music videos

Creative advice for your next music videos

Posting and sharing music videos is a great way to get your music noticed on social media. Thankfully, interesting videos are easier to make than ever.

Music videos are more important than ever for independent artists. Luckily, it’s easier and more affordable than ever to make them. Rotor, for example, lets you make a music video, using stock footage and a variety of filters and editing effects, in as little as 15 minutes and it costs $30 or less.

I’ve been intrigued by Rotor ever since I saw a Rotor video by singer/songwriter Chris Robley. (Chris is part of the AVL family. He’s been working for CD Baby for eons and has contributed hundreds of articles to our blogs.) I wanted to get Chris’s thoughts about Rotor and about music videos in general, since he has nearly a dozen to his name — both videos he’s made on his own and with Rotor.

For an independent artist, you have quite a number of music videos. Tell me about how you use videos to market your music and how that’s changed over the years.

I think a video gives extra promotional life to a song, but more importantly, it can enhance the mood of the track or provide an emotional window into the meaning of the lyrics.

I’ll also state the obvious and say that we live in a visual society and simply sharing a SoundCloud link will only get you so far. It often takes a video to get someone to stop for a second to notice something when they’re scrolling through their feed. So that’s one benefit of music videos: grabbing attention.

Videos also give you another reason to share the song again with fans, but in a new context. Those loyal listeners might have responded to your initial Soundcloud or Spotify or Apple Music link, but a follow-up video will remind them of the song and maybe even deepen their interest in it.

I noticed that when I published my “Collapsing Star” video. I’d already heard from some folks that they dug the song, but when the video came out I got a flood of emails and Messenger messages from people saying the song really moved them and they’d been listening on repeat. I think something about the intentionally slow pacing of the video and the clear presentation of the words resonated in a different way. The visuals gave them permission to fall more in love with the sounds.

 

I wish I had started making my own videos a lot earlier, but before my daughter was born, most of my musical time was spent recording and touring. Once I became a father, touring wasn’t an option. So I slowed down enough to figure out a few simple video techniques; though I should say that my skills are still VERY budget DIY and I would never let anyone else PAY me to make videos. Everything I do with video is trial and error and probably takes me five times as long as it would take someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

Not counting your Rotor videos, what was the easiest video you made, and how long did that take to do from start to finish?

Well, unless you’re a super charismatic performer (I’m not), or a crazy dancer or something, it takes time or money or both to make an interesting video. They can be shot quickly if you have a good concept and lots of planning, but ultimately that’s still TIME upfront.

The easiest video for me was “Let You Go,” and it was easy for a simple reason: outsourcing!

Some friends and bandmates in Oregon came up with the concept, worked out the locations, and shot the whole thing over the course of a weekend. I basically just gave the green-light, paid for a rental car and a few other things, and then sat back and let them have some fun creating their own little Twilight Zone episode in downtown Portland.

 

But I realize that kind of process is usually the exception to the rule. Most artists will be heavily involved in their own video making. Most of the time I’m the ONLY person involved in my video-making, from start to finish.

I suppose for the videos I’ve created, the lyric video to “Silently” was pretty easy. I hiked to the top of Mt. Tabor — an inactive volcano in Portland, Oregon — and set up my iPhone camera to shoot time-lapse footage of the sunset. I caught about 45 minutes of footage, which got sped up into about 4 minutes for the music video. Then I applied some effects and added the lyrics. I mean, that stuff takes time, but probably the hardest part of the whole process was making sure nobody walked in front of my iPhone for 45 minutes.

 

Another one that was really quick to make was “Morning Edition.” Basically, I used Snapchat’s face-replacement filter and lip-synced to the song in 6-second segments (that’s as long as Snapchat allowed you to record at the time). Once I got to the end of the song, I stitched them all together and added the lyrics up top. Hardest part of this puppy was finding the wig and flag tie.

 

That one is perfect for catching your eye on Facebook. You can’t NOT click on it. “Anonymous” (which was filmed entirely backwards) strikes me as a video that took a long time to film, but perhaps it took just as long to plan. What can you say about the creation of that video and how much attention did that give you?

That video was intensive in the planning and pretty quick in execution. My friend Craig Saddlemire directed it, so he handled the lighting, the equipment, the cameras, the editing. My job was to learn the lyrics… backwards.

 

I actually made a behind-the-scenes video to show folks how I did that, but basically, it involved flipping the recording of “Anonymous” around, taking phonetic dictation of the gibberish I was hearing, and then memorizing it. I spent a lot of late-night hours practicing my nonsense lip-syncing.

When it came time to film the video, we went to a local YWCA pool one winter afternoon, I lip-synced backwards while falling repeatedly into the water, a lifeguard looked curiously on while we blasted strange backwards audio through a waterproof boombox, and a few hours later we were done. It was fun. My eyes stung from chlorine. My head hurt from back-flopping. And Craig had it pretty much edited by the time I felt normal again.

As for attention, the “Anonymous” video was pretty crucial to the release of my album The Great Make Believer. The video premiered on KCRW’s blog, along with a nice write-up, and that really helped kick off the PR campaign for the whole album with a positive quote from a great outlet. Then a lot of the follow-up press featured that video embedded in the post. So yeah, I got a lot of mileage out of the video, and I think it made it a simpler decision whether a writer was going to talk about my music or not. If there’s a video, their job may be a little easier.

Recently I started playing around with Facebook ads, and using the “Anonymous” video ― along with the headline “EVERY SECOND of this was FILMED BACKWARDS!” ― as an introduction to cold audiences. I got it to the point where I’m spending a couple bucks a day and seeing good results. It’s got 100k+ views, though that stat should be taken with a grain of salt, since Facebook views are definitely NOT the same as YouTube views in terms of tracking intent and engagement. I mean, they auto-play, after all. But I am getting good engagement, a few hundred shares, lots of likes and comments, and I’ve got my cost per “10-second video view” down to $.004, which keeps going down as Facebook learns more about who the ideal viewer of the video is.

I’m pretty happy with those results, especially considering the video takes a little while to ramp up. The action doesn’t happen in the first three seconds. So I think my headline was enough to get people to stick it out until the video gets more visually interesting about 10 seconds in.

Also, it’s really cool to see how an “old” video (it came out in 2016) has just as much promotional power as it did when it was new ― because it IS new for everyone who’s never seen it. And that’s billions of people. If the content is compelling, it can be an asset that keeps working for you, so long as there’s a plan in place to follow up with those new viewers/listeners with additional songs or videos that will bring their orbit a little closer to your magical musical planet. Gravity! A good video targeted to the right audiences makes for an effective tractor beam.

Rotor seems like a great way to easily give your music a visual boost so you can put it out and maybe get some eyeballs you wouldn’t have if you just had a static image. What are your thoughts on Rotor?

I give it a thumbs-up with slight reservations. My only word of caution is that this is the kind of tool that, once a lot of people use it, could start spitting out videos that all look similar. Ya know, like, “Oh, here’s another video with that electrical tower in it!” (Or whatever).

But if you’re willing to get in there and customize things, it can be great. One way to do that is by adding your OWN footage and stills and letting Rotor do the work of editing and applying effects. Another thing I’ve done is to output the 1080HD video that has been edited to a song within Rotor, and then flying that into FCPX to make further edits and tweaks.

For instance, I had Rotor make a kind of cartoonish geometrical animation for “Let You Go.” Then I took that and applied my own Keyer effect (like a green screen), replacing all the blue color with ANOTHER animation video that I created by applying a bunch of crazy effects to the same Rotor output. After all that had been summed into one composite, I applied even more effects — so while it might be recognizable to some people as an element from Rotor, I think I altered the end result enough that it’s very much its own thing.

 

I spent about an hour making a video to an old song of mine, just to play around with it. It seemed fun and like the kind of thing that I could easily spend hours playing with, but I’m not sure how much better the end result would be. How much time have you spent making videos with it, and how versatile is it?

Well, you do have a huge selection of stock footage to choose from, and a lot of editing styles to choose from as well, so you can get some wildly different results. But I think it’s worth playing around with for an hour or more to get the results you want — changing the order of the footage, adding or removing clips that don’t seem to work in context, adjusting editing styles, etc. Even if you spent two hours playing around in Rotor, that’s WAY less time than you’d spend shooting and editing something entirely on your own. And the cool thing is you can adjust things to your heart’s content and you don’t have to pay until you’re finished and ready to export the video.

As an artist who has created unique videos and also used a service like Rotor, how would you compare the results, both artistically, and also how much attention they give you?

I did get some good views and engagement from my “Lonely People” video created by Rotor, and part of the fun of sharing that video was telling people that it was created by a computer, so I left a lot of the random elements in the final video and I think viewers enjoyed the chaos.

 

But obviously, you can get more artistic with your own videos and really shape things to be exactly what you want (at least to the best of your ability or budget). I don’t have film skills, and everything I know how to do with video is self-taught, so at this point I really like the challenge of creating videos within that limited skillset — the whole “do more with less” thing.

As an example, because I don’t have Motion, I’ve had to find other ways of making the text appear onscreen in interesting ways. With my song “1+1+1=3,” I thought I’d use arithmetic as a kind of framework for displaying text, so that became a central element of that video.

 

And because I knew FCPX has a simple “text scroll” feature, I thought I could Star Wars my way through a lyric video for “Irretrievable Beauty” where the actual lyrics were embedded within a series of letters from the future.

 

Rotor might allow you to do “more,” but on the flipside, it can be more difficult to use Rotor to create a really focused vibe.

But one thing I think is worth remembering is that not everything these days need be a fully-produced music video. It’s good to have a mix of:

Rotor makes it way easier to keep up with that kind of output.


Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com.

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