Last month, the spread of COVID-19 started to shut down daily activities — everything ranging from mundane commutes to glossy film shoots. “The music industry seemed like the first to respond to that — ‘Oh shit, where are we gonna get content from?'” says Nick Cinelli, a director and animator who works on music videos like Ghostemane’s “Bonesaw” in Los Angeles. “Within three days, I’d gotten calls from six different outlets of music-oriented people: ‘Are you free?’ It was a quick, zeitgeist-y thing. ‘OK, we need animation now.'”
Animated music videos have been around for years, of course, but they’re usually regarded as a quirky appetizer; traditionally filmed videos remain the main course. However, those shoots require putting a number of people together in close spaces, making them a liability during a pandemic. Animation can be done in isolation, or by teams working remotely. As a result, major labels are moving rapidly to lock down animators, who say demand for their work escalated rapidly in the space of just a few days.
“We are aggressively opening our budgets to make sure people have enough funds to bring in animators,” says Jeff Levin, svp of A&R at Atlantic Records, who works with Bebe Rexha, Bankrol Hayden, and Jaymes Young, among others. “I’m pretty much making an animated video for every song I’m putting out over the next few months. The reason is, when all else fails, that’s the one thing you know you can get.”
The music industry releases so many videos, and so many feel undercooked, that the clips often seem more like a knee-jerk response to a new single, rather than an essential part of an artist’s catalog or an intentional marketing tool. But despite the tendency for videos to lapse into formula, they can still play a crucial role in a budding artist’s career.
“The thing as marketers we’re constantly trying to balance is marketing a song and marketing an artist at the same time,” explains Tarek Al-Hamdouni, svp of digital marketing at RCA. “You can have a song that completely takes off and an artist that doesn’t. A visual is a quick and easy way to get an artist proposition in front of a potential fan.”
And since video streams count towards chart position, these clips have potential commercial benefits as well. This is even more true right now — while audio streaming in the U.S. appears to have dipped, YouTube usage on computers is up more than 15 percent.
That’s part of why many artists are wary of moving forward without clips to accompany a music release, even during an unprecedented time of crisis. “We’re not gonna drop an album, especially a debut album, without a music video,” says Daniel Awad, who manages Oliver Tree and Whethan.
Artists who are locked down at home but still want to make videos have a few options. “Self-shot content is definitely something artists are becoming more comfortable with,” Al-Hamdouni says. RCA’s parent company is Sony, which also manufactures electronics, so the label was able to send high quality video equipment to some of its artists.
Easton West, a director who also works on music videos, sees another possibility. “Tibor Kalman, who did some record covers for the Talking Heads, he did a music video in the late Eighties that used only stock footage,” West notes. “I imagine there will be opportunities to do those types of videos again.” Similarly, Charli XCX posted to a call to Instagram on Thursday for fans’ self-shot footage from their homes; she plans to repurpose it for a music video for her new song, “Forever.”
Many artists are also pivoting to animation. In the past, the practice was “largely reserved for things like lyric videos and animated album artwork,” Al-Hamdouni says. “But now that animation is one of the least affected mediums, we’re able to lean into that space with more energy and intention.”
Animators see this is a chance to add new flair to a music video format that has often grown stagnant. “Everybody can get an Alexa [camera] and shoot something that looks good even if you don’t light it correctly,” Cinelli says, “or edit together a video of an artist singing.” When so many people are taking the same approach, “it really takes something to make you remember a video.”
It’s easier for animators to break free from conventional music video tropes because they are not subject to the same constraints as a typical video shoot. “We have a lot of ideas for stage design that get thrown out the minute an engineer or a lawyer looked at them because of lack of feasibility or liability in the physical space,” says Ian Simon, co-founder of Strangeloop Studios, which is responsible for Earthgang’s animated video for “LaLa Challenge,” released last month.
In contrast, when animating, “there is no gravity, no limit on lights,” explains Joe Emmony, who recently co-directed and animated the 1975’s video for “The Birthday Party.” “That opens up lots of creative possibilities and enables you to think more abstractly.”
But a hard swerve towards animated music videos also comes with challenges. Animation can be an intricate and time-consuming process. “Frame-by-frame animation,” for example, “is laborious,” says Eugene Serebrennikov, creative director for Burn & Broad, which has completed animated video projects for the Chainsmokers and YBN Cordae. “We’re drawing each frame 24 times for each second. No matter how quick you are, that’s gonna take a long time.” That means if a song suddenly benefits from a burst of viral interest, it might be a challenge for an artist to quickly pull together an animated clip.
And when everyone’s gaze turns suddenly towards animation, there is always the danger that animated videos become every bit as pro forma as filmed music videos. “If everybody’s shifting to animation, we want to make sure that whatever our concepts are, we’re pushing it even further [than the competition],” Serebrennikov acknowledges.
For now, labels are still working through the reserve of videos that were shot before the pandemic, according to Al-Hamdouni. But the stockpile is beginning to run low, and he expects a wave of videos shot under pandemic circumstances to surface in three to five weeks. RCA’s first was the remix to Saygrace’s “Boys Ain’t Shit” with Tate McRae and Audrey Mika; the clip merged footage of all three singers shot at home, safely sheltering in place, with animations constructed from watercolor paintings.
Strangeloop Studios is also working on more animated projects — additional Earthgang clips as well as a video for Neil Young. The company is pushing beyond stand-alone animated clips with an original project titled Spirit Bomb, which involves the creation of three-dimensional virtual artists accompanied by music from Nosaj Thing and Justin Boreta of the Glitch Mob.
“One of the things that is appealing about animation is the sense of radical freedom,” says Strangeloop’s other founder, David Wexler. “That’s a stark contrast to our current situation.”