Robby Starbuck on 'The Problem with Music Videos'
Posted by Doug Klinger on October 26, 2012 in Interviews
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 hes 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.
Doug: What inspired you to write this article?
Robby: Honestly, its not even a personal thing for me. It doesnt bother me. I have always had a really good balance of knowing how the whole system works and everything. Ive always been okay with it. Since weve 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 Ive 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 wasnt 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, its totally how I feel. I needed to read that. It makes me feel better about the situations Im getting into, knowing that its not just me, and that its 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 whats really ironic, although it can be really bad with big artists, dont get me wrong. Whats really funny is that in my experience, the only times Ive 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. Its 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. Id say its 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 theyre on board with the idea, but then halfway through theyre 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 theyre like, Hey, weve got so-and-so and theyre very... they know what they want and they want a treatment that is about this, or even in some cases theyve written a treatment already. If thats the case, you go in knowing what youre getting into, and thats my warning to directors. I just say, Hey, if youre going to complain about this, dont write on it. Write on this, and if you get it, youre into it and you know the deal. Then on other cases, theyll 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 youre in the planning stages, and theyre trying to mold it into something else. Ive even seen where an artist hasnt read the treatment and on the day of the shoot changes the treatment and goes, Oh no, we cant do that, I dont 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 its occurring a lot and that they dont have to take it?
Robby: Its intended for both. Id love to open up a dialogue between artists and directors like that. I think thats one thing that is missing a little bit from the process of videos being commissioned. There is not enough dialogue between those two. Theres nobody talking to these artists, sitting them down when theyre signed to a deal and saying, Hey, your job is this. Everything outside of that, theres people for it. Thats their job. When you start getting outside of what your job is, and you start trying to do these other peoples jobs and micromanaging them, youre going to end up with a product that nobody is happy with, because youre going to feel like the people arent trying hard enough. In reality theyre not because they no longer feel like theyre a major part of anything. Youre 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 theyre not the only people, and that this is happening on a wider scale.
Doug: Youre in a unique position not only as a director, but you also run your own production company. Is there something that youre doing in that role to fight back against artist from taking videos over?
Robby: I just give my directors fair warning. I know when its going to happen. At this point, weve worked with pretty much every label, every commissioner, so I know. Ill get a tip-off if an artist is going to be difficult or not, and Ill know right away whether to warn them or not. Ill give them a warning, like, Hey, this is how its going to be, tell me now. If youre not going to be able to take this, dont take the job. Youll rarely see that. Most of the time theyll 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 its 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. Its 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, theyll just say, Hey, theres this great track I heard somebody sing, here it is. That would be the single for their record, and theres no real argument there. Thats a way bigger representation of who you are as an artist, and theyre willing to let that go. I think, on the video end, its more of an ego thing because they see themselves, and thats what pushes them to try to take it on as their own. I think its a matter of them seeing the differences in those two things. The funny thing is, the record producer who produces that song, hell get points on the back end when the song sells, so hes got incentive to actually bend to the will of these people. Hes not just getting paid, but hes also getting royalty on it, so hell do whatever they tell him to. The video directors on the other hand, theyre not getting royalties on the back end. At least 99% of the time theyre not getting any royalties on the back end, even though music videos are a product now. Theyre 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 dont see any of that. There is no extra incentive besides whatever youre making out of the budget. With that, theres just not as much there for them to bend to. Theres no incentive to be moldable in what youre doing because youre 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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