Alt-folk singer-songwriter Noah Kahan has enjoyed a breakout 2023, cracking the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with the single “Dial Drunk” and pulling in more than 800 million on-demand streams across his catalog. But he has not released a music video this year, choosing instead to prioritize the 15-ish second clips that trigger activity on TikTok and YouTube Shorts.
“I am very much of the mindset that music videos have a limited value presently,” says Drew Simmons, who manages Kahan. “I have been moving the vast majority, if not all, of our video budgets over to short-form content efforts.”
“Dial Drunk” is in good company: None of the top four songs on the Billboard Hot 100 this week have a traditional music video. (Morgan Wallen released a performance video for his hit, while Luke Combs and Oliver Anthony have put out live clips for theirs.) While few acts wielded music videos more effectively in the 2010s than Beyoncé, a year after the release of her Renaissance album, she has yet to put out any official videos to accompany it.
Creative director Evan Blum, who has shot popular TikTok clips for Demi Lovato and Flyana Boss, sums up the new landscape succinctly: “The only problem with music videos is that nobody sees them.” Aside from that, he quips, “they’re great.”
For roughly four decades, music videos played a crucial role in minting hits — allowing artists to immerse fans in their visual vocabulary or wow them with dance moves. The format’s influence has been waning since attention shifted from TVs to phone screens. Still, through the 2010s, superstars like Lady Gaga and Drake invested heavily in clips that caromed around the internet, while burgeoning stars like Doja Cat and Dua Lipa could go viral and gain steam with eye-catching visuals of their own.
Even that is starting to seem unusual. Executives believe a lot of the change is due to TikTok, which hooked a generation on bite-sized vertical clips. “If you brought up a music video to plenty of kids, they’d be like, ‘What’s that?’” a major label marketing executive says. “It’s just not where the audience is. The audience is on TikTok.”
In a statement, Paul Hourican, global head of music content and partnerships at TikTok, stressed “that long-form videos will continue to be one of the key forms of musical creative expression.” But, he added “the rise of short-form video on TiKTok represents a new approach to music promotion and discovery, which has significantly lowered the barrier to creativity and expression for artists.”
YouTube, the longtime home of music videos in the digital age, also rolled out its own TikTok imitator, YouTube Shorts. Music executives say this intensified the emphasis on short-form content. (A rep for YouTube declined to comment. In March, YouTube global head of music Lyor Cohen called Shorts just “the entry point” on the platform, “leading fans to discover the depth of an artist’s catalog, including music videos.”)
In this landscape, full-length music videos often fail to resonate. Cassie Petrey is the co-founder of Crowd Surf, a digital marketing company; if her clients release a music video, she frequently chops it up into snackable clips that can be uploaded to short-form platforms. “We’ll see millions of views on the short-form, and the long-form will only get like 50,000,” she says.
Managers and marketers say the cost of music videos can range from as low as $5,000 to as high as $250,000, and leap into seven figures for a handful of superstars. And at a moment when music discovery is fragmented and there are no mass media that ensure a large audience for these videos as MTV used to, artist teams have to spend even more if they hope to corral viewers who are overwhelmed with a glut of audio and visual content. “You have to pay for visibility,” one manager says.
This means that the bang-for-buck ratio on many music videos can be upside down — impact low, cost high — at a time when budgets are already under scrutiny due to a wobbly economy. So instead of spending a chunk of change on a lone three-and-half minute statement, Simmons has found success using that money to shoot a large number of short clips for his artists.
“You’ll get a whole lot more content out of it,” the manager says. “The frequency of that and how you drop it through an album cycle is frankly critical to building an artist, continuing to remain relevant and be in people’s feeds. It allows for a conversation between an artist and their fans that can be ongoing and move fluidly.”
This is also a more flexible strategy at a time when artists and labels have little control over what is going to be a hit. “The more the song gets out there [via short clips], the better it should do,” the major label marketer says. If that’s not what’s happening, better to learn that before sinking $50,000 into a full video.
There are still instances in which investing in a traditional video makes sense. “The value varies significantly based on genre,” says one senior executive. “For Latin music and for hip-hop, the audience for music discovery really lives very strongly on YouTube. So music videos are a really important aspect of that.”
On the other hand, “pop and R&B are where music videos are kind of dying, especially for developing artists,” the executive continues. “They don’t move the needle for discovery.” Superstars remain, of course, the exception to every rule: They have both the money and the fervent supporters to do whatever they want.
While recent videos for singles like Victoria Monet’s “On My Mama” have been well-received thanks to suave choreography, this sort of boost often recedes quickly — unless a song becomes part of a short-form trend. Another way to extend a traditional video’s half-life is by courting controversy: Three of the most widely discussed music videos of this decade are Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” Lil Nas X’s “Montero” and Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town.”
Blum believes there’s one more key reason to make a music video: “If a music video is going to make an artist feel fulfilled, then there’s a lot of value in that,” he says. “A happy artist is a good artist.”
“But obviously most people aren’t after that [fulfillment] — they want views,” Blum continues. “If your reason for making a music video is, ‘I want to get as many eyes as possible,’ I don’t think that [presuming you will] is a correct assumption anymore.”