Music in Motion: 15 Steps to Better Music Videos

Music video. Those words alone often conjure up images of over-moussed hair, gorgeous dancers, too-tight clothing and dizzying camera moves. It’s a realm of professional video production that can make or break careers–in front of and behind the camera.

Take, for example, David Fincher. Getting his feet wet directing low-budget television spots and music videos, his visual flair led to bigger gigs, like helming Aliens 3. Or the guys behind Tone Loc’s super-popular late 80’s hits. Sure, these videos were shot on film, but some for an unbelievable $300! One of these videos saw more airplay than those costing millions of dollars and featuring larger-that-life rock gods. And no sooner did this happen than those megabuck-spending musicians started hiring the low-budget producers that made Tone a star. Why did this occur? Because it was the idea behind the video that made it popular, not the money spent making it.

While many professionals have cut their teeth and gained valuable experience making music videos, it’s not an activity reserved for big-dollar players only. In fact, it’s a great training ground for those residing anywhere on the video production experience curve.

But how do you get started? How does one actually produce a music video? The following 15 steps should help novices and serious hobbyists alike in preparing and producing their music videos. Keep in mind that they are in no particular order, as music video production is a dynamic effort that includes most all of the steps at any stage of your involvement.

1. Find Musicians to Work With
Before you can learn how to shoot music videos, youll need to find some musicians who are willing to act as your guinea pigs. This shouldnt be too difficult, because local bands are about as common as mosquitoes. Just pick up any weekly or monthly local entertainment guide published in your area, and you should find plenty of local band appearances taking place in the near future.

Now it’s time for some phone work. You’ll want to call each of the venues listed, tell the club manager that you’re interested in booking whatever band it is that happens to be playing, and ask for the band manager’s phone number. Or you could just show up at one of their performances and introduce yourself.

Once youve contacted the band manager or a band member, ask them about the possibility of making a video for them. Be sure to point out the benefits of having a music video as part of a promotional portfolio for their act.

Another low-cost method of contacting bands is to post flyers. Record stores, college campuses, night clubs and bars, music/instrument shops and any other location that musicians may frequent are a good place to tape up your info. Keep the message short and simple, and remember to promote the video as a great way to gain exposure.

2. The Group, Their Music and Their Egos

It’s a fact of life that low-rent musical acts want to primp just as much as worldwide headliners. Just because they’re playing in their dad’s veterans hall on Sunday afternoons for the local teen population doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated like royalty, or so they think.

I first experienced this phenomenon during my second music video gig. My crew and I were to shoot a band in and around a college campus as they sang and played their acoustic instruments. The lead singer had planned to include a “babe” in the shoot, which was just a veiled excuse for the guy to kiss a girl on-screen. Well, he became unpleasant when the babe turned out less than he expected (and hey, he was no winner either!). Long story short–he didn’t want to tarnish his image by kissing the girl. This held up production for about three hours while a different woman was located. Needless to say, I wasn’t “eating” that extra time. My company tacked an extra $100 bucks on the bill and held release of the video until it was paid.

From my experiences, you may want to watch out for heavy metal and alternative acts. Country music folks and jazz combos tend to be easier to work with.

3. The Look
There are basically two types of music videos: concept and performance. A performance taping is literally a recording of the band as they perform the song. This could be either live or staged. A concept video involves using ideas and imagery instead of strictly band shots. Theres also a lot of videos that combine elements of both. The budget will usually determine the method you use, with performance being the cheaper of the two. Those with vivid imaginations and a lot of time and money should take time to develop concept videos for their clients. The band themselves will also have a lot to say about the “look” of the video. For good ideas, tune into MTV, VH-1, Much Music or BET.

4. The Script
Associated closely with the look is the script of the video. I don’t suggest powering up your camera and just getting random shots as the band rocks out. Carefully examine the lyrics and the music of the song youre working with. Look for clues as to what the audience should see at given times during the song. Guitar solos, a poignant phrase or repeated chorus are all areas where special shots may be appropriate. Plan many cover shots–extra material, above and beyond whats needed for the two-minute video–in your script as well. These will come in handy when its time to edit the whole thing together.

5. The Location
Regardless of whether you’re shooting a staged performance or some odd conceptual visuals, the location plays a big role in the success of the video. Many successful videos have made use of single rooms, wide fields, construction areas, nightclubs, cars and a hundred other single location sites.

The main reason to use one location is the savings in time and money. You’ll only need to unpack your gear once. Staying at a one place also limits the need for food breaks and extra gasoline to move from place to place.

6. The Wardrobe

O.K., so its cheaper and easier to let the band show up wearing whatever they want. But is that a good way to achieve a “look” for the piece? Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and most of the other pop-metal acts utilize a large wardrobe within their videos. Country acts will probably look best in rodeo attire, while jazz acts can vary widely in what could be termed "appropriate." In any case, try to come up with a clothing scheme that suits the song or the band.

You can probably outfit alternative acts at the local Goodwill. Flashy rocksters may need some custom costumes made, and if they’ve been around for a while they may already have them from stage appearances.

If the musicians cannot come up with their own garb, add any purchases or creations to your total price for the job, if you happen to be charging for the service. If not, just go with what youve got; many a big-name act has appeared on video in jeans and t-shirts.

7. Make it Legal

“Yeah, it’s fine,” is what one of my country music band clients told me as I proceeded to tape their performance of an Elvis tune. Now I wasn’t real up on copyright laws, but I was pretty sure you couldn’t record cover versions of copyrighted material. I went ahead and did the job, with the band promising they were only going to use the tape to get bookings, but I still had qualms about it.

Before you tape anything, be sure the band is performing an original composition and the person who wrote the song and the music is aware of the production. The Elvis example may seem obvious, but it happens on a smaller scale as well. One rock act had us tape a song, only to have it barred from viewing because the member who wrote and copyrighted the music was no longer a member.

8. The Format
Use the highest quality acquisition format at your disposal for a music video shoot. If VHS is your only option (not S-VHS or Hi8), you may consider going for an artsy black and white look. By killing the colors, the signal degradation suffered through the intensive editing will be less apparent. If a mixer is available, try colorizing the footage for camouflage.

9. The Shoot

If you’ve never had the opportunity to hang around with musicians while they play or practice, then you’re in for a lot of fun. Youll find that its a pretty loose, though professional, atmosphere. And adding the concept of video makes it really crazy.

It’s best to try and assert your authority immediately. There has to be a director, and that person is you. And the only way to skillfully direct is by preparing yourself for every eventuality. That means having the script, the budget, the locations, extras, wardrobe and a hundred other details all in order before turning on one lamp. People will run rampant if you don’t immediately take charge. I know from experience.

You’ll also want to limit the number of people on the set. If each musician drags along a friend and several acquaintances, it gets crowded quickly. It’s tough to keep a large group of people quiet and in control.

Go over the song several times as a dry run. You can be holding the camera, so that both you and the performers know each others planned moves. The easiest method to use when creating a performance video is to have the band perform the song multiple times, with you shooting something different each time. With only one camera, it’d be difficult to get all the coverage you need in one take. The multiple recordings allow individual band member close-ups, master shots and other much-needed cover shots.

Follow a prearranged script if shooting conceptual footage, sticking to a time schedule. The band and their crew will most likely get bored quick with the required repetition, so be sure to clue them in on this fact before the shoot begins.

10. Lip Syncing

Part of the magic behind a video is that it appears as if the musicians are actually performing the song as the tape rolls. If you actually did tape a performance, the results would be less than pleasant. Beyond the unavoidable bad live sound quality, the chances of the band performing the song exactly the same twice or more in a row is nearly impossible. That’s why you need to lip sync it.

Get an audio recording of the song youre working with. Use CD if available. The CD players outputs should feed into your VCR’s audio inputs. Also, be sure to connect an audio monitor to the CD player. As the song plays through the speaker, the band listens and lip syncs the words and music. At the same time, you’ll be getting a reference signal on the audio tracks of all the takes.

11. Other Audio Requirements

Whether you take the footage to a professional edit bay or simple living room VCR and stereo system, you’ll need the best recording possible of the song. Many local acts are putting their tunes onto CDs for promotional purposes.

If theyve never recorded their music before, they’ll need to get into a studio. Otherwise, the only option is to record their best performance as a master shot before you start shooting the video footage. Dub this track onto an audio tape, then continue with the process outlined above. Alert the band to the dubious audio quality of such a technique.

12. Editing

You can create a decent music video using only a camcorder, CD player and a VHS or S-VHS VCR with audio/video dub capabilities. Patch the output of your CD player to the audio input of your VCR, and copy the song onto the linear audio track. Now take the video output of your camcorder into your VCR, and use the video insert function on your VCR to record the original lip-synced video clips one shot at a time. Try to monitor the audio from both tapes to determine where to cut and insert your video clips.

This method wont give you hi-fi sound because youve recorded the music only onto the somewhat low-fi linear audio tracks. In addition, this method isnt very accurate for syncing audio to video, so try and avoid too many close-ups of the band. Using mostly long shots and cutaways (shots that don’t require precise timing) will lessen the visual impact of sloppy sync.

Pros use slick tape-based editing systems with high fidelity sound and timecode capability for accuracy. If you can gain access to such a system, go for it. Even better is a computer-based non-linear editor–this lets you really stretch your creative wings.

There are no rules in music video–and that’s the great part of the production. It’s a very free medium, allowing your creativity to shine through like no other video service can. (Really, how creative can you get with a wedding?)

13. To Charge or Not to Charge?

So are you gonna make any money with music videos? At first, it would probably be best to go the amateur route. By making a few free band videos, you can hone your skills, establish some contacts in the local music industry and gain some footage for your demo tape.

But if you should eventually charge for the service, heres a quick-and-dirty guide: for one song, with all footage shot in a two-hour period at a single location, mastered on a high-band format for final delivery on VHS–charge the band $300-$500. That includes all editing, you and at least two other production crew members, the shoot, and a couple of packaged, VHS copies. Again, this is just a guideline; youll have to charge what your market will bear.

14. Other Deals

If youre on the professional side of music video, consider this: you’ve got a band. You’ve got their music. You’ve got time, locations and tape. Why limit yourself to shooting only one music video? I’ve found that it’s often very profitable to shoot other projects during such events that you can then use at a later date.

For example, you might be able to create a TV spot for a local music store using the band. This happened at a shoot I did in a large shopping complex. After the music video, the band moved in front of a record store for a local cable commercial shoot. It was very popular on the air, working well for the store and the band who gained many gigs from that spot.

15. Create Your Own TV Show

You can put together a music video program for leased access or public access very easily once you’ve worked with a couple of bands. A simple way to structure it is to have a feature act, showing one or two of their videos plus some interview footage packaged with several other bands clips. Keeping it local distinguishes it from MTV and all of the other national shows out there. And it’s a good selling point to put in front of the band’s noses.

Producing music videos is a fun and potentially profitable experience. You’ll meet interesting people, listen to interesting music and probably see some interesting things. (You’ll know what I mean after your first shoot!) It takes talent to pull one off successfully, but you needn’t be a professional to give it a try. Preparedness and control are the keys to keeping your costs down, but don’t let them get in the way of creativity or opportunities for other music-related projects.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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