Robby Starbuck on 'The Problem with Music Videos'

Posted by Doug Klinger on October 26, 2012 in Interviews

Staff Post

Last week, director and RSM founder Robby Starbuck published an article called "The Problem with Music Videos." In it, he talks about how artists these days will often take over a music video, which can discourage the director and lead to an inferior product. While he maintains that most of the artists he’s worked with aren't like this, he labels others in the industry as “overzealous control-freaks,” and refers to artist-directed music videos as “self-obsessed nonsense.” We reached out to Robby to ask him why he decided to write the article, and have him expand on the ideas behind it.

Robby Starbuck

Doug: What inspired you to write this article?

Robby: Honestly, it’s not even a personal thing for me. It doesn’t bother me. I have always had a really good balance of knowing how the whole system works and everything. I’ve always been okay with it. Since we’ve expanded and had all these directors on RSM, I listen to all of their concerns and to what they worry about. This problem is something I’ve seen a lot just come up so many times with them, where they all freak out about these issues, so I just mentally note it, but I just kept hearing it. It felt like something I wanted to just put out there. I wasn’t sure why. It was almost just as if something told me, “All right, you should write this and just put it out there.” I got a great response, too. Dozens of directors e-mailed me, telling me, “Thank you for writing it, it’s totally how I feel. I needed to read that. It makes me feel better about the situations I’m getting into, knowing that it’s not just me, and that it’s all these directors are getting this, too.” I think it helped on a certain level, for the directors that are experiencing that.

Doug: Did you find that the directors were experiencing this across-the-board with artists at every level, or did you find that you were hearing it more as the artists got bigger?

Robby: You know what’s really ironic, although it can be really bad with big artists, don’t get me wrong. What’s really funny is that in my experience, the only times I’ve ever really had it happen like that has been with really small artists, where they get way too involved and think that they are this ultimate creator. It’s just a really strange outlook. You do see it sometimes with big artists, where they have too large of a team for their own good; and that never turns out well. I’d say it’s some of the smaller artists who have the bigger issue.

Doug: When you find that the artist is trying to take control over a music video, is that something that is happening from the onset? Or is it usually more of a bait-and-switch, where the artist acts like they’re on board with the idea, but then halfway through they’re trying to change things around?

Robby: It definitely happens both ways. You see this sometimes at the very beginning, the label is very up-front and they’re like, “Hey, we’ve got so-and-so and they’re very... they know what they want and they want a treatment that is about this,” or even in some cases they’ve written a treatment already. If that’s the case, you go in knowing what you’re getting into, and that’s my warning to directors. I just say, “Hey, if you’re going to complain about this, don’t write on it. Write on this, and if you get it, you’re into it and you know the deal.” Then on other cases, they’ll come to you just like a regular treatment call and you have the song concepted. And they say, “OK, you win the video, we love your concept.” Then out of nowhere they start trying to change your concept after you’re in the planning stages, and they’re trying to mold it into something else. I’ve even seen where an artist hasn’t read the treatment and on the day of the shoot changes the treatment and goes, “Oh no, we can’t do that, I don’t want to do that.”

Doug: Are you hoping that maybe this article will also reach some artists? Maybe get their attention with it? Or was it more just to show directors out there that it’s occurring a lot and that they don’t have to take it?

Robby: It’s intended for both. I’d love to open up a dialogue between artists and directors like that. I think that’s one thing that is missing a little bit from the process of videos being commissioned. There is not enough dialogue between those two. There’s nobody talking to these artists, sitting them down when they’re signed to a deal and saying, “Hey, your job is this. Everything outside of that, there’s people for it. That’s their job.” When you start getting outside of what your job is, and you start trying to do these other people’s jobs and micromanaging them, you’re going to end up with a product that nobody is happy with, because you’re going to feel like the people aren’t trying hard enough. In reality they’re not because they no longer feel like they’re a major part of anything. You’re taking away their connection to the project by over managing. It would be cool to go both ways, for directors to have a little bit of an affect knowing that they’re not the only people, and that this is happening on a wider scale. 

Doug: You’re in a unique position not only as a director, but you also run your own production company. Is there something that you’re doing in that role to fight back against artist from taking videos over?

Robby: I just give my directors fair warning. I know when it’s going to happen. At this point, we’ve worked with pretty much every label, every commissioner, so I know. I’ll get a tip-off if an artist is going to be difficult or not, and I’ll know right away whether to warn them or not. I’ll give them a warning, like, “Hey, this is how it’s going to be, tell me now. If you’re not going to be able to take this, don’t take the job.” You’ll rarely see that. Most of the time they’ll buckle up and do it, but you still have to give fair warning.

Doug: I guess the only counter-argument to your article is that these videos reflect the artist more than anyone, and ultimately it’s their promotional material. Do you have a response to that would-be counter argument?

Robby: Compare it to songwriting for instance. With songwriting on their records, a lot of major pop artists are not writing their songs. It’s a reflection of them, but they just pick the best song. A lot of times, not even them. Their manager will pick the best song. Their manager or somebody on the record team, or a record executive, they’ll just say, “Hey, there’s this great track I heard somebody sing, here it is.” That would be the single for their record, and there’s no real argument there. That’s a way bigger representation of who you are as an artist, and they’re willing to let that go. I think, on the video end, it’s more of an ego thing because they see themselves, and that’s what pushes them to try to take it on as their own. I think it’s a matter of them seeing the differences in those two things. The funny thing is, the record producer who produces that song, he’ll get points on the back end when the song sells, so he’s got incentive to actually bend to the will of these people. He’s not just getting paid, but he’s also getting royalty on it, so he’ll do whatever they tell him to. The video directors on the other hand, they’re not getting royalties on the back end. At least 99% of the time they’re not getting any royalties on the back end, even though music videos are a product now. They’re sold on iTunes, ads on VEVO and YouTube. Labels are making more than their money back on what the video budget is worth, and directors don’t see any of that. There is no extra incentive besides whatever you’re making out of the budget. With that, there’s just not as much there for them to bend to. There’s no incentive to be moldable in what you’re doing because you’re not as invested in the monetary sense, so you have to be invested in another sense. I think the best way to invest, especially a creative person like a director, is creativity. Giving them that full authority is really important.

robby starbuck, the problem with music videos

Doug Klinger is the co-founder/content director of IMVDb and watches more music videos than anyone on earth. You can find him on twitter at @doug_klinger.

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