"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Searching for new ways to get and hold listeners' attention, more and more artists and record labels have started putting out video trailers as a way to announce their upcoming album releases. These trailers usually only last a minute or two, are often impressionistic, sometimes hilarious and occasionally ridiculous. They mostly include snippets from one or two songs on the album that are married to images that give some sense of the story the artist wants to convey. There are loving close-ups of gear and/or lingering shots of mundane landscapes. Recent trailers from Lykke Li and Julian Casablancas give some sense of the breadth of styles these trailers can take.
Since album trailers are only now entering their toddler phase, it's unclear if they're just cheap promotional pieces or if they truly have the capacity to be a creative outlets for artists. This, of course, was the same question that music videos came up against 30 years ago.
To help make sense of this new trend, Ducker instant messaged with Amy Phillips, Senior Editor, News at Pitchfork, who has been overseeing that section of the popular and influential music website since 2005.
Do you remember the first album trailer that came across your inbox or that you saw online?
I remember the first one that we posted. I'm not sure if it was the first one I ever saw. It was for M83's Hurry Up We're Dreaming. Previously, the idea of posting something that wasn't a full song or video was something we weren't too into. But here was an album that lots of people were greatly anticipating (us included) and the trailer featured a little taste of new music, so that opened the floodgates.
Why had you previously not been into them? Did they seem like too silly of an idea?
Yeah, pretty much. Why would anybody want a trailer for an album? But then we thought about it: Why wouldn't they?
Also, if I'm remembering correctly, this was when 30-second [audio] previews were more commonplace on iTunes and Amazon, before iTunes extended their preview length. The idea of it being newsworthy that there's just a little bit of a new song was kind of not where our heads were at. Of course, that thinking changed!
When it comes to certain highly anticipated albums, people are hungry for any morsel of music they can get. If there's a minute of music available, it's just silly to not post it.
For the listeners' sake or for the site's sake or both?
Both. We post what we believe our readers are interested in, and I think they've come to rely on us to deliver news about the artists they care about.
What are your general feelings about album trailers now, both in terms of their function and the form they've taken?
They are just an accepted part of the landscape now, like music videos or audio streams, or even album cover reveals. Some are great, some are boring, just like any other "asset" or "content."
Some artists have used trailers as an opportunity to do some really cool stuff, but would they have found another way to do that same cool stuff if it wasn't for album trailers? Probably. Are they absolutely necessary? Not really. Plenty of albums don't have trailers and are just fine. [Album trailers] are a harmless, potentially really fun way to promote an album.
Have you been seeing more of them recently or is the stream pretty steady?
Probably within the last year, the stream has become pretty steady. Before that they were more rare. It's still not the majority of albums. I'd say maybe 25% of the albums we cover have trailers at this point. Of course, there are plenty we don't cover!
Plenty of albums with trailers where you don't cover the album or albums with trailers where you don't cover the trailer and just cover the album?
I just mean in Pitchfork News we didn't cover the album. If we announce an album and there's a trailer, we will put it in our news story, even if it sucks. It's just part of the album announcement.
Like a tracklist or a cover image. Going back and re-watching that M83 trailer, it's interesting that its approach for an album trailer has become the dominant one — this vaguely abstract combination of what was happening in the studio combined with striking imagery for "bigger picture vibes." Though I'd say a lot of trailers are a lot less successful because the music isn't as "cinematic" as the music is on that album.
Yes. So many are just some quick cut footage of them in the studio, backed by a minute of music, which is pretty boring. But still, if you're a big fan, you're going to be excited to hear and see that regardless.
Do you have any favorite album trailers? And what is it about them that makes them successful?
A good album trailer works in the same way as a good movie trailer. It gives you just a little tantalizing taste and gets you excited for the album. And, just like movie trailers, sometimes really good ones are for albums that end up being terrible. For example, I really loved the MGMT trailer where they're being spied on by the NSA, but the album was so bad. Same with Empire of the Sun. Awesome trailer, not so great album.
Actually this morning we posted a trailer that I thought worked perfectly.
The JJ one?
Yeah. It's totally bonkers. I'm not even much of a JJ fan, but watching that, I was like, Wow, I really want to hear this album. Also for something like that, where JJ has been off the radar for a few years, it's mostly something that reminds people that these guys are back.
Probably my favorite of all time were the Daft Punk ones. Just seeing the iconic helmet image and just that sliver of the "Get Lucky" riff was chill-inducing. But I'm a big fan, so I had the emotional connection already in place.
Yeah, that was like seeing the Batman logo in the theater.
Totally! They're back to save the world! I've always been someone who loved movie trailers though, so I'm kind of a sucker for this stuff.
It's funny, because I really like that JJ trailer, too. And I think the Empire of the Sun one is hilarious in how hokey that is, but maybe I'm just responding to the ambition. Maybe if more of these trailers start getting overblown I'll be like, "Just show me the band's gear." It's like how music videos work in cycles. The overblown Aerosmith videos look so stupid in comparison to a clever little Spike Jonze idea, but then Spike Jonze starts getting huge budgets ...
Ha, yeah, very true. I'm all for things getting more overblown and creative, as long as they keep being entertaining. Ultimately, album trailers are just like anything else. A band can use it as a way to do something fun and creative, or they can just use it as standard issue promotional tool with no life to it. I don't think we've seen anything yet where an album trailer has taken on a life of its own, like a music video, though, where people are like, "Wow, check out this album trailer of this band you've never heard of."
One of the best ones was for Flying Lotus' Until the Quiet Comes. That breached the album trailer classification and might be better called a short abstract film. I don't know if Flying Lotus did any traditional videos for that album or just had that.
Trailers like that are a great way to introduce people to the whole aesthetic worldview of an artist. It can really draw you in and make you connect on a deeper emotional level.
Do you have a sense from the publicists or label folks you interact with that this stuff is working? Are they encouraging bands and people at the labels to put money into them?
I can't really get a sense of that, but logically it makes a lot of sense for artists to be doing them more and more. There is just so much music out there and everything moves so quickly. Anything you can do to get people's attention on you, even just for a few minutes more, seems to be worth it. I'm not on the label/artist side of this, but I imagine it's the same reason you get random remixes of songs released a few months after an album is out, just to extend the life of the album and to get people thinking about it, even for a little bit.
Right. I can't tell if all the "additional" stuff is smart and effective or a total crapshoot.
It seems like a total crapshoot, though obviously I have no way of backing that up. I guess the thinking is that any reminder to people that this album exists is valuable.
I guess that's just how it goes right now. You never know what's going to work, and it's better than giving up on the album. But then you can argue that the label should just give the artists more money for recording the album so it's better or give them more tour support, which are more proven, time-tested approaches.
True, and I don't know the answer to that. It's probably different for every artist. It also probably depends on how much a trailer would cost. Empire of the Sun's budget was probably what some labels pay for an entire album to be recorded. But it seems like everything these days is a crapshoot. There are no sure things in general.
Yeah, I don't know if these trailers should be pushed more in a commercial direction or an artistic direction.
If I was giving advice to bands on what to do with their album trailers, I'd say, "Think of the message you're trying to convey with this album, and put it out there in the most creative, eye-catching way." Easier said than done of course.
Well, I think about the Arcade Fire album trailer and it's a very literal interpretation of that idea of the message they trying to convey: Haiti, mass movements, cryptic signals, keyboards. But in the end, it felt pretty generic to me.
Yeah, in the grand scheme of the album cycle, that trailer was kind of the lowest point. But then you look at the "Reflektor" interactive video, which does just that, but way better and cooler. So they can be forgiven for spending more effort on that, ha.
Any predictions on what we'll see in the future on this front?
Probably things will just get more crazy and dramatic and interactive — and, of course, more sponsored. You know, like, you can only see this new album trailer if you have a Samsung phone. Or, you have to download this app to watch this trailer. Also, just like movie trailers. We might start getting more teasers for the trailer, which has kind of begun already, with bands posting short teaser videos with very little in them before longer full trailers. That is not a trend I can endorse though. One trailer is enough!
Cool. Anything else you want to talk about, any other trailers you want to shout out?
I'd like to shout out Drake's Nothing Was the Same trailer for featuring "Trophies", a song that wasn't even on the album.
Also Lady Gaga's Artpop trailer for telling people not to buy the album.
And I guess my final thought is: Festival trailers. Just. No.
Does that include Gathering of the Juggalos?
Oh god no. I take that back! That's an "infomercial" though, ha.
Saved by a loophole.
If every festival could make something as epic as the Gathering, then yes, bring on the festival trailers.