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January 17, 2011  | by: Kerri O'Malley

A Clip From The "Telephone" Music Video by Lady Gaga, Featuring Beyonce

A new study by Nielsen Music brings more bad tidings to the music industry: most people are listening to their tunes online via music videos. That means no record company bucks for a song’s bang.  But what else does it mean for videos to so severely trump pure audio?

According to the study, available for download here, less than 20 percent of internet users actually pay for song downloads, and less than 10 percent buy full albums.  Illegal downloading is certainly still a popular way to acquire new tunes, but the overwhelming majority of internet users watch music videos online more often than any other internet-related method of rocking out.  The study shows an individual is three times as likely to watch a music video than legally download a song.

In some ways, the study’s results aren’t surprising.  The popularity of music videos is most likely due in part to Facebook.  Back in the days of Myspace, bands and artists shared small lists of songs with nothing to watch other than the gray bar slowly moving through the audio file.  Now, the best way to share music with friends on Facebook is through YouTube music videos.  With the unveiling of a new Vevo app for Android phones last week, music videos have only become more easy to share.

On the other hand, the idea of music videos as a primary source of music consumption is strange and somewhat unsettling.   It’s hard to believe, as the study implies, that music lovers are simply using videos as a way of listening, especially considering videos like Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone.”

That ridiculous ten minute romp into the surreal world of Gaga is just an example of a sub-genre of music videos: the mini-music film.  This video and other new-ish music videos that serve more as film shorts (including the less-extreme The Black Keys’ “Tighten Up” video and the extremely extreme 35 minute long “Runaway” music video from Kanye West) aren’t really listening experiences: they’re watching experiences.

While music videos almost always include a narrative element in addition to the music, creating a full visual/audio/narrative experience, videos like “Telephone” put the emphasis on the story, not the song.  A trend that began with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (and perhaps the recent 80s cultural resurgence has brought pop acts back to this idea).  As a result, if you really want to hear “Telephone,” watching the video is probably the worst thing you could do.  The song’s interrupted after nearly every verse for a few minutes of dialogue or even just for a silent scene.  The experience of watching “Telephone,” while it is a music video, is not the same as listening to a song.  This study doesn’t make that distinction.

Because that distinction isn’t made, it seems to me that the love for music videos revealed by the study may not spell doom for the financial future of the music industry.  If I want to actually hear “Telephone,” I’ll go elsewhere to find the song.  Perhaps I’ll even download it legally.  Perhaps not, but that’s a separate issue, part of the long and sordid battle against illegal downloading.  Watching music videos isn’t illegal.  It isn’t even downloading.  Hell, it isn’t even listening.

Our thirst for videos, whether they be “Telephone”-esque epic tales or simple body-rocking and captivating dance videos like Beyonce’s own “Single Ladies,” goes beyond our desire to hear a song.  We want to be more fully engaged and entertained.  A great video can make a song great, even if it’s not so enjoyable without watching half-naked dancing ladies (a great band-aid for a bad song).  The music industry already knows this, savvy as they are.  Elements of music videos have even crept into over-the-top concert productions with costume changes and crazy technology meant to make the experience of being at a concert almost like the experience of being in a video — like landing on Planet Gaga.  We don’t listen to pop stars sing anymore — We watch them perform.

Music videos make the performer more prominent, enhance celebrity and excite our celebrity voyeurism.  They showcase the talent, the money, the oddity of the people behind the songs.  They take us into new and impossible worlds, create stories we never could have imagined.  And finally, there’s a song playing.  But really, it’s just in the background.

Music videos (like commercials) have increasingly become stranger, defying logic and reality with ease, catching us off guard and leave us laughing, crying, just dying to show that to someone.  It’s very possible that we’re living in an age of pop where the songs themselves have become too simple and too dull to really inspire that just-gotta-have-it feeling.  But simple songs make great soundtracks, especially to really creative and colorful short films, which is essentially what music videos have grown to be.  Here only is where the popularity of music videos could be read as a threat (or a wake-up call) to the music industry.  But I, for one, will have no sympathy if it turns out that, like the zany commercials clogging up the airwaves, pop music has become fun to watch…but nobody really wants to buy what they’re selling.

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