Why music videos matter and how to make them

More than ever, music videos impact physical record sales, streaming success, and how fans engage with your music.

Today, executing your vision is accessible to anyone with a phone.

Due to streaming and the increasing impact of playlisting, singles were already taking hold over full album releases. Then, the pandemic added jet fuel. Nothing is absolute – there are still plenty of LP releases. However, many artists don’t have the financial luxury of waiting for their entire record to come together to release it. Instead, they’re getting scrappy with single and EP campaigns.

Those campaigns need to capture the attention of fans, press, playlisters, record stores, radio stations, social media algorithms, and so on. When you combine that with the societal pull toward meaningful connections during these turbulent times, how you tell your story and connect with your audience matters.

Tools such as Adobe Premier Rush now make it possible for artists to create professional music videos using whatever resources are available to them in a fun and manageable way. Below, indie label heads and artists share how they’ve developed their visual identities through videos.

Telling a cohesive story

Videos do more than help develop your visual identity or tell your story – they create a world for fans to engage with. Below, you’ll see that some acts focus on developing one cohesive narrative for an album, or their entire career. Others build a different world for each single. There’s no right answer; it’s about what feels true to your sonic story.

Allison Durst, Digital Director for Joyful Noise Recordings (Deerhoof, El Ten Eleven, No Joy) said, “Visuals are a big part of how people interact with music right now. We’ve seen a lot more engagement from people when there’s a strong thread throughout the whole campaign.”

Trevor Peterson, head of Fire Talk Records (DEHD, Pure-X, Deeper) reflected, “The only way to reach audiences is online right now. You have to have video content, whether it’s a full-blown music video or simple moving assets for social media. Video is how we market and promote all of our releases now, but they’re also so much more than a marketing tool. Videos are a part of a band’s creative identity that makes them more accessible to fans.”

Creating a world for fans to become immersed in

Kevin Duquette, head of Topshelf Records eloquently described the role of a musician’s visual identity when he said, “The visual representation of a sonic medium is like the knock on the door before you decide to actually open that door.”

He added, “There is a visual code or language that we as people identify with, sometimes without realizing it. It’s like branding – typeface, colors, or imagery all play a role in what you’re trying to evoke and how you’re communicating your identity. You can look at something and think, ‘Ok, this is probably going to be a pop record.’ Hardcore records or punk records have a very specific look.” He went on to say, “Although a surprise can be pleasant, it’s often beneficial to find an aesthetic that gives listeners an idea of what they’re getting into.”

Artist SassyBlack describes her sonic and visual aesthetic as sci-fi chic, psychedelic soul, and hologram funk – terms that interchangeably describe her style, look, and genres. Her music naturally builds a blueprint for her visual brand.

In further describing her aesthetic she said, “To me, it’s very Black, very spacey – but it’s also flexible and fluid. My music is not one constant thing, and neither is my look.” She continued, “I am a storyteller; my word has to sketch a story. I was a writer before a musician. For me, when I write, my words have to get up and take you somewhere. They have to jump off the page, go into your brain, hold your hand, or run with you or, say ‘catch up.’ The term ‘hologram funk’ makes you feel like there is an illusion in front of you – it brings up imagery.”

The band Dehd on Fire Talk has a recognizable visual aesthetic and releases fully-produced music videos with a strong narrative, actors – the whole shebang. This came naturally to the band, as member Emily Kempf is a video director and Jason Balla is a graphic designer. Their videos work seamlessly with their music to create a vibrant world fans want to engage with.

Trevor from Fire Talk shared, “Emily has a specific aesthetic. Her dad was in the film business in Atlanta, so she grew up on sets. She’s a fully creative person. Starting all the way back to the first Dehd video, she was concepting and directing with her friend Ryan Hart. Over the years, they’ve created a robust crew of people working on these videos doing wardrobe and set design.”

He added that from a label perspective, “It’s valuable to have somebody with such a strong creative vision who’s creating a world. That’s how I look at it – each band is creating their own world that fans engage with and will ultimately become a part of. It brings people in on a broader level. With Dehd, it’s not manufactured. It fully embodies the spirit of the band creatively.”

Kevin from Topshelf suggests that you can create a world with a single song too. He said, “You can make one single track this concise statement and densely pack a lot into it, whereas an album is a whole other experience that takes much more time and potentially way more people to put together.”

Controlling the narrative

The intimacy of live streaming from your home is great, but not all artists are comfortable with that. Some care less about comfort and more about creating a consistent or more polished image for their fans. Music videos help them connect while maintaining control over how their story is told. Kevin said, “Music videos can convey a lot of personality and showcase who you are as people behind the music.” You can achieve a connection and get vulnerable with your fans without doing it in real time or from your bedroom if you don’t want to.

Promoting an album in the 2020s

Music videos were all the rage in MTV and VH1’s glory days. Then, music blogs democratized promotion for smaller acts in the early 00s. It became all about the MP3 download. Those who couldn’t afford an expensive music video or didn’t have the resources for a proper radio campaign now had a way of reaching dedicated fans.

Then social media stole the show, cameras were added to our phones, and artists began connecting with their fans sans any gatekeeper at all.

Videos are crucial to all aspects of a promotional campaign

Trevor from Fire Talk said, “Videos are part of a much wider campaign. As a label, we’re working our albums everywhere from radio to playlists to social media to retail marketing – the list goes on. Mechanically, in terms of having things to promote, whether in a press release for music blogs or using clips to create digital ads, videos provide a platform for pushing traffic towards a specific location. They shape a campaign.”

He added, “Everyone has a new song on Spotify; it’s tough to grab attention with that. But a music video? That gives everyone something new and different to engage with.”

Allison from Joyful Noise said, “We’ve seen the most success, the best return, when we release a couple of singles tied to videos before the full album rollout. The video becomes its own press-worthy or attention-grabbing thing.” She added, “By return, I mean growth in fans, album sales, social media numbers – all of that translates to fan engagement.

Kevin compared the importance of visuals today to when he worked in college radio. Among a sea of unsolicited CDs and demos, he’d often prioritize the ones that drew him in with their artwork. Album art plays a similar role for fans on streaming services or for journalists in press releases, as do video stills or clips on social media. He said, “I think if you’re going to say, ‘Hey, here’s only this one song,’ a video is the most impactful way to create a memorable experience around that three minutes they’re going to spend listening.”

COVID-19 has taken single culture to new heights

Allison reflected, “I feel like before COVID, you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to a single. Now, people have so much downtime, and many are using it to make or listen to music and watch performances. With that comes a lot of saturation. Bandcamp Day has been amazing, but the volume of releases can be overwhelming. That’s just our reality right now. Singles, each with their own visual — even if it’s simple — make sense in this environment. That way, you can spread out releases and pepper in something visually different to grab attention, rather than rely on the same album art.”

She added, “That goes for the press too. There aren’t as many people writing about music anymore. So how do you get their attention? Compelling visuals can have a major impact. At the end of the day, press coverage for a single helps with playlist placement and vice versa.”

So much of operating in the music industry is about adapting to the ‘new normal,’ even when we’re not in a pandemic. Kevin from Topshelf reflected, “It’s not like singles are like a new idea, but it is now very much the new normal. I mean, guitar rock, indie bands – I didn’t foresee that. I didn’t think single culture would trickle down to hardcore and punk bands. It didn’t seem like this [the genres Topshelf represents] would ever be part of that world, but the streaming mindset and trickling things out has taken over.”

He continued, “Some of the biggest artists we’ve worked with have never released an album, and that’s telling to me. I don’t think it’s necessarily a detractor, but it’s certainly a new way to go about it. As someone who enjoys buying physical media and wants to support artists, it’s a little bit of a bummer. That said, running a label of artists with such differing tastes has definitely broadened my horizons. We even assign singles catalog numbers now.”

He added, “It depends on the band, the style of music, and their fans, but in some cases, an act can make more money off of a single or series of singles vs. a record, since there’s practically no overhead releasing purely on digital. No Vacation is a great example. Some of their songs have tens of millions of plays on streaming services and their music videos are great – and they’re pulling their own budgets to make videos and stuff.”

Music videos aren’t just for debuts

Joyful Noise artist No Joy hadn’t released an album since 2015 until this year. Meanwhile, Spotify has been growing into the monster it is that entire time. Allison said, “Video has been an effective way for her to reintroduce herself to the music community. She’s been utilizing Spotify’s Canvas feature – a looped video that displays on the mobile app when a single plays. It’s helped build a consistent theme with this album release.”

She added, “Ultimately, music is about creating a culture and people gravitating towards that. Today, visual aesthetics and elements play almost as big of — and in some cases, bigger — a role in that as the audio.”

Kevin said he’ll post a release from a month ago on social media that he thought they “blitzed the hell out of” — one that anyone who follows them would have to know about — and then people still chime in learning about the artist for the first time. He finds it surprising, but it has inspired him to encourage his artists to make videos and visual content for older songs. He added that No Vacation has been breathing life into older songs with video for a while.

(Although this video was published in 2019, “Yam Yam” was initially released in 2017.)

Authenticity breeds engagement on social media

Everyone we spoke to referenced the importance of authenticity for an act on social media. Not a new concept, but worth pointing out that this is coming from record labels – the people dedicated to sales, stats, and numbers. At the end of the day, a band or musician being themselves on social media is what fans will connect with, and if you’re comfortable using video, it’s the most direct and compelling way to make that connection.

Allison said, “Thor Harris of Thor & Friends (also Swans, Shearwater, Bill Callahan) is a perfect example. He has a wild social media presence in terms of engagement and it’s so unorthodox, but if you asked him to take an orthodox approach, it wouldn’t work. People want that from him, as him being himself.”

Allison suggests using different social media channels for different forms of expression. She said, “Twitter is more for news items and quippy things that aren’t necessarily visual. It’s better for conversation and sharing articles and things like that. Instagram is more fun I think, but I’m also very visual. I like that you can get weird on Instagram. And then Facebook is just a necessary evil for us as a label, at least until something new comes along! We run ads from there.”

Share your music videos across channels. Now that most platforms allow you to play them natively, it has become easier for fans to engage with them wherever they are.

We’d be remiss to leave out the behemoth that TikTok has become for the music industry. Plenty of journalists have written and talked about its impact. There’s even a genre called ‘TikTok musicians.’ It’s understood that the platform turned artists like Lil Nas X and Supa Dupa Humble into viral sensations. Ashnikko’s career launched when a 2019 single went viral on Tik Tok, where she now has 1.5M followers. That single, “Stupid (feat. Yung Baby Tate),” has over 97M streams on Spotify. If you’re making pop music with videos, TikTok is the place to be.

Trevor from Fire Talk was getting ready to launch a label TikTok a few days after we spoke. He said, “It’s an interesting concept for me to play around with from a marketing standpoint. I don’t have any answers. I can see how it can work for a major pop hit, but how it works for indie music… Who knows? There aren’t as many readily available hooks within the first however many seconds to catch viewers’ short attention spans before scrolling.”

Metadata goes a long way on YouTube

If you’re looking to catch the YouTube algorithm to drive views, you have to have your metadata right. Trevor strongly suggests, “Make sure your videos are titled and tagged properly, that the description has all the pertinent information and links back to where people can find your album or stream the record. It’s boring, but in music in general, make sure you have really strong metadata.”

There are dozens of tools for making sure your Youtube SEO is locked in. We use vidIQ at Splice.

Tips and best practices for creating music videos

Planning video content starts with a vision or idea. If you’re not a very visual person, tap a collaborator you communicate well with. Someone who understands your music and audience, someone you trust to help you create something that connects with fans.

Budgets can range widely with DIY music videos, from nothing but time (that is a resource) to thousands of dollars. The going range for a video funded by a mid-level indie label is $1,000 – $1,500. Below, we explore ways to fund your video, as well as creative alternatives to outsourcing.

Build your world

I asked SassyBlack how she developed her distinct image as an artist. She said, “It takes time. I think it’s easier for people who have access to a lot of resources and for people who are more in touch with their visual sense, but I think it’s like a meditation. You have to reflect on who you really are, and you might run into blockages in that process. You might start second-guessing yourself like, ‘That’s too nerdy. That’s too weird.’ It just takes patience and experimentation.”

She added, “You have to ask yourself how you want to be seen. I think about MF Doom. Who’s under that mask? I don’t know. I think about Esperanza Spalding, who at one point brought marionettes into her show to create an experience. It’s a research project. Once you start digging into what you want and what’s around you, things start opening up to you. Look at Beyoncé – how many times has her aesthetic changed? It’s a long journey.”

Get your friends and / or community involved

A lot of artists who don’t have video or visual skills tap their talented video friends to help them for a lower rate (and sometimes for free). Allison from Joyful Noise shared that the band Ohmme is deeply involved in the art and music scene in Chicago, so they often hire friends to help make a video while having some fun. She said, “Don’t be shy – ask all your friends. The best DIY tip I can give is to build up a creative community by sharing your talents.”

Fire Talk band Deeper has also tapped their Chicago community to make a full-blown music video affordable.

Hire a good editor to do something interesting with your phone footage

Trevor from Fire Talk said that when they’re working with a smaller campaign, they’ll hire an editor to get creative with found footage, iPhone footage, or even film footage if an artist has it.

The band Corey Flood released their debut LP during quarantine and it was important to have a video with the lead single to set the stage. They didn’t have an in-house video person, so they tapped their inner circle to find someone who could cut and edit footage from their phones.

Deeper took a similar scrappy approach during the pandemic. For the track “Helena’s Flowers,” Shiraz from the band, who’s Native American, looked for found footage and tied it back to specific Native American folklore, and cut it together himself. They then paid a professional to edit it together so that it synced to the song.

During quarantine, they hired two visual artists to make a simple video for a Pure X release – a complimentary piece of art to go with the song.

DIY music videos

If you’re good with a camera, animation, illustration, etc., have some fun making a video yourself. There are no rules saying you have to pay someone to make you a professional video. You may be surprised by what you can do.

SassyBlack said, “It takes experimentation and maybe trying something weird on your own for the lowest budget because music videos are expensive. Experiment with phone apps or find some stock videos to edit together. Remember, music videos come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t have to be you dancing and lip-syncing to your lyrics. They can just be a video of a couch and you sitting on it, and then laying on it and getting up and then rolling the couch away. It doesn’t matter – there are so many different things it could be.”

Adobe Premiere Rush is a neat, affordable tool and resource for easily shooting and editing video footage and sharing it directly to YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc. Or, you can use it to edit and share any type of footage together – iPhone, found footage, or even film. Everything is backed to the cloud and it offers easy-to-use tools for editing color, audio, transitions, speed, motion graphics, and more. It’s super intuitive to use, so you can focus on your creative vision as you go.

Here are a couple examples of what you can do with Rush and tips for getting started:

The band Mamalarky shot footage with a Super Eight camera one of their moms gifted them. Trevor said, “They’ve been filming a ton of stuff and are just savvy with editing software. They’ve been getting the film processed and are cutting it all themselves. Two people from the band have art school backgrounds so they were able to take a scrappier approach.”

Allison from Joyful Noise got creative making a lyric video for Deerhoof’s “Future Teenage Artists” along with Ryan Hover. Allison videoed herself moving the lyrics to the rhythm of the song using an overhead projector. Then, Ryan layered that footage over his footage of a cave. The result is a $0 budget fun take on a lyric video.

She also created a karaoke-style video for “Singalong Junk,” which is especially fun given that there are no lyrics in the song.

Kevin shared Choker as another great example of a group skilled with a camera, just making stuff.

Diversify with visualizers

If you don’t have time or budget to create full music videos, Allison from Joyful Noise suggests creating a visualizer. This can be something as simple as a burning book (as created by Ben Shemie of SUUNS) or an animated illustration like Ryan Hover created for Thor & Friends. Using visualizers gives you something other than your album art to use so that press and fans recognize it as something new.

Allison added, “I think visualizers are a lot more accessible to musicians. We often suggest our artists who aren’t into music videos use them.”

Here’s an example of a visualizer created with iPhone footage using Adobe Premier Rush in just 20 minutes.

This visualizer from Joeboy has almost 38 million views:

Final thoughts

Videos are a vital tool for connecting to new and existing fans to press and even music supervisors. Not only do they make you and your music more accessible to listeners, but the format is also more accessible than ever to learn and evolve. Harness that creativity we know you have and get experimenting.

Have you made your own music videos or visualizers? Drop them in the comments below.

Create your own videos whenever inspiration strikes with Adobe Premiere Rush:

November 10, 2020

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.