Commission control; how promo commissioners see the music video world
For this month's Music & Sound special our contributing editor (and part-time commissioner), David Knight, spoke to some of his contemporaries about the state of the promo business, the role of the commissioner and the directors who are currently lighting up the music video world.
There is no point denying it: being a music video commissioner can be quite glamourous. Sometimes you are hanging out with pop stars, and then mixing with music video directors.
Eventually, you all come together on the shoot. Which is not to say that the business of commissioning is not also complicated, challenging and often extremely fraught.
An alternative view is to see the commissioner as someone treading a line between two sides, defending the interests of the artist while desiring the most creative input from the director.
From creating a brief, to finding the right director and treatment for an artist and song, to making a deadline to coincide with the release of a track, commissioners are expected to deliver quality music videos within tight turnaround times and budgets, while navigating an unpredictable landscape of interests and personalities.
Now the video commissioning process is under the spotlight. LA-based organisation We Direct Music Videos, a lobby for music video directors’ rights launched by Dan Kwan of directing team DANIELS, published Guidelines for the Pitching Process in July, proposing changes to the current unregulated system. This aims to reduce the amount of unpaid time spent by directors creating treatments for briefs – and also having greater transparency in the process.
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- Production Company Rattling Stick
- Director Nathan James Tettey
- Editing Homespun
- Grading The Mill/London
- Director Edem Wornoo
- Producer Kelly Spacey
- Executive Producer Emma Wellbelove
- DP Rik Burnell
WDMV is also encouraging directors to recount their past music video horror stories. This can cast the video commissioner – the most visible agent of a record label in the eyes of the director and producer – in a poor light. An alternative view is to see the commissioner as someone treading a line between two sides, defending the interests of the artist while desiring the most creative input from the director, and reaching a result that works for all parties (full disclosure: the writer of this introduction also commissions music videos, so tends to the latter view).
This can cast the video commissioner – the most visible agent of a record label in the eyes of the director and producer – in a poor light.
Certainly, if you want some insight into what is happening in music videos now, commissioners are a reliable source of information. So, we canvassed a number of high-profile commissioners about their views on creativity and the current state of the industry.
Covering a range of experience and expertise, our panel of commissioners is Laura Clayton, head of content at Island Records; Semera Khan, Creative Director at Polydor (and Best Commissioner winner at the UKMVAs in 2017); freelance commissioners Andrew Law (Best Commissioner award winner last year) and John Moule (who has won the award twice); Nicola Sheppard, Video Commissioner at Atlantic Records; and Nathan James Tettey, Commissioner at Parlophone/Warners – who also directed several videos for British rap star Dave [above] in the past year.
Above [l-r]: Island Records' Laura Clayton, Parlophone/Warners' Nathan James Tettey and Atlantic Records' Nicola Sheppard
What are the biggest challenges faced by commissioners these days?
Nathan James Tettey: Getting an accurate read on what an artist and label are expecting. Then trying to establish that, on the resources they give you.
Andrew Law: The same challenges facing the directors and producers; timelines are intensely tight and seem to be getting tighter all the time.
If you want famous cameos and helicopters, we need more than £10k.
John Moule: Realising the vision communicated in the pitch. Managing the expectations and vision of all, and making sure everyone is in sync with what's being rendered.
Nicola Sheppard: As the mediator between the reps, production companies and directors, as well as the label and artist, we get a lot of requests, and we need to be transparent and realistic with those requests. If you want famous cameos and helicopters, we need more than £10k. And I can sometimes lose sleep over edit rounds. It’s important to allow the commissioner and director to put a stop to edit notes that could affect the vision the director and artist was initially going for.
If the budgets are significantly low, then there shouldn’t be more than two directors treating.
If a treatment doesn’t win the job, it is important that the clients present constructive feedback. If the budgets are significantly low, then there shouldn’t be more than two directors treating. I also like to find a way of having artists meet directors before they start pitching, so they can put a name to a face and remember them for future projects.
What has been your most memorable experience making a video in the past year?
Semera Khan: Making the Madonna video for Medellin with Diana Kunst and Mau Morgo. Purely because a) it’s Madonna, and b) you can only imagine how intense/bonkers of an experience it was.
NJT: Going to Costa Rica for a Mist and Fredo video. The production support we had was exceptional. They were very helpful and wonderful people to work with. I completely underestimated how serious they would take it, and as a result, it was a great experience.
I guess it was a lesson in creative crisis management and in not taking this strange world we work in too seriously.
Laura Clayton: A couple of months ago, Sigrid had a travel nightmare and couldn’t make it to her own video shoot up a mountain in rural Bulgaria. The full crew was ready to shoot, with elaborate sets built, and rather than abandon the whole thing, we thought we’d shoot something funny to cheer her up, and capture some plates of all the scenes we had lined up in the hope that we could salvage something useable.
Someone suggested as a joke that the director, Max Siedentopf, would have to play Sigrid and, to everyone’s surprise, he agreed [above]. Like true heroes, everyone got stuck in, and a charmingly awkward star was born. Then we came up against various additional hurdles, from extreme weather to police intervention, all captured by our behind the scenes videographer, which made the final cut.
The video has been Sigrid’s most successful to date and, hilariously, a contingent of the internet thinks we planned the whole thing. I guess it was a lesson in creative crisis management and in not taking this strange world we work in too seriously.
Resist changing your fundamental creative point of view just to win a job. People need to know who you are.
NS: Going to Dubai with Pulse Films to shoot a video alongside Vice Arabia and Dubai Tourist Board for Rita Ora. That shoot was out of this world. It was like being on a movie set. Big love to the director Tatia Pilieva.
JM: Working with hard-grafting, passionate young people. And that’s most videos I attend.
What’s your advice for directors, producers and other talent who are looking to break into the business?
JM: Eat, sleep, and live filmmaking.
SK: Get to know the business from ALL angles.
NS: Stay passionate about why you wanted to get into this industry in the first place. If you are having a moment where there isn’t much going on then start writing your next short film, reach out to artists, let them know you’re up for collaborating on a music video. And reach out to your favourite directors and ask if you can shadow them on set. Get yourself out there. Knowledge is power!
The number of great ideas I've seen not get commissioned are too high to count.
AL: Someone e-mailed me the other day asking for advice, and this is what I wrote to them: “Resist changing your fundamental creative point of view just to win a job. People need to know who you are, and it will also dampen your own enthusiasm for the work over time. But don't be snobby either. If there's an opportunity to do the sort of work you want to do, but the track isn't exactly up your street, take the opportunity, especially at the beginning. The people you need paying attention to you are looking at the work, not the listening to the music.
“Don't take rejection personally. There are more people than you can imagine that are involved in signing-off a video script, and there are a million different considerations being taken into account in any given decision. The number of great ideas I've seen not get commissioned are too high to count. Ultimately what sets eventually successful directors apart are the ones who keep the faith in their capacity despite that.”
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- Production Company Park Pictures/London
- Director Vincent Haycock
- Grade Cheat
- Executive Producer Nick Goldsmith
- Executive Producer Sophie Hubble
- Producer Fred Bonham Carter
- Production Designer Vicente Ben
- DP Rina Yang
Who are your favourite directors right now, and your predicted stars of the future?
SK: Diana Kunst and Mau Morgo; they directed the Madonna video that I commissioned for Medellin, and also videos for Rosalia and James Blake (ft Rosalia). I love them. Their attention to detail is ace, they have great taste and are really fun to work with. And Vince Haycock. I’ve worked with Vince numerous times, and it’s always a great experience.
AL: Isaiah Seret and Young Replicant need no pre- or-post-amble; Colin Solal Cardo has always been a brilliant performance director and is absolutely smashing it at the moment. Among upcoming directors there's Savvas Stavrou, who is supremely thoughtful and articulate; I was very impressed with Fiona Burgess when we worked together recently; Jessy Moussalem has the most singular point of view; Lily Rose Thomas is one of the most grossly under-used young talents out there. Other future stars are Pavel Brenner and Savannah Leaf.
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JM: Current favourite directors are Will Hooper, Saman Kesh, WIZ, Matilda Finn, Dexter Navy, Joseph Connor, Duncan Loudon, Sophie Muller, Romain Chassaing, Ninian Doff, Alex Cortez are in high demand; and I’d add CC Wade, Luke Davis, Sophie Jones, Roisin Murphy and Olly Jennings as my stars of the future.
NJT: I love Bafik, and KLVDR - and Duncan Loudon is a definite star of the future. The Rest are in high demand due to their great Slowthai videos; Crown & Owls have kept moving forwards, working at their craft and done really good things. Then there's Hugo Jenkins, Ray Fiasco.
NS: Henry Scholfield is at the top of his game and definitely in demand with most of our artists. His ideas are really out of this world. And I’ve worked with some budding stars who have nailed the coolest concepts for our developing artists this year: KC Locke, Charlie Sarsfield, Taichi Kimura, Sophia Ray, Cottia Thorowgood, Myles Whittingham, Director LX, Libby Wilde Burke, Roxana Baldovin, Chris Ranson, Andre Muir…
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by the industry as a whole?
NJT: Two things, plain and simple; inclusivity and diversity.
LC: Timelines. Music consumption is so immediate now that often it’s expected that videos (and marketing strategy on the whole) can be turned around as quickly as a track can make it onto Spotify. It’s something we’re working hard to resolve label-side, so we have the best conditions for creativity to thrive.
Bin this macho bullshit culture of working all hours for the sake of appearing committed.
NS: Transparency and lack of respect for people’s time, I would say. As we know, it’s a very fast-paced industry and we are all working 24/7. So we need to create an environment that is fair and rewarding for all.
AL: I know most people probably think budgets, but I think it’s personal/emotional burn-out. Everybody, label-side, straight through to the production community, has to be firing on all cylinders at all times to make the numbers work. It results in mental instability and sometimes outright loss of very good, talented, experienced people.
We have to foster better work-life balances, respecting the fact that if people are going to be effective and creative they also need space to think and to rest – and bin this macho bullshit culture of working all hours for the sake of appearing committed.
What do you look for in a new director?
AL: Passion. Commitment. Reliability. Openness. A distinct point of view and set of creative pre-occupations that feel organic and divorced from trends.
NJT: Unwavering focus, and determination to not let anything stop them in a world where they'll face plenty of obstacles. That’s always been necessary, and that never changes.
If a director is really passionate about making a video that compliments and enhances the track that’s really all we are asking for.
LC: Killer ideas - ideally ones that can be summed up in a sentence. The longer answer would be that it depends on the project, but a confident, impassioned and personal response to the music never fails to win over artists. And I’m always impressed by video concepts which display the potential to travel beyond an artist’s existing fanbase.
JM: Technique. Artistry. Originality. Application.
NS: Passion. For me it starts with the love for the music. If a director is really passionate about making a video that compliments and enhances the track that’s really all we are asking for. I love chatting on the phone with new directors and getting so excited to the point where we are both screaming when they come up with a concept that just feels so right for the track.
Above [l-r]: Andrew Law, Semera Khan - Creative Director at Polydor and John Moule
What is the range of budget for a promo?
AL: £10k - £120k, with an average of around £30k - £40k I’d say.
NS: Our budgets range from £5K-to-200K, depending on the artist and their current timeline. If it’s a new artist we have just signed it would range from £5K-20K. If it is an artist who is global and on their third or fourth album it would be significantly higher.
Any Golden Rules you abide by?
JM: Taking great effort to make sure that everyone is connected with what's being shot and all parties are on the same page creatively and logistically.
NJT: Discount nothing.
LC: I put a lot of energy into my briefs. If a director is going to spend their time - for free - putting together an idea, I want them to feel that we’ve also put the hours into considering what we want. And, on set; always get that hero close-up, full track lip-sync, and hope that you won’t need it.
What does the future hold - where will we be in two or three year's time?
AL: I hope we will have got to a point where we’ve found a better balance between the music that needs general content support (Insta-vids, BTS work, visualisers, etc), and what needs a proper promo. Not every band should be spending money that, for some artists, is hard to claw back. I think it would have a knock-on effect on making the timelines and budgets better for the videos that do need to be made for artists that will benefit from them. That should hopefully have another knock-on effect for bettering the pitch process which, at the moment, is hell for a lot of directors (and commissioners), too.
At its best, this art form is an incredibly creative, provocative and surreal mirror of 21st century culture and society.
That being said, music videos have never been more important or widely viewed than today, and I think their relevance will only keep expanding. We are living through a period of really exciting short-form filmmaking, and I think we are awash in young talent today who are genuinely great and will hopefully be hitting their stride in two-to-five years’ time.
JM: I think that, at its best, this art form is an incredibly creative, provocative and surreal mirror of 21st century culture and society. So, hopefully, this will come the fore even more so in the future.
Not every band should be spending money that, for some artists, is hard to claw back.
NS: Personally, Head of Music Video at a label. I want to give directors as many opportunities as I can. I love being around creatives! It’s a really good feeling accelerating people’s careers and watching them blossom, artists and directors. I’m obsessed with music videos!