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How Music Videos Get Made in the Time of the Coronavirus

Pop stars and indie artists alike are taking new approaches to music videos—and finding that they may be the most adaptive medium for making creative material in a largely shut down world

John W Tomac

When stay-at-home orders were finally enacted in Florida in early April, DrewFilmedIt left his place in Miami and made the four-hour drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, to be with his family. The 19-year-old director spent the first two weeks of lockdown playing video games. Then the Pompano Beach rapper Jackboy called him about making a music video. Drew turned the opportunity down. But Jackboy kept calling. And calling.

“Every day he would just be like, ‘We shooting today? We shooting today?’” Drew says.

With his self-titled album set for an April 24 release, Jackboy, a member of Kodak Black’s Sniper Gang label, needed to put out a video to get the attention of a (somewhat literally) captive audience. “I feel like during the corona, even the smaller artists that are not really mainstream yet, this is the time for them to real deal show, ’cause nobody really has nothing else to do but listen to everybody’s music,” he says. “During the corona, you should drop, drop, drop. So by the time we get off of the coronavirus, hey, you might mess around and be mainstream.”

Eventually Drew relented and drove back to Miami. Together, they made “Pressure.” They quickly posted it to YouTube, and it now has more than 11 million views.

In a week and a half, Drew and Jackboy collaborated on a total of five videos. “It used to take me a month to get a million views, but now it’s like within four or five days,” Jackboy says. “‘Pressure’ did a million the first day out.”

Since a normal-sized production is out of the question right now, these days Drew brings his own cameras and light to each shoot, plus a Bluetooth speaker to play back the music. There’s only one other person in his crew. Rentals have become virtually impossible to find in Miami, so the boat in Jackboy’s video for “Pack a Punch” belonged to a friend, as did the house in “Cleaning Crew.” Drew says that if the artist is cooperative and there’s a plan in place, he can finish a shoot in an hour, which is an extra bonus given the heat in Florida.

After filming, he’ll load the files into his computer at night. When he wakes up, he works on the edit until the video is done. Since many labels aren’t able to closely monitor video production and push for changes, he can have a final product in less than 24 hours. “It’s easier, but it’s not to the full potential [of what the video could be],” Drew says.

When other artists realized that Drew was still making videos, they started to reach out. He’s since collaborated with up-and-coming acts like Rod Wave, Asian Doll, King Von, HOTBOII, and 30 Deep Grimeyy. When we spoke in early May, he had shot a video every day for the past two weeks. He was back in St. Petersburg, finishing up edits on four videos and planning more shoots, including one in Atlanta for Polo G’s “Wishing For a Hero.”

To prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 on his sets, Drew says he provides hand sanitizer, wears a mask, and tries his best to maintain some space between himself and his subjects. But not all artists are that careful. Watch Jackboy cavort with a pair of nearly naked twins in the video for “Pack a Punch,” and it’s obvious that not everyone is concerned about social distancing protocols. Some of the artists Drew has worked with have erred on the side of caution, but others haven’t seemed concerned. “A lot of these artists, I feel like they wouldn’t believe it until they got it,” Drew says of the coronavirus. “They will just live their normal lives.”

In a time when the threat of COVID-19 is still very real, musicians are trying to find a balance between staying safe and doing their jobs. The videos that have been released in the past two months display a spectrum of approaches on how they keep creating and promoting themselves in a radically altered world.

The global pandemic has upended the entertainment industry along with almost every other facet of modern life. It has altered all previous norms around how new content is made and what audiences want to see. By the end of March, every Hollywood movie production had shut down. A few television shows have managed to figure out ways to continue filming: daytime and late-night talk shows cobbled together their own stripped-down setups, sometimes in the hosts’ basements and attics. Saturday Night Live has aired three “At Home” editions. Parks and Recreation staged a video chat-themed special; the CBS drama All Rise took a similar Zoom-ified approach for an episode. And, of course, both amateur and professional performers have flooded outlets like Instagram Live and TikTok with comedy sketches, stand-up routines, music “battles,” intimate at-home concerts, DJ sets, interviews, and a fair amount of directionless jabbering to fill the hours.

But music videos, a medium that has tried to secure its cultural and economic footing ever since MTV shifted to original programming and record labels slashed budgets in the early 2000s, may be the most adaptive medium for making new creative material in a largely shut down world. The equipment needed to shoot a broadcast-ready video is now relatively affordable, or is even something you’re already using to send group texts and listen to podcasts. The software to edit the footage or create visual effects is widely available and user friendly. There are directors all over the country with credible experience, or ones who are willing to work cheap for the opportunity.

During the first weeks of COVID-19’s spread across the United States, the music industry mostly cycled out the videos it already had in the can. These offered strange images of parties packed with bodies or incongruous visions of four people who aren’t related to each other standing in a room together clutching their instruments. Carlos Cuadros, the director of digital marketing at RCA Records, says that initially there was a dip in viewership for music videos. “You take people out of their usual consumption habits and context for consumption, you’re going to have a shift in that consumption,” Cuadros says. Two months later he says the numbers have ticked back up again.

A spokesperson for YouTube was unable to provide data on how new music videos have performed on the platform or how many have been uploaded since stay-at-home measures began, but Cuadros says that his company hasn’t slowed the amount of content it releases. “People are still looking towards music as a bit of relief during times like this, or as a bit of a distraction,” he says. “Volume-wise, there hasn’t been really a huge change in what we’ve been putting out. The way we’ve been putting it out is a little bit more of a change.”

The major record labels aren’t commissioning actual shoots right now, but they have increased the number of animated visuals and lyrics videos—like the one for Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj’s “Say So” remix, which recently topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. And if musicians want to film something themselves, the labels are open to it. “You have artists who are already comfortable, or are starting to get comfortable, with more of the raw shoots that can happen at home,” Cuadros says. “Musicians at the end of the day are creators, they’ll find a way to continue to bring that message through video.”

On April 2, Drake released “Toosie Slide,” the first clip from a major artist to comment on the bizarre state of reality. Directed by his longtime personal chronicler Theo Skudra, the video found Drake in a black balaclava, moving through the mostly empty Toronto mansion that he’d soon show off in the pages of Architectural Digest. He looked like hip-hop’s sad Superman, putting on a fireworks show for himself and trying to kick-start a viral dance challenge from his Fortress of Solitude.

The rapper-stuck-at-home video is now a trope. In “JUMP,” DaBaby lampooned the new obsession with deep cleaning and flaunted Lysol spray cans like they were stacks of hundreds. The pure goofiness of O.T. Genasis in “I Look Good” felt reminiscent of when Kevin McCallister realized he made his family disappear. In Yella Beezy’s “Headlocc,” the Texas MC baked and played cards with a trio of dancers in an Airbnb mansion on the outskirts of Dallas. Some rappers who have ventured into the world to make videos have seen their plans thwarted. After Westside Gunn brought out dozens of people to the streets of Atlanta for “Euro Step,” the gathering was broken up by the police, whose blurred faces made it into the final cut.

As public health restrictions and recommendations extended through April and into May, stay-at-home life became the dominant visual language of music videos. Three years ago, director Jake Schreier filmed the Haim sisters dancing shoulder-to-shoulder down the streets of the San Fernando Valley in “Want You Back.” Now, he had them perform solemn choreography at a safe distance from each other on a cracked outdoor basketball court in “I Know Alone.” Ethan Hawke echoed the single-shot video he starred in for Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” in 1994 for his daughter Maya Hawke’s “Coverage,” but in this version, a barn took the place of a New York City apartment, and cans of Campbell’s soup replaced decorative empty bottles of wine. Kehlani treated her backyard like the deep woods for “Everybody Business.” 645AR’s “Yoga” spiraled deep into the rapper’s glitchy quarantine brain, ending with digital text stating the most apt message for right now: “2020 sucks.”

Last week, when Harry Styles released the gratuitously sensuous clip for “Watermelon Sugar,” which was filmed in Malibu way back in January, it included the note, “This video is dedicated to touching.” It almost felt like an apology.

While some artists have structured their music videos around their personal experiences in isolation, others have turned to creative crowdsourcing to gather material. Charli XCX, the adventurous English pop singer, announced at the beginning of April that she would use her self-isolation time in Los Angeles to record a new album called how i’m feeling now, which she released on May 15. Shortly after debuting its first single, “forever,” she posted on Instagram asking her fans to send in footage of their lives in lockdown for the song’s video. Charli brought in Dan Streit as her codirector. Four years earlier, Streit did a video for Jim-E Stack’s “Deadstream” that strung together existing Vines that used the song as their soundtrack. She told him they had a week to get it done. “I know that that’s an insanely stressful amount of time to make something, but I was willing to do it,” Streit says.

By having Charli ask for several specific fan shots, like a view from a living room window or an image of a sentimental object, Streit knew he’d have some semblance of a structure to fall back on. But most important was the Instagram post’s request for “your favourite videos on your phone from THE PAST places you’ve been/ past fun memories/ you’re [sic] favourite party you want to remember/ a funny thing your pet did.” This song is about deep longing, and these memories hiding deep in people’s camera rolls would provide the video with its aching emotional core. “Those are the kinds of intimate moments that are only really special to the people who are sending them,” Streit says. “I was aiming for this constant feeling of intimacy and simply a celebration of life as a whole, without sounding too cheesy.”

The Gmail account they set up quickly received more than 3,000 submissions. As Streit sifted through the videos, he sorted them into subcategories so they’d interact with each other. In one stretch, a musician jumping on stage led to someone plunging into the ocean, which turned into a series of fishes and scuba divers, which went into an upside-down shot of legs sticking out of a pool, which matched with the arched feet of a woman practicing ballet in her room. There was no money to bring in anyone to help, so Streit worked frantically to get the video done in time. “[It] ended up causing a little bit of tension at home,” Streit says. “I live with my girlfriend right now and when I’m working around the clock sitting on the computer, it’s not fun. But I would say that there was something liberating about knowing that I’m working towards something that’s going to be done in a few days.”

Modern pop royalty isn’t above relying on crowdsourcing and self-filming. The video for Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s charity duet, “Stuck With U,” intermixed pixelated visions of teenage fans dressed for the proms they will never go to with glimpses of celebrities like Chance the Rapper and Gwyneth Paltrow slow dancing in their immaculate houses. Grande filmed her performance as she snuggled her dog, while Bieber captured his clips while strolling around his Canadian estate with his wife.

Some videos were in preproduction when COVID-19 was mostly confined to China, but as cases started to multiply around the planet, the ideas got scrapped or reworked. Swedish director Filip Nilsson was hired in February to make a video for Major Lazer’s song with Marcus Mumford, “Lay Your Head on Me.” Nilsson said his original vision would have been “a dream project” for him, one that involved Diplo carrying a horse over his shoulders in the middle of a big field, but they soon realized that they wouldn’t be able to pull off a big shoot with locations in Los Angeles and London given stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions.

Eventually, they had dancers from around the world—a pregnant woman in Dubai, a lanky dude in Lagos, a trio of Tokyo schoolgirls, etc.send in footage of themselves doing a routine by choreographer Ryan Heffington. Those clips are joined by ones from musicians, like a Las Vegas keytarist and a handpan drummer in Barcelona, playing along to the track. Instead of relying on an open call for contributions, Nilsson worked with production companies around the world to scour social media and find the right participants, focusing on talent rather than clout. “We really wanted to avoid wannabe celebrities or influencers,” Nilsson says.

Everyone was sent a detailed explanation of what angle and framing they should use to film themselves. Nilsson ended up asking some people to reshoot their parts three or four times if they didn’t get the setup right. The only person he directed via Zoom was Mumford, whose performance was captured at his home outside of London as his wife, the actress Carey Mulligan, operated the camera. The final video features 209 people from 28 countries, culled from more than a thousand contributors.

Working out of his son’s bedroom at his home in Gothenburg, Nilsson recently finished a music video for Swedish star Håkan Hellström that he began before “Lay Your Head on Me.” He’s bummed that’s how things have to be. “Everyone who’s a filmmaker really wants to get out and shoot again, like in a proper way, whenever we can,” he says.

Like Nilsson, Los Angeles–based director Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman was also preparing for a shoot in March: for Squarepusher’s melancholy instrumental track “Detroit People Mover.” Yet while his idea for the visuals never really changed, the emotional content of the video shifted. When the extent of COVID-19’s impact became clear, he hurried back to his hometown of Detroit to make it happen. In the video, a wireless printer on the floor of the actual Detroit People Mover—a monorail that travels a nearly 3-mile loop around downtown—spit out photographs that were shot in the city during the late 1970s and ’80s, when the mass transit system turned tourist attraction was built.

Hurwitz-Goodman always planned to shoot the People Mover traveling above Detroit’s empty streets, but now, the sidewalks were deserted and the cars were gone. “It became more focused on this idea of togetherness,” he says. “At first, my concept was that the machines miss human beings, that these machines are kind of wandering around, drifting through empty space and they miss their creators, evoking some kind of mystery of what happened to people. But I think after the coronavirus, it became a lot more important for me to focus on photographs of people with each other, because the audience misses people.”

Squarepusher’s record label had Hurwitz-Goodman add a title card at the start of the video telling viewers when it was shot, but he thinks the piece’s meaning will naturally shift back to his original intention once the pandemic is over. “The question of automation, the question of artificial intelligence, just our relationship with robots and computers and things made out of plastic and metal,” he says, “that’s not going to end when we finally get out of this quarantine.”

Some artists have decided to be more explicit about tying their videos to the lockdown. Rich Brian, an Indonesian rapper on the 88rising label who now lives in Los Angeles, directed his own clip for the song “BALI.” He used a drone to deliver presents to musicians and YouTubers physically distancing around the city: Cuco got a box of condoms, Denzel Curry got bags of dried beans, Buddy got Rick & Morty merch, Cody Ko got celery and a bottle of rosé. In exchange for the gifts, his friends donated money, which Brian then dispersed via drone to street-food vendors and local organizations helping with the response to the coronavirus. The whole thing was planned and shot in less than a week. “The hardest part was to coordinate everything and, like, get rappers to not flake at the last minute,” says Brian. “There was just a lot of FaceTime calls.”

He admits that having to stay at home isn’t that much of an adjustment for him. He still spends most of his time working on new music and cooking, though he’s been talking to other rappers and his family back home over the phone more often. Brian originally had a different, more fun-loving and materialistic idea for the “BALI” video before the shutdown; the track is, as he describes it, “the most flex-y song than I’ve ever had.” Still, it was important for him to proceed with doing a video now, albeit one with a more compassionate approach. “When 2020 came, my plan was to make this the most active year,” Brian says. “I didn’t want the virus to stop it.”

OK Go found their first major success with the music video for “A Million Ways” back in 2005, before YouTube was a behemoth. They’ve since become best known for their precisely constructed productions that have included them performing on a plane in zero gravity and setting off an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption. These videos often require months of planning and funding from corporate sponsors. Cumulatively, they have amassed hundreds of millions of views. “Our band has always been lucky to exist a little outside the music industry, or at least the expectations of what’s done in the music industry,” says Damian Kulash, the group’s lead singer and sometimes video director. “That has been a blessing for us in general, but it also means there’s very little road map for what we are supposed to do.”

In March, Kulash and his wife, the writer Kristin Gore, became among the first people in California diagnosed with COVID-19. According to Kulash, Gore was only briefly hospitalized, but there were times when her labored breathing caused him to fear for her life. He considered the days when she slept for 20 hours the good ones. Once she recovered and was healthy enough to watch their twin 2-year-old daughters for a bit, Kulash started writing a new song that became “All Together Now,” inspired by what people are going through and the nightly cacophonies to celebrate frontline workers. After he sent it to the rest of the band, he had each member film themselves with their iPhones as they recorded their parts in their respective Los Angeles homes. On May 12, the group released a video in which each element of the track being played (a bassline, a tambourine, a backup vocal, another tambourine … ) got its own rectangular tile that appeared, disappeared and shifted across a black background.

Putting out such a relatively unpolished video is an unusual move for the band. Kulash compared it to them releasing a multi-track audio demo. “It’s still hard to imagine something more convincing than a pandemic in terms of saying, ‘Do not worry about what’s normal. If you made something you like, just give it to people,’” he says. “If this had been the first song I wrote for a new album, the chances of us shooting a home video and putting it out are almost zilch with the world’s expectations. It has been freeing to go, ‘This song is about this moment.’ I wish we had gotten it out two or three weeks ago, because this moment that I’m talking about is already morphing and changing in front of us.”

While most music videos about the pandemic are about unity and everyone relying on each other, there is also a very different side to what’s actually happening out in the world. Year of the Ox’s “Viral” may have been the first official American music video to address the effects of COVID-19’s spread. At the start of March, before schools shut down and the restaurants were closed in Los Angeles, the Korean American duo of JL and Lyricks started seeing cellphone camera footage of Asian American people around the country getting assaulted and harassed. “Being away from our parents, elderly Korean people just going out to their businesses, we had this legitimate fear,” Lyricks says. “If strangers are getting sucker punched and knocked out on the street everywhere, who’s to say that can’t happen to our parents.”

The group recorded “Viral” about the situation, then decided to make a video. Originally they were just going to use those upsetting videos that were being shared online, but then they decided to add in performance footage as well. They had a friend film them on an iPhone in a Rite-Aid with depleted shelves as they rapped their parts, but as they exited the store wearing their masks, another customer started to fake cough and sneeze as they passed, implying they would give him the coronavirus. A portion of the incident is shown at the end of the video. “I felt like I was paralyzed at that moment,” Lyricks says. “Not because I was scared or fearful. It was more just like, I can’t believe this shit is happening.”

Before the stay-at-home orders, Year of the Ox released at least one new video a month. They say they have a few more in the works, but have decided to hold off putting them out for now. “Due to social distancing and just being responsible as a whole, we’re keeping videos low maintenance,” Lyricks says in a text. “One cameraman and a Bluetooth speaker hidden somewhere. Luckily this is our favorite style of shooting anyway.”

And now, in this strange moment in history, it’s become so many other musicians’ favorite, too. Even if it’s because that’s really the only option.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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