By Brian Whitney
Fun fact: In my pre-teens, I subscribed to Disney Adventures magazine, perhaps fulfilling a secret craving for pictures of the voice actors from Beauty and the Beast or Andrew Keegan’s thoughts on his three minutes of screen time in Independence Day, though I honestly don’t remember. One thing I do remember is a DA story about the potential for the nascent internet, which discussed in great detail how we would be doing homework, playing games, “instant messaging” friends and watching movies all at the same time, all on one computer. I immediately equated the article with stories about flying cars and personal space travel.
We all know what happened next. Five years ago it would have been difficult to think of a world without the internet. Now it seems difficult to picture the internet without YouTube, the video sharing site that consistently averages about 14 million hits daily. YouTube makes it possible to fluster or celebrate – but ultimately publicize – anyone, almost instantly, from the insanely famous to – well, someone like me. It, and its budding counterparts like Google Video and Hulu, are the new, great playing-field levelers, and nowhere are their effects more manifest than in the music industry.
Observe the case of OK Go, a marginally successful major label band who raised the stakes in the music world when they posted a video for the song “Here It Goes Again,” featuring a choreographed dance on treadmills. The video vaulted them to fame, earned them a performance on the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards and ultimately won them a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video. Not too shabby for a vid filmed by the singer’s sister on a borrowed camera.
So, have local bands embraced this brave new world? Most web videos in general end up looking like local television commercials, replete with poor lighting, shoddy audio and bad performances all around. But several Milwaukee musicians have made compelling pieces of cinema on the cheap and utilized internet video technology for personal gain, notoriety and perhaps even minor fortune.
Like Juiceboxxx. The Milwaukee rap wunderkind has made quite a name for himself on the national stage, performing frantic, sweaty shows around the country and appearing on MTV2’s Subterranean with the video for his song “Thunder Jam III.” While “Thunder Jam” cost more than some musicians make in a year ($11,000+, according to producer Lew Baldwin), the shoot for his follow-up video “I Don’t Wanna Go Into The Darkness” was a wildly unglamorous affair. The premise is simple enough: Juiceboxxx rocks a crowd with his usual stage antics. He packed sometimes-venue the Vault with various Milwaukee music scene mainstays and supplied them with free PBR. The production crew erected a makeshift stage that probably cost about $30, depending on how much duct tape they purchased. After the free beer was consumed and the crowd was visibly buzzed, Juiceboxxx took the stage, performed the single a few times, then blasted out a couple more songs. Two basic video cameras filmed the proceedings, one near the stage and the other further back to include the crowd.
“Just because a video is on YouTube doesn’t mean anyone is watching it,” says Christopher Van Gompel, singer/guitarist of Milwaukee band IfIHadAHiFi. Indeed, it is difficult for even witty and compelling videos – like HiFi’s recent clip for the song “Success! Success! Success!” – to gain a following without external exposure. The clip, which shows the band performing at a cake walk that ends in a gore fest, is highly entertaining, despite a budget of almost nothing.
“I think there was a budget for the blood, maybe all of $50, and I think someone bought a shirt at a thrift store,” says Van Gompel. But the video’s sheer entertainment value cannot be denied, and it’s an excellent visual match for the song. It remains to be seen whether HiFi’s popularity will dramatically increase with visual exposure.
“The ubiquity of music videos definitely makes it more difficult to do something novel and engaging, especially for a band that has no lyrics and 10-minute songs,” says Collections of Colonies of Bees guitarist Chris Rosenau. Instrumental post-rock can easily become overwrought and tedious, yet the Bees manage to pump a fresh vitality into it. The band’s musical minimalism pairs well with their videos for “Flocks II” and “Flocks III” from their 2008 album Birds. One perk of a minimalist approach is that, in the words of synth player Jim Schoenecker, “[It] lends itself to keeping the cost down. But it certainly doesn’t compromise our aesthetic goal.” The Bees seem to have a keen eye for talented directors, and to that end employed “very skilled, talented, and connected friends, that are all also very DIY.”
When it comes to making a music video on the cheap, the old sports adage that “the best offense is a good defense” seems to ring true. Being aware of the potential shortcomings of a low budget will help to avoid the pitfalls that many fall into. But the rise of DIY culture seems to have proven that limitations tend to provide their own opportunities. And there has never been a better time to grab a camera and go crazy. So what are you waiting for? VS