Do Music Videos Still Matter?

In an age dominated by short-form content, it's becoming increasingly common for today's top music videos to go unseen. Should artists still invest in these art forms, and if so, what can we do to support them?

Do Music Videos Still Matter?
Jubran Haddad
Jubran Haddad
February 28, 202410 min read
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If you're an '80s child or earlier, you probably remember a music video featuring a man in a red outfit leading dancing zombies. Those who grew up in the 1990s might recall a music video of a schoolgirl swaying through crowded hallways with pink bowed pigtails. For the generation born in the 2000s and later, you might remember a video of a pop star dressed as Cleopatra sitting on a Sphinx-like throne. Even if none of these examples resonate with you, it's doubtful you've forgetten when one of the world's biggest rappers released a video at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling attention to issues of systemic racism in America. 

From Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (1983) to Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time" (1998) to Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" (2014) to Childish Gambino's "This is America" (2018), these iconic music videos have left an indelible mark on popular culture and cemented their artists' place in the history books. Music videos have played a significant role in our lives in the past, even if we weren't aware of it.

Once a staple for fan engagement and artist promotion, music videos are navigating a dynamic landscape where streaming platforms play a significant role in music discovery and consumption. Today, a track can make it to our Spotify Wrapped without us knowing what its music video looks like. One might question whether modern music videos still stand in an age where everything is short-form, attention span is minimal, and the music industry is fragmented and saturated. 

When looking at the most streamed tracks on Spotify in 2023, 36 out of the top 40 tracks released between 2022 and 2023 had accompanying music videos. On average, these videos garnered 374M views, whereas the tracks themselves accumulated an average of 1.1B streams. This resulted in an average gap of 731M between the number of views on the videos and the number of streams on Spotify. While this data does not offer a comprehensive view of the entire music industry, it does suggest a shift in the role and impact of music videos compared to previous eras.

2010s and the Golden Age of music videos

While modern music videos have been around since the mid-20th century, YouTube's arrival in 2005 and Vevo's in 2009 transformed the way people consume music videos. Enabling artists to interact with global audiences directly, the 2010s saw music videos evolve further due to the digital revolution.

The most-watched music video on YouTube is "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee from 2017, with over 8.39 billion views, followed by Ed Sheeran's 2017 "Shape of You" at 6.21 billion views and Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth's 2015 "See You Again" at 6.19 billion views. Most of the top videos date back to the 2010s, when Western pop music was at it's peak on YouTube. These tracks were massive hits during that era and could be heard everywhere from the radio to retail stores. 

To better understand the relevance of music videos today, we can zoom in on the most-streamed tracks on Spotify in 2023. Examining the average daily changes in both YouTube views and Spotify streams, we're given insight into how these songs perform on a daily basis over time across both platforms.

The death of pop music videos?

Most pop music videos are centered in the second, lower half of the graph. This suggests that while these pop tracks may still be popular on Spotify, their music videos on YouTube are not experiencing substantial daily changes in views compared to other genres, such as Latin. This includes big hits such as Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero" (10th most streamed track), which has 1.41B streams, SZA's "Kill Bill" (2nd most streamed track) with 1.68B streams, and JVKE's "Golden Hour" (29th most streamed track) with 1.08B streams. This doesn't mean that fans are not watching pop music videos, but rather that fans tend to use other platforms to consume the track after the initial release rather than watching its video repeatedly.

Many music fans nowadays prefer quick and easy ways to enjoy their favorite tracks rather than diving into the full visual experience. This trend stems from our love for short-form videos, which allow us to consume content on the fly. Traditional music videos, on the other hand, require jumping through hoops like ads on YouTube before you can even watch them. That's why fewer people bother with them these days, opting instead to listen while doing other things. But the superfans will go the extra mile and watch the music video for a deeper connection with their favorite artists.

One of the most successful pop music videos in recent times is Miley Cyrus' "Flowers" video, which was the No. 1 most streamed track of the year. It premiered on January 13, 2023, and within 24 hours, grossed over 13.8 million views. In just 32 days after its release, the video hit 202.8 million views. As of now, the video has reached 719.9 million views with an average of 1.76 million daily views. The music video is notable for its simplicity, featuring Cyrus moving through various activities at her home in Los Angeles, from outdoor exercises to dancing on the roof at night. The video's narrative is deeply personal and female-empowering, and it allegedly integrates easter eggs that hint at Miley Cyrus's personal journey and past relationship with Liam Hemsworth.​

Another example is Doja Cat's "Paint The Town Red" (35th most streamed track). Released on August 4, 2023, the video is visually striking, featuring dark and symbolic imagery like Doja Cat peeling out her eyeball and scenes with death (grim reaper), reflecting the song's unapologetic anthem, where she emphasizes her indifference to others' opinions. Doja Cat showcased her artistic talent pre-release by creating paintings during Instagram Live, which served as inspiration for the music video.

While the video initially lagged behind its Spotify counterpart, which garnered 128.2 million views within a month, it still amassed a notable 27.4 million views on YouTube a month after the release. Although impressive, this figure is overshadowed by it's Spotify's performance. By that time, the track had gone viral with 989k TikTok posts, resulting in a significant boost in views, particularly on September 8, with 2.9 million views. It subsequently debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on September 16. This surge appears to be attributed to the track's viral success on TikTok and its cross-platform popularity. However, it raises the question: would such growth in YouTube views have been possible without its viral traction?

A music video released after a track's initial release is a common strategy to revive interest, maintain chart performance, and engage the audience. This approach is often used to release singles after an album launch. Released on April 25, 2023 as the sixth single of her second studio album, "SOS," SZA's "Snooze" (37th most streamed track) peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video premiered on August 25 (258 days after the initial release and 123 after the single release) and features artists Justin Bieber and Benny Blanco. The music video, alongside a four-track bundle that includes a sped-up version of the track and the acoustic version featuring Bieber (released on September 15), helped the track reach a peak number of 2 on October 7.

Despite these promotional efforts, the music video has garnered relatively modest views, with only 53.8 million views in six months, averaging around 2.9 million views per day with a daily median change of 250k. In comparison, the official audio of the track on YouTube, released with the album, has amassed significantly more views, totaling 172 million views and surpassing the 93.1 million views of "Kill Bill."

The domination of Latin music videos

Latin music videos on YouTube have consistently remained popular over time without any significant fluctuations. Seven of the ten tracks with the highest average daily change are Latin. Moreover, the top three tracks from these seven have very similar average daily changes on YouTube and Spotify, and even "TQG" (12th most streamed track) by Karol G and Shakira has 2.66 million average daily streams on Spotify and 2.7 million on YouTube. It is the most-watched music video of 2023 and earned Vevo's most-watched global premiere title with 181.9 million views in its first two weeks. Similar to "Flowers," the track's lyrics feature "shots" directed at Shakira and Karol's ex-boyfriends.

The second track in the graph is "La Bebe (Remix)" by Yng Lvcas featuring Peso Pluma (13th most streamed track), which was released on March 17, 2023, and has 797.9 million YouTube views with an average of 2.37 million daily views. The official visualizer and the accompanying cover audio, both released simultaneously with the music video release, have garnered 31 million and 35 million views, respectively. This indicates that despite its longer duration and less convenient listening format than the cover audio, the music video continues to attract attention.

The Bzrp Music Sessions comprise a series of music collaborations between Argentine producer Bizarrap and several artists. The music videos of these sessions have a raw and energetic vibe as the artists lip-sync to the tracks in dynamic and colorful shots that appear to be filmed in Bizarrap's recording studio. Both "Vol. 52" with Quevedo (32nd streamed track) and "Vol. 53" with Shakira (9th streamed track) had a significant YouTube performance, crossing over 626.2 million and 694.2 million views, respectively. This proves that a great concept is crucial and often more impactful than a high-budget production, and that concept should align with the song's vibe, energy, and feel and cohesively blend with the entire project.

The global popularity of Latin music and the collaborations within it boost both YouTube and streaming numbers, broadening the genre's global appeal. Secondly, trigger cities, mainly in Latin America, play a crucial role, with dense populations consuming and sharing music, leading to significant views, especially since YouTube is a free and accessible platform. Despite the gap between the number of Spotify streams and YouTube views, music videos appear to remain a prime driver in Latin music.

Music videos in K-Pop

Similar to Latin music, K-pop recognizes the importance of high-quality music videos. This trend has led to the production of high-budget, meticulously crafted music videos that serve to entertain and enhance the global reach of these artists and their music. Nine of the 10 most viewed YouTube videos in 24 hours are by the same K-pop artists: BTS (5) and BLACKPINK (3). BTS's "Butter" broke the record for the most viewed YouTube video in the first 24 hours with 108.2 million views in 2021. A recent example illustrating this trend is the release of Jung Kook's "Seven" featuring Latto (4th most streamed track). Within just a week of its release on July 14, 2023, the video garnered 86.4 million views on YouTube. Within a month, it surpassed Taylor Swift's "Anti-Hero" (10th streamed track), accumulating 115.4 million views. To put this into perspective, "Anti-Hero" took 467 days to reach the same milestone that "Seven" achieved in just 47 days, hitting 184 million views.

So, what's happening?

The current landscape of music videos varies by genre, with Latin music maintaining consistent popularity on platforms like YouTube, while K-pop emphasizes high-quality production, and pop music might have lost its relevance and appeal, at least when it comes to daily consumption.

However, this evolution in music video popularity is part of a broader cycle, reflecting the ever-changing landscape of pop music. Major labels face criticism for prioritizing viral sensations over talent, as they once did back when MTV was in its prime. As a result, the industry is suffering from a lack of artist development, with platforms like TikTok providing rapid exposure before artists are fully prepared. On the other hand, pop music fans still value traditional music videos for their artistry, however, recent ones are criticized for being uninspired and low-budget, making it challenging for artists to innovate while keeping audiences engaged.

And what can we do?

We must prioritize artist development, support emerging talents, and preserve traditional media outlets. While the music scene has evolved significantly, creativity should guide us, and we've even seen unexpected comebacks. Who knew that CDs would experience a resurgence in popularity even in an era dominated by digital streaming services?

While Spotify streams may exceed YouTube views for many popular tracks today, the role of music videos in the industry remains substantial. They are not just promotional tools but integral parts of an artist's creative expression and a key element in the music ecosystem, offering unique experiences that audio alone cannot provide. Remembering that music is a passion, not just a race for views or likes, is crucial for maintaining artistic integrity. This might be a transitional period rather than a permanent downturn.

No matter what genre, great music videos evoke strong emotions and leave a lasting impression on viewers through iconic moments that become part of pop culture. Who could forget Kelly Rowland's memorable Excel text to Nelly in the "Dilemma" music video, "Where you at? Holla when you get there," a moment that puzzled us for years?

Edited by Sarah Kloboves, cover image by Crasianne Tirado