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Against Music Videos: A Challenge to Music Listeners

Recently I was told that most people “listen” to music on You Tube. Hearing a song on You Tube and thinking you know what a real listening experience is like is the same as eating a quarter pounder and thinking you know how a real hamburger should taste.

First, some history. I was working in the marketing department at A & M records in 1978 when music videos started to become a thing. MTV would launch three years later in August of 1981.

I remember thinking how cool it was going to be to see artists perform their songs. Only that’s not what it turned out to be. One of the artists at A & M in the late seventies was Joe Jackson. He was the first person I heard express concern over the fact that music videos would disadvantage the less “beautiful people.”

For recording artists music was about to become as much or more about how you looked than how you sounded. Also increasingly important was weather or not an artist had a video producer who could make an innovative mini-movie out of their song.

There is no question that music videos in the eighties had a major impact on sales. One look no further than Michael Jackson’s Thriller for proof of that. So what is the problem?

With that, let me step a little further back and share some of my own experience.

When I was in high school I played double bass in the school orchestra. I can still remember how I would close my eyes and the music would stimulate my imagination bringing all sorts of visual scenes to my mind. It was like my own personal Fantasia.

In the same way, when I purchased a new album that I was excited about I would bring it home and go into my room. Once there I would shut the door, put on my headphones, close my eyes and give the songs my complete attention. The songs would spin movies in my mind, touching my emotions, and bringing my imagination to life.

This was one of the things I loved the most about music – its ability to carry me away to my own private world. The convergence of the songs meeting me where I was in my own life painted a unique canvas that was mine alone.

I believe the dependence on music videos is a killer of imagination.

I often say that when a song is played if there are 500 people listening there are 500 songs being heard. That’s because everyone hears a song through the prism of their own lived experience. If you “listen” with a music video you are letting one person’s interpretation of the song tell you what it means. Once seen it can’t be unseen. That vision of the song and it’s slant on the meaning takes up permanent residence in the viewer’s brain. As a result the song’s ability to have special meaning for you as a listener has been hijacked and disempowered. You’ll never know what that song might have meant to you had you heard it without the imagery.

In 1994 I wrote a song called See the Music on a little guitar/vocal project I did just for my friends. I didn’t realize how prescient it was, You Tube still being 11 years in the future.

“now we show them what they hear
they don’t have to trust their ears
now they see the music”

As a professional songwriter there have been many times when people come up to me and say, “I love the song you wrote about…” and then proceed to describe to me a song which bears no resemblance in my mind to anything I’ve ever written.

This underscores my point. People hear things differently. When you see a video instead of hearing a song now you have lost the opportunity to encounter the song on your own terms and decide what it means to you.

Back to the hamburger. Nobody would let McDonalds decide for them what a hamburger tastes like. So why do we let a video producer decide for us what a song means?

There are those reading this who will say, “Wait a minute Steve, doesn’t Music for the Soul have non-performance music videos. The answer is yes. We have produced a grand total of three non-performance music videos out of a catalog of over one hundred songs. Two of them were released three years after the initial audio release. Only one song in our entire catalogue debuted as a music video.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to listen without music videos. I have no illusions as to my ability to change the listening habits of music consumers. Pandora – no pun intended – is out of this particular box.

However, I have made the commitment that when we make the rare decision to do a video we will make sure that it works to support and reinforce the lyric content of the song, something many music videos don’t even pretend to attempt to do.

In closing, I mentioned a challenge in the sub-titling of this article. If you are willing.

I’d like to ask you to seek out some new music this week, some songs you haven’t heard before. Find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted. Put some headphones or earbuds in, close your eyes, and give your total attention to the music.

Take note of the visuals you see in your own mind’s eye; the emotions you feel.
When you do, you will have made the only music video that really matters. Yours.

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