia.

Part of the reason WDMV isn’t starting with financial demands may stem from a self-awareness that money isn’t the primary motivator for many video directors. They understand that the music industry has been on a fifteen-ish year quest to find its footing after MTV prioritized Floribama teen mom shows, and the Internet broke the industry’s entire economic model, so budgets are still, by and large, a source of instability. Still, in spite of this, directors still want the chance to make their art and not be taken advantage of in the process. 

Frantic romantics

According to the researchers from the University of Chicago and Washington University, not only are skilled workers willing to work more productively when they believe they’re working for good, they’re also willing to work for less pay. Brown and Solen fit this mold. They were attracted to music videos in the first place because music was meaningful to them, and they believed in the artform.

120 Minutes was on Sunday night growing up, a school night,” says Lana Kim, co-founder of the production company Ways & Means. “I would program my VCR and run home the next day just to watch whatever they aired. Then, I’d transfer all my favorite videos onto a compilation tape. [Music videos] are just something I’ve always cared about deeply.”

However, the romance associated with music videos is a double-edged sword. The very fact that filmmakers, their crews, and their production companies will work for much less than they would on commercials or feature films is also why record labels can exploit them.

“This ‘cool’ factor has to go,” says Jennifer Juniper Stratford, who’s directed videos for John Maus, Cage the Elephant, and Gerard Way. “There’s this stigma that ‘You’re lucky to get to work with the bands. You’re lucky to get to be creative. This is a great stepping-stone for up-and-coming whatever.’ But the fact is, work is work, and hours are hours.”

Pitch and moan

On September 2, We Direct Music Videos rolled out its first set of guidelines aimed at making the production of music videos more civil. They began with the pitch protocol, which, by all accounts, is a mess.

“I remember an email I got with a track and brief from a [video] commissioner,” recalls Kim, who, before forming her own company, was an executive producer at The Directors Bureau, a production company founded by directors Roman Coppola and Mike Mills. “They forgot to bcc everyone, and you saw that they had sent this to ten to twelve different production companies, along with several independent reps. If you can imagine all the directors that each company represents, it’s a lot.”

By soliciting treatments from potentially forty directors for one video, the commissioner cast a wide net, but building treatments is intensely time consuming. They’re often expected to include several fleshed-out ideas illustrated with compelling visuals and interesting layouts, sometimes including GIFs or reference videos. Directors can spend three to five days generating these on spec, while production companies might spend thousands of dollars making one with an outside treatment writing company.

To Gent, this wide-net tactic, now commonplace in the industry, indicates that the commissioner didn’t have the chance to spend time with the artist and, as a result, had no idea what kind of concept she was looking for. [Note: We attempted to interview several current in-house video commissioners at major labels for this article, but all declined.] Instead of having the opportunity to narrow trajectories before reaching out to directors, the commissioner instead chose to rely on the directors to do that part of her job — effectively volunteering hours of free labor.

“Then what’s frustrating,” says Kim, “is that you won’t hear back that you lost the job. You’ll keep following up, keep following up, and oftentimes they just, like, drop off the face of the planet, and you’ll find out from a crew member that they’ve gone into production with the video.”

Source: We Direct Music Videos

Houang recalled a similar incident in which a director she knew was green lit for a project but was then called back a week later to see if he was available to edit a video. When he looked into it, it was for the same video he was supposed to have directed. WDMV is hoping its guidelines will stem this kind of treatment.

Essentially, they’re asking commissioners to reach out to as many directors as they want but to ask for just a one-page concept in response. From that document, they should then have the artist select one to five concepts they feel align with their vision. The commissioner then has a creative briefing call, where they ask for full treatments from the selected candidates. When the artist eventually decides on the director to hire, the other candidates should then be told they lost the bid.

Additionally, WDMV asks for transparency. Directors want to know who else is vying for the job so they can hone their pitches accordingly. “If I know, for example, that the Daniels are my competition,” says Brown, “I’d probably consider [a] more documentary approach since I know that’s more my thing and not theirs.”

Bursting bubbles

In some ways, music videos are a victim of their own success. Because of their power to elevate and codify a performer’s image — and because of the outrageous budgets of iconic videos of yore — unrealistic expectations around quality are firmly in place, though there’s no money shoring them up. This discrepancy is a primary reason directors end up working for free.

Solen, for example, was only twenty-one when she began making music videos. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was in Chicago and had no guidance. It took me a long time to learn how to say, ‘Are you still going to like it if I don’t get it exactly like Transformers?’” she says.

WDMV’s next target is to create awareness around what the organization calls “the real costs of making music videos.” That is, what the label’s budget is versus what the actual cost would be if favors hadn’t been called in or fees weren’t voluntarily slashed. WDMV hopes that by doing this, it can cut down on free labor and educate its audience on what is and isn’t realistic for a production.

“We want people to still be free to do everything they feel is necessary to make their videos good,” says Houang. “But we want to make those choices, not expectations.”

Brain drain

Gent believes that because of the general disrespect felt by directors in the industry, the real talent is going elsewhere, which is unfortunate timing. In the absence of cassettes and CDs, music videos offer one of the few visual connections we have to music, arguably making them more relevant than ever (although vinyl is making a comeback).

“When young directors are shooting $20,000 videos and putting the $2,000 that would be their fee back into the budget, they can’t survive here,” Gent says. “Why should they work for free for the music industry when they could work for free to make their own short film or something else that’s specifically targeted toward getting commercial work?”

JJ Stratford on the set of John Maus's Touchdown video

Kim describes the general burnout that she experienced working on music videos: “We all began asking for and doing favors left and right, pouring blood, sweat, and tears into each project. It’s really draining when you have to do that over and over and over again. It takes a toll.” These days, she won’t consider producing a music video unless she loves the director and band, and the budget can execute the concept.

Brown, Solen, and Stratford all relayed the same kind of frustrations. Brown and Stratford will only do music videos now when they trust and connect with the artist. Solen will only do them when she’s a single bid (i.e., when she’s specifically asked for), as she was for Tierra Whack’s “Unemployed,” her first music video after a long hiatus.  

“I never used to have [directors] going only on a single bid,” says Gent. “I don’t even think I heard that term until the last eight years. Now it's much more common.” 

Souled out

WDMV hopes all directors — newbies and veterans alike — will adopt its guidelines. A tall order, to be sure, but it’s exactly what needs to happen for their appeals to be met. “It is very, very hard for a director that's trying to pay their rent to say, ‘No, I'm only going to give you a paragraph for a pitch,’” says Gent. “Now, if every single director in the entire industry followed [suit], of course the industry would change . . .  Sadly, that is what they have to do.” 

Music video directors don’t receive any portion of the streaming revenue their videos rake in for the labels — but that’s perhaps a fight for a different time and a different entity, like the DGA. By leading with a demand for better standards, WDMV acknowledges that directors are primarily in it for the love. Responding to their suppliers’ demands for respect is literally the least major labels could do. Beefing up their corporate integrity would set an example throughout the music world and help attract and retain talent.

People still watch music videos, but without curated platforms dedicated to them, they have to know what to hunt for. Maybe infusing goodwill into the industry could tip Millennial and Gen Z fans and artists towards doing something in the industry’s favor, instead of constantly looking for ways around the labels. After all, according to Forbes, those generations are “belief-driven buyers” who like to spend money on brands that have a soul and stand for something. In a time when the music industry is struggling to adapt and is throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks, fostering a culture of respect could be a low-stakes investment with massive, society-rippling returns.

Kerry McLaughlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. In the past, she wrote and edited at various magazines and websites, including Allure, XLR8R, and Vice. In recent years, she’s worked in narrative and documentary film as an editor, script supervisor, and researcher. Besides that, she teaches a media literacy workshop to kids, volunteers with the homeless and developmentally disabled communities, hikes long distances, and climbs tall mountains.
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