Music is an aural medium, they said. The audience wants to see you play your instruments, they said.
With the saturation of music videos these days, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact that they are, in reality, a fairly recent phenomenon. For years, the formula was cut and dried. Get your band on a stage. Get them to play their big song. Film them playing their big song. Make them smile to the camera. Rinse and repeat.
There were experiments to the contrary, sure, but the mould was pretty firmly set. This is how you make music videos. This is what the people want. This is what the people like.
Michael Jackson had released six of the 10 songs on his “Thriller” album as singles, and was about to drop the seventh. Finally getting to the title track, he knew that he needed to shake things up in order for the single to go anywhere. The album has been a huge success, but Jackson wanted more.
Without a thought about time difference, as was Michael Jackson’s want, he dialled the number of John Landis in the UK, waking him up at 2am. Landis, hearing the voice of Michael flipping Jackson on the other end of the line, put on his bravest and least-tired voice. Jackson wanted to make a music video, he said, that wasn’t a music video.
Director Landis, of Blues Brothers, Animal House and An American Werewolf In London fame, shot back that he’d be happy to, as long as Jackson was happy to treat it not as a music video, but as a short film. They shook phone hands and hung up.
The resultant 13 minute clip, which drew a lot from Landis’ American Werewolf work (the only Landis film that Jackson had even seen), was less a music clip than a cultural phenomenon.
Costing $900,000 and taking two weeks to shoot, it was of a scale that embarrassed many feature films of the time, and hasn’t really been touched by a music video since. It created the “making of” documentary genre; its popularity and demand almost single-handedly created the rental VHS market; and more than anything, it opened musicians’ and record companies’ minds to the untapped potential of the music video.
Despite the album having been out for over a year and having already been a massive seller, in the immediate aftermath of the video release, Jackson’s label Epic Records reported shipping over one million copies a week. The Making Of documentary, the first of its kind, had over 100,000 pre-orders before it had even been put to tape. And at $29.95 a pop, the initial $900,000 investment was now a drop in a surging ocean.
Spike Jonze saw Thriller as a 14-year-old, and he says the eccentricity and freedom blew his mind. It set him on a path to create some of the 90’s most enduring music videos – Fatboy Slim’s Praise You, Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, to name but two – and he points at that while the marketing success that Thriller achieved is undeniable, the lure for him was quite the opposite. It was simply creating something that was going to do justice to the song.
Thriller shook up the music video production world in a huge way, but it shouldn’t be seen as an isolated case. In recent years, there’s been something that has had just as large an effect in the industry – YouTube.
In a world where anyone can play music video director and have the entire planet as an audience, creativity has never been so important. Whereas “Thriller” gained success by tearing apart the accepted norm, now it has comes to pass that if you don’t do something completely unique, if you don’t produce a “Thriller” every time, your video will most likely be consigned to online purgatory. It’s a ruthless system, but one that forces the best minds to think of and produce the best material, time and time again.
Thirty years after its release, “Thriller” is still a cornerstone of pop culture. Jackson and Landis have created something timeless (fashion gurus may disagree), and its presence is still being felt to this day. Combining stunning imagery with a stunning soundtrack truly moves people, and if done right, can create the sort of success that most of us only dream about.
As always, $900,000 is not needed. A great idea and a great production team is.