Good music videos are deceptively complex, and the styles run a huge gamut. They are part commercial and part promo in practice, but these goals are not intrinsic to the genre. The juxtaposition of the sound and the image form a critical relationship, and this is where we should focus our attention, as I believe this is how the audience interprets the video — on the merits of sound and image, not as creating a desire to purchase a product. Let’s make some general observations about structure to offer a bit of guidance to putting together a strong treatment.
Story–based vs. abstract
First, let us loosely divide them into story–based and abstract videos. Story–based videos clearly offer a more straight–forward approach where you can write out the scenario and develop a script without dialogue. Supported with visual references that clarify the style and aesthetics of the video, you are in a good place to convey what you have in mind.
Abstract videos likely depend more on visual references, reputation and pitching ability, but we can still provide some insight into the progression of the video over time. This variety walks a line between visual innovation and banality. As you introduce the visual style of the video in the opening moments, the viewer will become accustomed to the rhythm and shots that you’ve prepared and grow bored. Interest will be extended briefly when the lead singer makes their appearance (if they haven’t already) but then you will again run out of momentum.
One technique of rejuvenating interest is by incorporating new perspectives or editing devices, but again you will run out of territory. A great many videos depend on costume, lighting or location changes every minute, each one more elaborate than the previous. An example would be that a rapper is alone in studio, just him and the microphone. Then his dancers appear 30 seconds in. Then they all have new wardrobe on a different set for minute 2. At 2:45, there is another change to a more spectacular set with more dancers and new wardrobe for everyone. At 3:30, with the end in sight but no more budget left in the till, the video will cut between all 3 setups to push us through the remaining moments.
Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video follows this pattern slavishly.
Director X/Drake “Hotline Bling”
A huge amount of music videos follow this pattern, and while done poorly it is an obvious cliché, when done well it is a clever application of renewing interest and upping the stakes at regular intervals to keep your audience interested. The important thing is to plan change, which is really an essential element of any compelling story in any genre.
Eric Wareheim/MGMT “The Youth”
The first main change to the pattern is at :28, with the chorus coming in at :42 and a breakdance/breakdown at 1:09. The overall structure repeats, showing imagery that we have seen previously, but a narrative has been created this time around due to the slap. A full look refresh happens at 2:36 and new kinds of performance at 2:49.
Each of these changes bolsters our flagging interest in the footage which, like a stick of cheap gum losing its flavor, quickly becomes familiar.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis “Downtown”
Again, the style is established then the familiar pattern is broken at 1:02 with a strong new visual that leads to a slightly different subject matter, the tricked out bikes and tricks. Same thing at 1:45. A shot with tremendous energy (passing the fish) leads to a new visual motif, the chariot business. At 2:40, another new one. 3:28 teases a new, suburban set and then 4:00 brings us a parade and the big finish.
This analysis is not to prove that all videos follow a pattern (though some clearly do…) but to demonstrate the philosophy of having to constantly inject something new, explore it, then inject something new again. The finish is usually either the most impressive visual or a mix of all the previous styles.
Anything that deviates this approach seems to go one of two ways, either being painfully boring or proving an inimitable exception. In preparing briefs for music videos, consider this need to reinvigorate energy and plan for it with formal devices (like camera work and editing) or style (makeup, wardrobe) or location, or any other means. A storyboard or mood board can effectively portray the change, depending on the particular pitch.