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Goodbye songs, hello videos

CNET's Eliot Van Buskirk explains why music and video are currently undergoing another unholy intermingling.

Like many readers of this column, I grew up alongside that newly sprouted limb of the music business, MTV.

I enjoyed watching videos for the most part, but my old friend George Haddad disagreed, claiming that "music should be heard and not seen."

Music and video are currently undergoing another unholy intermingling, once again in the form of the music video: iTunes and the iPod now support music videos, with the rest of the industry likely to follow suit. But this time, rather than extending music onto the television screen, the music/video hybrid could cause a fundamental shift in what "recording artists" are recording and what music fans are consuming. In other words, the endpoint of all of this video/music intermingling could be that neither continues to exist in its current form, and we end up with something new.

In a business as broken as the music business, the new music-video situation stands out as particularly worrisome for artists.

The music video began in the '80s as a promotional tool used by the labels to flog a single or an album to the video-watching public. The idea was that after being exposed to the video, consumers would be more likely to purchase the album. In other words, music videos were basically extended advertisements for tapes and CDs. As such, they were considered part of the promotional budget--owed by the artist to the label, to be subtracted from the artist's royalties on album sales.

In a business as broken as the music business, the new music-video situation stands out as particularly worrisome for artists. If Apple Computer and every other Johnny-come-lately online record store starts selling the entire back catalog of videos at $1.99, artists won't see a dime of that money unless their contracts are reworked. In fact, they'll lose money on their own videos--even though they're being sold for twice as much as the music--because music videos are still considered promotion.

If you think the labels will rectify this unfairness right away, you haven't been paying attention. One example: Sales of many digital singles and albums are still subject to a "breakage clause," meaning artists have to pay the labels a certain percentage of their royalties in the event that any of the music "breaks" on the way to the consumer. In the days of vinyl, it was pretty clear what breakage meant, but in these digital times it's a nonissue. That doesn't stop labels from continuing to write the fee into some contracts, which is the same sort of dodginess that will happen with music videos in the short term.

Regardless of the way the music video royalty situation works itself out (which it eventually will, as artists and labels evolve their contracts), the addition of music videos to the iPod and iTunes may have more than a mere business effect on the music scene. The music video could become the actual product, rather than an advertisement for a song.

Every digital song you buy comes with song information embedded in the file. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to add a video for every song--whether it's the music video itself, a hook to that video online, or some other video element. The new, more visual generation of music fans would probably be all over this approach, and it's no secret that those "kids" are the ones who drive the market.

Ultimately, the addition of a video to every song is going to change the definition of a music video, too. Considering today's exorbitant production costs, it won't be financially feasible to shoot a full-fledged video for each song an artist records (especially for the label, since at some point it probably won't be able to pass the production costs on to the artist). Most songs will need to have some other form of embedded visual aspect, whether it's a custom Outcast visualizer, a Madonna slide show, or a David Bowie signature Flash animation. Certain artists may elect to have the recording of each song filmed and then embed that video into each song so that fans can see how it was made.

If this really takes off, perhaps the ever-resourceful remix community will start creating its own videos to match with songs. Profits could soar as faithful fans purchase multiple versions of a song, each with a different video. By then, let's hope artists are getting a piece of the music video pie, because it could end up being larger than the music pie it used to advertise.