Music video is reinvented on the Web

By | August 26, 2008 at 6:06 PM

The first time Arcade Fire performed in Paris, Mathieu Saura stood outside the venue with his girlfriend, holding up a sign that read, “Please, we want to come to the show.”

The band’s bassist, Richard Reed Perry, got them in, and ever since, Saura might as well have not left. Under the name Vincent Moon, he’s gone from a fan begging for tickets to an in-demand filmmaker who has revolutionized music video.

His films are stripped down, intimate videotaped performances – shot in one take, often of an act simply strolling down a street or playing in a parking lot. More than a hundred musicians – from Arcade Fire to REM – have flocked to work with him on the so-dubbed “Take-Away Shows,” part of the Web site La Blogotheque.

Following the demise of the televised music video, Saura’s videos show a new marriage of music and film that replaces the artifice of big budget music videos with the raw simplicity of performance.

He’s clearly struck a chord. The videos may not be playing on MTV, but they’re all over the Web, where sites like the Black Cab Sessions and Pitchfork TV have joined in with a similar minimalist style.

Meet the Music Video 2.0.

The origins of Saura’s inspiration was Arcade Fire, a band that has made of habit of beginning or ending shows acoustically in a venue’s lobby or outside on the street. They are sing-a-longs typically amplified only by a bullhorn.

“That kind of gave him a spark for the films,” said Win Butler, recalling the band’s first show in Saura’s native Paris. “He’s one of those filmmakers who wants to be a musician and I think that the way his films are trying to capture little fresh moments is a cool approach.”

Previously a photographer, Saura, 28, partnered with Christophe Abric (he also has a working name: Chryde), who created La Blogotheque and often handles sound on productions – which usually amount to little more than a small digital camera and a microphone. The videos – done on the fly – are posted roughly weekly on the site, which collects about 8,000 hits a day. The videos are also frequently embedded by major music blogs and are posted on YouTube.

In them, you can see the normally symphonic Sufjan Stevens singing alone on a rooftop, the Shins playing while walking down the street or the melodic indie band Grizzly Bear languidly performing while lounging in an apartment.

“It’s very important to me to not let the musician try to make the song perfect,” said Saura. “It’s so much more human. When a musician is doing this beautiful version of a song but messes up and then continues, yeah, that’s beautiful to me.”

The effect is often that a not-widely-known band – perhaps a progressive indie act familiar only to enthusiasts – is thrust out of its niche and into the world. More often than not, passers-by are impressed by what they hear.

Performing in a vacant courtyard, the experimental band Menomena finds unlikely fans in two toddlers who dance to music most hipsters would only watch coolly. Andrew Bird, the warbling singer-songwriter and violinist, draws applause from businessmen happening by in Montmartre. Emanuel Lundgren, lead singer of the populous Swedish pop band I’m From Barcelona, walks down a nighttime street like a pied piper, as his band and others join him.

The environs recall another outdoor French movement: the Impressionists. Instead of painting, it’s music en plein air.

“As far as the modern world is concerned, these are natural environments,” said Zach Condon, lead singer of the Balkan-flavored band Beirut. The group did a full album’s worth of Take-Away Shows for their last disc, “Flying Club Cup.” “It’s filmed in its own elements, from where it came from – the streets and the bars and people’s apartments.”

As fame has encroached (in May, Variety dubbed Saura and Abric “innovators to watch”), larger projects have followed, including a film with the National (“A Skin, A Night”) and several collaborations with REM for its latest album, “Accelerate”: a film (“6 Days”), an official music video and a host of Take-Away Shows.

Michael Stipe, who has frequently looked to work with filmmakers and photographers with distinct visions, called up Saura after seeing La Blogotheque.

“Let’s put the final nail in the coffin on the term `music video’ and allow it to be something of the past because that’s exactly what it is,” said Stipe. “It served its purpose very well in the 1980s and 1990s. Music video’s time came and went.”

In these videos, Stipe sees a dramatic and exciting evolution, which he believes has a “power to the people” quality made possible by new technology and the Internet.

“I don’t think music or film has been in a more exciting place in 20 years,” said Stipe. “I was just blown away by their beauty and how raw they were.”

Other filmmakers or aspiring fans have also created Take-Away Shows; neither Saura nor Abric feels anything protective about their brand. Saura is currently preparing a new Web site,, and has numerous other projects in the works.

Working with a similar aesthetic is the Black Cab Sessions, which are also one-take videos of a performance but with one notable distinction: Every video is made in the back seat of a London taxi.

By contrast, MTV’s “Unplugged” looks downright extravagant.

The site was created by British filmmaker Jono Stevens along with production companies Just So Films and Hidden Fruit. Its premise is even simpler: Hail a cab. Ask the driver if it’s OK if a band plays a song in the back seat. Pack in – maybe just a few members since space is limited. And record the song-long ride, bumps and all.

“We were just getting a little bit bored of watching the music promos,” Stevens said, referring to traditional music videos. “We didn’t have much clout or really any money, so the idea was to try to find a way to get our vision out there and get people to buy into it.”

The site collects about 350,000 visitors a month, but still hasn’t been monetized. Right now, it’s mainly just a fun and cheap mode of expression. Their productions costs are nothing but the fare. (It also has a Dutch TV precursor: the show “(behind) closed doors,” which features acts performing in an elevator.)

For an artist, it’s easy to agree to do. It doesn’t take much time, you don’t have to answer silly questions and you might even be able to do it on the way from your hotel to the concert venue. More than 50 acts have done videos now, including Spoon, My Morning Jacket and the suitably named Death Cab for Cutie.

Matt Berninger, the lead singer of the National, has done a Black Cab Session and worked extensively with Saura. He sees “a significant shift in the way people are watching music-film” that recalls subway buskers.

“It’s just one person with a guitar and a couple people banging on parking signs or whatever to try to make a song,” said Berninger, whose Take-Away Shows won the band at least one new fan: Stipe. “There’s something very humble and vulnerable about that.”

The trend is seeping into culture. Last year’s hit indie film “Once” – a raw musical about an Irish busker played by the Frames’ Glen Hansard – could have been a fictional version of a Take-Away Show.

The influential music site Pitchfork Media earlier this year launched Pitchfork TV, a video site with much the same approach to music and film. The site includes a series called “Juan’s Basement” that features live performances in a basement and another series titled, “Don’t Look Down,” where bands play on a New York rooftop.

Seeing a new era after the decline of the 24-hour music video network, the site’s mission statement declares: “Now that the technology is here, we hope to finally do it the way that people who really care about music have always wanted to see it done.”

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