Videos branch out but rarely cross the line

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(Chicago Tribune, Published December 3, 2006


Does sweet little Carrie Underwood have it in her to become a vengeful vandal? Yes and no.

Yes, because country videos are getting edgier every day. But no, because no matter how hard country tries to imitate its big brothers rock, rap and pop, country still has its root stuck in tradition.

In her newest video, "Before He Cheats," Underwood sings about carving her name into the leather seats of her ex's pretty little souped-up ride, taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights and slashing all four tires. You see it all unfold, violently and in slow motion. But you never actually see Underwood doing the damage.

According to Evan Kroft, music director for Country Music Television, that's the No. 1 streaming video on CMT.com and is No. 15 on launch.com. "Country is kind of PG-13," Kroft says. "Our audience doesn't want to be bored. They want an edge, but not too much."

So as country music takes another giant leap toward pop and rock, its videos have followed suit. But Kroft maintains that you have to be careful. "Sometimes," he says, "the idea gets lost in the art." So why is it that country videos can only go so far?

"It's just a matter of what's appropriate for the audience," says Kroft, and he's not just talking about sex. Sometimes, the deep symbolism, vague metaphors and dark story lines may be just too much for your average country fan.

`Abstract expressionism'

But you can still fast-forward your videos without going overboard. "Everything is more hip and edgy and mainstream now," says Chris Hicky, a video director from Nashville's Taillight TV. "I respect the history and beginnings of country music, but now there's some abstract expressionism in country videos. They feel more urban and grittier."

Just as the music has become less predictable, so have the videos in the 13 years since CMT launched. Joanna Carter, a vice president at Capitol Records, says videos used to be very literal. "Early videos were say-truck-see-truck," she says. "But now a lot of them aren't afraid to push the envelope and get arty."

Occasionally, they do go a little too far. Kroft says that the really shocking videos don't do as well on CMT. What does do well, he says, is videos that show a little skin. Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley and Sugarland have all had videos in the past year that have flashed enough flesh to get people's attention. And concept videos -- ones with a story line that turns the video into a mini-movie -- do better than the plain old concert videos. Kenny Chesney's recent "You Save Me" video was nine minutes long. Though it's hardly the cinematic treasure that Michael Jackson's 14-minute "Thriller" video was, it was still a smart way of breaking through.

Outside of Nashville, though, the lyrics-as-script way of making country music videos can been seen as a tired formula. Scott Keneally, a video treatment writer, works hard to write the director's concept in an unexpected way. "I prefer narrative videos where you don't see the band playing front and center," he says. "Everyone already knows what Nickelback looks like."

While people who work in other formats may think country's progress is just an overdue effort to get up to speed, Tacklebox Films' Shaun Silva thinks country videos are just fine being country. "Nobody thinks country needs to be more pop or rock. The artist's goal is to connect with real life," Silva says. "A lot of people would say that country music videos are very literal, but they tell a story. When I get songs, it's like they're the scripts to the videos."

Silva adds that literal isn't all bad. "People will watch those rock videos and think they're cool, but Rascal Flatts' `What Hurts the Most' was a top 10 download on iTunes."

And while TV ratings are still the ultimate measurement of how well a video is doing, the margin of human error is significant. Downloads are quickly becoming a better barometer of success. MTV is the top cable network among 12-to-34-year-olds, but all that tells you is that the TV is tuned to that channel in a lot of households with young people. But according to an Apple spokesman, the iTunes store has sold 35 million videos, and he current download rate for videos is around 1 million per week.

That's a lot of money being made behind the scenes. And yet, even the flashiest videos from the biggest artists are relatively inexpensive to produce.

Wide-ranging budgets

Hicky was the director on Keith Urban's newest video -- "Once in a Lifetime Love." He shot the six-minute song in just two days in San Francisco. The budgets vary from single to single and artist to artist, but the range is anywhere from $75,000 for a new artist to $300,000 for bigger names.

"Pop videos have bigger budgets, about $800,000, but now ours are getting more competitive," Carter says. "They spend a lot more than we do, and that raises the bar. Our audience is watching all the channels, so they have high expectations."

Who is paying for these bigger and better budgets? The record label pays upfront, but then about 50 percent is recoupable. That means if the label spends $200,000 on video production for a single, they will take approximately $100,000 in recoupment fees out of the sales from that artist's CD.

That seems like a lot for the artist to pay back, but while viewers see videos as entertainment, music executives see them as a marketing tool. When MTV came barreling into households in 1981 -- launching with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," ironically -- these videos were merely standard promotional practice. Now that you can purchase videos to watch on your own time, albeit on a tiny screen that would make a director cringe, videos have become moneymakers in their own right.

Occasionally, an artist will be passionate enough about an idea to pay his own way. "Garth Brooks paid out of his own pocket for the video for `The Red Strokes,'" says Jon Small, producer/director at Picture Vision Pictures. "And that one cost about $500,000 because we trashed 19 grand pianos, 19 tuxedos and 19 white beaver Stetsons." Small, who has worked with artists including Billy Joel and Aerosmith, says that Brooks' attitude is the same as other country artists. "For rock stars, it's all about sex, drugs and rock and roll. But with country, the songs are actually about something," he says.
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