How Lyric Videos Became the Hottest Thing

It used to be that making a music video required dozens of people and hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Not any more, of course. Plenty of artists have shot very good videos on their phones and edited them on their laptops.

This might have not been good enough for the golden era of MTV and MuchMusic, but with because our expectations for music videos are so low these days–thank you, YouTube–these productions fill an important role in bridging the gap between artist and fan.

With YouTube being the biggest discovery vehicle for new music in the known galaxy, artists, managers and labels know that they have to have something on YouTube.  It’s expected that every song ever recorded is available on the site.  If not, well, then it must not exist.

Lyric videos are a relatively new development.   It’s a cheap and cheerful way to get a video up without having to spend too much money.  Billboard takes a look at how the lyric video took off.

In the 1966 documentary Don’t Look Back, Bob Dylan is featured in what, at the time, was an innovative music video. As the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” plays, Dylan unfurls cue cards that correspond to the lyrics. The clip became a beat culture moment aped by many artists since, the visual suggesting a connection between hearing a song and reading lyrics.Today, as YouTube has replaced MTV as the primary outlet for music videos, the lyrics-only clip has become one of the most important marketing tools online, with a few generating more than 100 million views without a single shot of the artist. Unlike elaborate MTV-style videos (a 1998 clip for “Victory” by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs cost his label $2.5 million), lyric videos are dirt cheap, and the words add an element beyond what fans get on radio or Pandora. “It’s an immediate and effective way to introduce new music,” says Cee Lo Green, a lyric video pioneer with his 2010 single “F– You,” which racked up 11 million views. “It was a very smart thing that Cee Lo did,” says Larry Mestel, Green’s manager and CEO of Primary Wave Music. “And now, it’s a mainstay.”

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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