Congrats on your viral music video; here’s a thousand bucks

Emma Westenberg’s career took off when she helmed a wildly popular Janelle Monáe video. But for many music video directors, the path to profitability isn’t always straightforward.

Congrats on your viral music video; here’s a thousand bucks

Emma Westenberg’s career took off when she helmed a wildly popular Janelle Monáe video. But for many music video directors, the path to profitability isn’t always straightforward.

The vagina pants had traveled from the Netherlands, to Los Angeles, and then two hours north to Lancaster, California, where they were worn by Janelle Monáe, billowing out from between her legs like silky pink curtains.

The Dutch designer Duran Lantink had been giddy as he’d sketched and then constructed the pants back in Amsterdam, borrowing the shape from David Bowie’s iconic bodysuit in his 1973 Aladdin Sane tour. But fitting Monáe in her trailer on the desert set of her music video felt different.

As the actress Tessa Thompson poked her head between Monáe’s legs during the next day’s shoot, everyone in the 50-person crew fell down laughing; they knew they were onto something big.

The director Emma Westenberg told me all of this while we were seated in the backyard of Stories Books & Cafe in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. Recounting the creation story of the pants, which helped make the music video for Monáe’s song “PYNK” a sensation, she was quick to heap all the credit upon Monáe and Lantink for their collaborative vision. “I was just sending him pictures of vaginas!” she said.

The video was an unlikely big break for Westenberg, who is 28. Soon after it was released in April, she told the art site that she was still looking for an agent. The public appeal worked; she said she now has “like, five.”

Westenberg’s success is novel in a time when the music video is more or less dead. MTV, once home to an endless stream of big-budget productions played again and again to a passive audience, is now populated by reality stars and quixotic reboots of franchises like TRL and Jersey Shore. But today, with streaming accounting for 75 percent of the recording industry’s revenue, the music video is not just a vanity medium. What was once more like a movie trailer for a physical album can now make a label a fortune, both as a branding tool and as a streaming revenue generator.

For everyone but the music industry’s one-percenters, making a music video is a gamble. Going viral can change the life of both a musician and a director, but virality is a constantly moving target. And if people don’t click, a video can quickly be swallowed up into algorithmic obscurity. And even if they do click, music-video directors see little profit for their work. So what exactly does that mean for the men and women behind the camera? Why make music videos at all?

In 2012, Adam Fairholm and Doug Klinger started a service called Internet Music Video Database (IMVDb), which tracks credits for music videos. Proper credit for this class of filmmaker is particularly important — aside from the A-List productions with hundred-thousand dollar price tags, it can be all a music-video director gets for their labor.

For most label-produced videos, at least 10 directors write treatments, which lay out both their vision and their budget for the project. In a competitive field, bidding low increases one’s chances of landing a gig. When a director is eventually chosen, they must make a video that the artist and label approve, while also fighting to hold onto their own style. To realize their vision, some of their pay — the director’s rate is almost always 10 percent of the video’s total budget — will have to go back into the production.

“On almost every job, a director is kicking in a portion of their rate, if not all of it, to make a video happen. Regardless of the budget,” Klinger said. “There are directors who are wealthy off of music videos. But like, a few. Like five.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the music video was a loss leader, an extravagant promotional expense to get into the powerful MTV rotation. Because MTV would air a label’s music videos for free, they were treated like commercials for their releases. And so budgets ballooned, peaking with the 1995 release of the Michael and Janet Jackson video for “Scream,” which cost a still unheard-of $7 million.

But today, even as the majority of industry revenue comes from streaming, the investment’s returns are harder to quantify for labels. “We talk a lot about what promotion means now,” Gabe Spierer, the vice president of content at the independent-label group Beggars, said. “We don't think of it as a step between exposure and purchase, because purchase doesn't really exist in the same way it once did.”

According to Spierer, the music video still functions as a brand-building exercise too, but it’s just one piece in a larger promotional strategy and must be budgeted accordingly. “There's more of an onus than ever on making responsible financial decisions when it comes to content creation, and making sure that the content that you do create can be used in a variety of ways,” he said.

There have been even more fallow periods for music-video directors. As MTV pivoted toward reality TV in the early aughts — eventually canceling TRL in 2008 — labels lost access to their free music-advertising platform. And as physical album sales plummeted with the rise of file-sharing and streaming, so did music-video budgets. Low-cost viral hits, like OK Go’s 2006 treadmill-hopping “Here I Go Again,” which cost a few thousand dollars and was viewed tens of millions of times, began to show the promise a YouTube release. By 2009, YouTube could host high-quality HD video; five music videos from that year were viewed more than 35 million times a piece.

In the 2010s, the continuous growth of YouTube and the recording industry’s video-hosting site Vevo has helped revive the medium, leading to a new generation of internet-native filmmakers who have sparked what Klinger, who now works as an agent for music-video directors, refers to as a “new Golden Age of music videos.” Many of those directors — Hiro Murai (Childish Gambino’s “3005”), Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s “Formation”), and more — have graduated from music videos to TV and movies.

The music video has always been a proving ground for up-and-coming directors: It tests if a filmmaker can handle a budget, run a set, please a difficult client, and create something that’s both memorable and popular. Although directors typically make very little money from music videos, the form can launch a career in the lucrative commercial sphere or, in some cases, in film. Miles Jay rode the success of his video for Leon Bridges’s “River” into a run of TV spots for Volvo, Squarespace, and Bose. Carlos Lopez Estrada made low-budget videos for Daveed Diggs’s rap group Clipping for years before landing his feature debut, directing Diggs’s Blindspotting.

And of course, every music-video director has heard legends of Spike Jonze, Antoine Fuqua, and David Fincher’s successful leaps from music videos to studio features. In the past, if you squinted just right, this structure could be justified. But today, it’s an even more cynical sell to have directors run well-funded productions for little more than exposure.

Even while shooting videos for her friends’ bands, Westenberg never envisioned herself becoming a music-video director. Growing up outside Amsterdam, she would document anything and everything on her mom’s camcorder. At the prestigious Dutch conceptual art college Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Westenberg painted, built furniture, and made clothing before diving fully into film. She learned very few rules and techniques of filmmaking; she said the classes, at times, felt like bullshit. “I learned there is that there's no wrong or right in art, and you are the only one that is responsible for what you're making,” she said. “If you're not the one that is driving and the force behind your art, it's gonna be nobody."

During school, Westenberg interned at the production and photography company Halal in Amsterdam, where her bosses helped her land production assistant and editing gigs so she could learn the basics. They also helped her fund her own films on the side. “They were constantly telling me: ‘It's better if you first develop your voice and not have a million things on your reel that are commercials, because then, at some point, people are gonna want you for your own voice,’” she said. “You don't think of that when you're just out of school and desperate to work; you'll do anything basically.”

At 25, Westenberg moved to New York and began making shorts and taking onset gigs to pay rent. At a party, she met Laura Jones, the executive producer of music videos at the agency and commissioning house Partizan; Jones checked out Westenberg’s Vimeo and said she liked her style. Artists and labels regularly tap Partizan’s stable of filmmakers — which includes Kinga Burza (Lana Del Rey), Warren Fu (Zedd + Katy Perry), and Allie Avital (Moses Sumney) — when trying to find a director.

“She was like, ‘If I ever get a pitch in, should I send it to you?'” Westenberg said. The first pitch Jones sent her was for the new album by Janelle Monáe.

Monáe was planning to follow up her improbable 2016 — in which she made her feature film debut, appearing in both Hidden Figures and Moonlight — with Dirty Computer, an afro-futurist concept album. The singer, who runs her own imprint under Atlantic Records, wanted to invest in a 46-minute short film to accompany the album.

In June 2017, she sent out a brief to directors, asking for pitches. At the time, the only set-in-stone idea was that the film would be futuristic, post-apocalyptic, and contain safe spaces for powerful women. Monáe’s team was open to up-and-coming directors — especially female ones — and had enough creative control to hire their first choice. Unlike many projects, they could, and would, let the filmmakers have some autonomy.

The filmmaker’s first treatment caught the eye of Monáe and her team and set off a five-month pitching process that included Westenberg writing treatments for a handful of different songs and waiting weeks between calls. But she was unbothered; it felt incredible that they’d even liked her ideas enough to keep the conversation going. And that conversation kept circling back to her treatment for “PYNK.”

“Even when pitching I was like, ‘This is never going to happen,’” Westenberg said. “And then two weeks before the shoot, they were like, ‘Okay, so we're going to do it.’”

In late November, Westenberg and a friend drove up Highway 14 until they reached the western edge of the Mojave Desert, arriving at the biggest set she had ever seen. During the two-day shoot, Westenberg created an inspired world that accentuated Monáe’s aesthetic. The video — which Vox dubbed a “queer-as-hell self love anthem” — was released on April 10, 2018 and had been viewed 266,000 times by the next afternoon. By May 10, after many rave reviews and even an exhaustive accounting of every one of the video’s vagina references, “PYNK” had been streamed 7.6 million times. Virality is a fickle beast, but Westenberg had shot a video that was sexy, stylish, and impossible to ignore; despite the stagnation of music-video form, it was a hit. “I didn't expect that people would get so excited about a bunch of vaginas,” Westenberg said.

That Monáe allowed Westenberg to run the set was itself a small miracle. The music-video directing world is awash with horror stories of musicians, their teams, and their labels bogarting a production. Klinger said he’s seen musicians take co-directing credits that are often undeserved; Westenberg told me she’s had to take her name off finished products because they so completely diverged from the video she’d pitched and attempted to shoot. With the ubiquity of Instagram and affordable, high-quality cameras, everyone thinks they can direct these days.

“It is a very tough business and there’s not a lot of money anymore. A lot of times, the artist doesn’t respect the filmmaker either, so then they take the edit and you have nothing left. You have a video you’re semi-happy with and you have made no money,” Westenberg said. “I got really lucky, because I got to do this video that I'm one hundred percent behind. Janelle gave me that chance. I know that I got a break.”

Westenberg had arrived to PYNK’s set an unknown and left it as a filmmaker to watch. The music-video world is tiny; every agent, label exec, and director I spoke with knew her name.

“I know friends who have never paid themselves on a music video. The budgets are so small and our ideas can sometimes be really ambitious, because we know that this could be the thing that changes our career, this could the thing that pushes us forward.”
Daniel Kwan, music-video director

Last September, music-video director Daniel Kwan sent out a thread of tweets with grievances about the music-video industry. Quickly, his tweetstorm, which advocated for guaranteed credits, a limit on the number of directors pitching for a project, and a percentage of streaming revenue, went viral. Kwan took the response as a call to action, creating We Direct Music Videos, a community of directors that meets and strategizes to improve their rights in their small corner of the film industry.

Kwan is a compelling figure, because he and his collaborator, Daniel Scheinert (the two are collectively known as “Daniels”), are so directly responsible for the massive success of the video for the DJ Snake song “Turn Down for What?” The outlandish video, which follows a young man’s manic, destructive, somewhat rhythmic fever dream through floor after floor of an apartment complex, became a sensation after its release in March 2014. The official Vevo video on YouTube has been viewed more than 836 million times, which by today's estimate of $0.0007 per play, would pay out $585,740 to DJ Snake, the label, and the other musicians. (YouTube ad revenue is obscured, but the number is likely even higher, given that the release was from a major American label).

In 2017, Vevo — started in partnership by music label giants Sony, Universal Music, and EMI — brought in $650 million in revenue, mainly from ad sales on YouTube. Scheinert and Kwan — who shot, edited, did visual effects and starred in the video — each made $2,500 for their two-and-a-half months of work. They have not seen a penny of the streaming profit.

Nina Soriano, the head of music videos at the production and management company Anonymous Content, explained that part of the problem in music-video revenue sharing is the ambiguity of whether it is the song or the video that leads a viewer to click play. Neither Klinger nor Soriano had ever heard of a director receiving a percentage of the streaming revenue on a video. For Klinger, this ambiguity is little more than a convenient cover since streaming has become a suddenly essential revenue source for an industry in a precarious position.

“Music-video YouTube money is such a big part of the label’s pie right now,” Klinger said. “I think music video directors are undercompensated, for sure. But I think that will be a hard pot to put your hand into.”

Kwan soon realized he needed to use the momentum from his tweet thread — which morphed into a space in which other directors shared their own lamentable stories — to advocate for his peers. “I know friends who have never paid themselves on a music video,” Kwan said. “The budgets are so small and our ideas can sometimes be really ambitious, because we know that this could be the thing that changes our career, this could the thing that pushes us forward.”

As we talked on the phone last month, Kwan was directing an episode of FX’s Legion. This summer, he and Scheinert will start shooting their second feature film, Everything Everywhere All At Once. The duo has only made one music video, for Manchester Orchestra’s “The Sunshine,” in the last few years, but Kwan said he wishes that wasn’t the case.

Part of the reason he started We Direct Music Videos is that he wants music-video directing to be a field in which filmmakers can make a living. He wants the best of the best to stay in the field. But it’s hard to keep working for a couple thousand dollars or less, especially as the music industry makes more and more off your product. Kwan said established directors would return to music videos if the situation improved. “One hundred percent,” he said. “But it’s a cold place for music video directors.”

After “PYNK” hit the internet, directing opportunities fell in Westenberg’s lap. The tech company Dropbox asked her to direct a music video for them with an artist that she liked; she chose Troye Sivan’s “Lucky Strike.” Shot on 16mm film, the video is grainy, bright, nostalgic, and hip. “PYNK” was a collaboration, a creative and personal piece to fit within Monáe’s larger vision; “Lucky Strike” is Westenberg through and through.

Westenberg understands how unlikely her situation is. As Spierer, of Beggars Group, explained, the music-video director’s job is mainly to create a visual to help serve a song. “It's both the end and the tool for putting across the vision of an artist or a label,” he said. That Westenberg was allowed to pick the musician on her last video is beyond rare; that she used it to deliver a product recognizably her own demonstrates her savvy.

The Tuesday after the Grammys, Westenberg met me for breakfast at a small plastic-table donut shop in a mini-mall in Echo Park. She wore gray sweatpants and a gray sweater under a coat with fur on the cuffs and on the collar, a $50 vintage purchase that she’d worn to parties all weekend, hobnobbing with Alicia Keys and Quincy Jones. “All these fancy places, all these events and dinners, it was definitely very special and unusual for my lifestyle, as you can see,” she said.

Recently attached to direct a feature film, Westenberg said she hopes to be an established director who still comes back to make videos for artists she loves. At the Grammys, “PYNK” lost the Best Music Video award to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” directed by Hiro Murai. Murai, who also directs episodes for both Atlanta and Barry, is this year set to film his debut feature, a sci-fi thriller called Man Alive. In 2014, he put out seven music videos and established himself as one of the industry’s most fascinating voices; last year, he shot just one. The industry brought in $7.4 billion from streaming in 2018, but for directors, music videos remain a pit stop on the career path to something more.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated when Westenberg’s internship at Halal began.

Joseph Bien-Kahn is an LA-based writer who covers tech, culture, and people doing weird shit in the desert.