If you are a self-produced musician or in a band, a music video is an excellent way to raise your profile among your fans. Not only that, it’s a great way to find new fans. I can’t overstate how much a solid music video can move the dial. Audiences continue to make consistent moves towards consuming all their favorite music online. What excites new and old listeners alike is seeing your music applied to the visual medium. Folks will respond—even if the YouTube algorithm doesn’t bless you with magic fairy dust. A music video can deepen a song’s context or complement the music by titillating the senses. And at its finest, it can provide a glorious synesthetic experience to the viewer.
If you’re like me though, you don’t have the networks or resources of say, Janelle Monae. Which is why you haven’t finished your dance homage to the feminine energy out in the blistering desert heat. You likely don’t have the hours necessary to make a complex choreographed video at all. (Early-2000s OK GO—eat your heart out). If you had either, chances are you wouldn’t have ended up reading this article. (If you are Janelle Monae, what’s up? Take me on tour with you). So let me be clear, as a musician who works with a limited budget: making a music video is about practicality. Let’s go through some tips and approaches that should give you some food for thought.
1. Use practical effects
The most practical effect is still the trusty edit. The band Palm utilizes this for their song Dog Milk, which has a particularly unique time signature. The edits help reinforce this unusual timing. Cuts timed to musical bars enhance pivotal moments during the refrain.
This Khruangbin video’s concept is that a sweet old granny is dancing. Does it get better than that? I would argue not.
Saintseneca uses practical affects to achieve a visual metaphor. This video portrays the fog of isolation by sticking the singer inside of a giant balloon. As he walks around public spaces, the balloon obscures the outside world. But it also creates an abnormal barrier preventing anyone from getting even close. At the end, the protagonist looks as if he hopes to sink to the bottom of the pool. His personal bubble somehow keeps him afloat. In celebrating his isolation, it’s become a salve.
In this video for the band Goon, a psychedelic kaleidoscopic effect drives the mood. A glass prism and an cell phone camera are all it took to create this visual. Pretty neat!
2. Use stock or public domain footage
They Might Be Giants have done this to wonderful affect many times. (Particularly for their Dial-A-Song series). Unique evocative scenes can emerge when overlaying two pieces of existing footage. Do the visuals have to do with the deep, hidden meaning of your song? Who knows? It’s enough for a music video to just look cool. I went with this approach myself for two of the songs off my last EP.
In the video for my song Willow Tree, parts of the car chase and crash in this old film cut to match energetic parts of the song. A great resource you can use for old footage is https://archive.org/details/stock_footage
In this video 90s anti-drug ads aimed at kids are a source of fodder for Malik Elarbi. The irony isn’t lost when he croons “I make music that they can smoke weed to.” A preteen high-fiving a power ranger after turning down drugs pretty funny even sober. Needless to say, the PSA’s funders had something else in mind.
3. Do it in a day—and don't overthink it
Innate proof that a video with zero effects and budget can still prove interesting. The band members act out the lyrics with blithe expressions. Sharpie-drawn expository details make it even funnier. By leaning into their inherent cheapness the video turns what would have been eye-rolling shortcutting into hilarity.
Setting up a bunch of furniture in a room might not seem to impart much meaning at first. But laying bare one’s possessions in a room is a stroke of genius for this video. The day passes, time seems to move faster, and then footage, in fact, speeds up. At the end of the day the room is empty and our protagonist finds themselves alone again. Without their possessions, much as the way we leave this life.
Exemplary of the greatest low-budget kind of shoot: the band is simply hanging out with their friends, continuously overlaying “character” names with a typeface that evokes an 80s sitcom. Prince Daddy & The Hyena milk the campiness and visual comedy, then ferment that milk into declicious punk cheese.
4. Don't do it on your own
So, you have your heart set on something else: CGI, animation or complex dance routine. Your bassist had this great idea for a music video where the band fights their own clones. Shouldn’t be hard to find some convincing body doubles, no?
If this is your first time making a video, you should temper your expectations now. It’s going to take you a long time to master the skills necessary to even get a reasonable-looking result. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but movie effects are a multi-billion-dollar industry. Even with hundreds of designers and programmers you can still have the result not look right.
To the self-produced out there: remember how long it took you to learn how to mix your own music? To master compression? Remember the first time you understood how to do a simple crossfade? How long did it click?
Consider ears are easier to convince than eyes. For example, in mixing, we often are trying to do one of a few things. Shape the character of a sound, move a sound in stereo space, or make it appear “louder” compared to other sounds. Creating the aural illusion of objects passing through stereo space is already complex. Now imagine the factors in generating the same visual illusion!
Visual enhancements alone will entail light balance, shadow, color treatment. Camera angle and movement are now factors as well. If this is your first time considering these notions, I should remind you of my premise. Practical effects are always cheaper than digital effects. The second cheapest are the digital effects you yourself learn.
Now, consider that you, a musician, think it right that you’re paid. Your streams, merch and performances—these can make and break your month-to-month. Video editors have similar expectations, and creators should have solidarity with each other. You may not want to rule out finding a creative partner or pro-bono collaborator, of course. The search for this match will be, in some cases, as time-consuming as making the video itself.
Chances are, if you’re making a music video by yourself, chances are you’re the producer, too. If not, you might have paid to have your music recorded, mixed and mastered. If you found a friend to help—in either case—you already know that foundational piece of the puzzle. It’s damn hard to do creative work alone. If you’re like me, you fluctuate from self-criticism to mild delusions of grandeur. Couple that with the innate learning curves and you could be setting yourself up to fail.
On my last video, I had the chance to work with Rafael Bonilla Jr., who had done a video for the group Glass Animals. It was humbling to see him work—he provided excellent art direction. I provided some context on the song, and we spoke at length about the themes. The wondrousness of the result is a testament to understanding one’s own limitations. If you asked me: “Can you make a music video on your own?”, I’d say, “Sure, give me 5 years”. Of course, it depends what you want—and what you think you can achieve. But, at the end of the day, I’m a working creative—which means I’m spread thin. Doing it by yourself is possible, sure. But others’ creativity can open new paths unconsidered.
No matter the undertaking, I recommend you find mentors, trusted colleagues and critics. Foremost, these should be people who you trust and keep a tight feedback loop with. Second, question your own processes and methods. It’s important to understand that you can’t get close to near-perfect without reflection. Lowering your standards and making loads of mistakes is the path forward. Your ego can bruise, but you should relish those moments. They will lead to new understandings, as long as you remain open to it.
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