The coronavirus pandemic has caused chaos for the music industry. Festivals have been cancelled, albums have been postponed, venues have closed and thousands of session musicians are out of work.
Quarantine and social-distancing restrictions have also shut down most music video shoots since the start of March.
A few people saw the writing on the wall and scheduled back-to-back video shoots just before the lockdown began. Others were forced to get creative.
The last few months have seen an explosion in home-made, self-shot, DIY, hand-animated and Zoom-based music videos. Some of them have even been worth watching – which is handy in an era when YouTube views count towards chart positions.
Here’s a selection of the more accomplished and interesting clips we’ve seen.
Most professional iPhone video: Evanescence – Wasted On You
Evanescence were putting the finishing touches to their first album in nine years when the lockdown struck. Rather than place everything on hold, the group told fans: “We promised you a new album in 2020 and we won’t let anything stop us.”
That meant filming a video for their comeback single, Wasted On You, in their homes, with each of the five members expressing the loneliness of isolation.
“Pulling this off had a unique set of challenges,” director PR Brown tells the BBC. “We set out by discussing the range of emotions we are all going through. From there, we collected a list of everyday life routines that would be great to get on camera. I worked up a breakdown of angles, lighting and thoughts of how to film. Oh, and all of it, every shot, was filmed by the band and their families on an iPhone.
“After we starting looking at the footage it was clear that even though they were thousands of miles apart, they were each going through similar things. I started building an edit and seeing those scenarios play out over and over again and linked them together to tell their stories.”
Unlike a lot of lockdown videos, the video feels polished and professional, without sacrificing any of the underlying emotion. It’s subsequently been nominated for an MTV Award in the “best rock video” category
Best use of a deserted car park: Haim – Don’t Wanna
Haim started off the lockdown by giving dance tutorials on Zoom. A few weeks later, they filmed the video for I Know Alone on a basketball court – all positioned six feet apart – after learning the choreography remotely.
That video directly inspired the follow-up – a goofy stroll through the car park of the Los Angeles forum, with the sisters elbowing each other out of the way to claim pole position.
It arose from the meme “Haim invented walking”, arising from the fact many of their videos feature the band striding down the streets of LA.
“Danielle and I thought it was funny how half the comments [on I Know Alone] went, ‘Where’s the walking?'” says director Jake Schrier. “So we thought we’d have a bit of fun with the expectation that Haim has to walk it out in every video. And we also all love A League Of Their Own, which has that great scene of the sisters walk-racing until they both start running.”
Schrier dispensed with his usual crew, shooting the clip in natural light on an iPhone mounted on “the $150 gimbal my dad got me for Christmas”. The band nailed it on the third take “and then the sun went down”.
Best animation: Tinie ft Tion Wayne – Moncler
“We are aggressively opening our budgets to make sure people have enough funds to bring in animators,” Atlantic Records’ senior vice president of A&R Jeff Levin told Rolling Stone last month.
But Tinie Tempah’s video for Moncler edges ahead of them, thanks to its eye-popping colour palette and themes of positivity and interconnectivity.
“The Moncler video was meant to be filmed in some exotic location right as the world locked down – which sucked for the original production but turned out to be a huge opportunity for me,” says director/animator Robert Strange.
“There were these images circulating of people crowded around their windows looking out at the world, so I decided it’d be of the moment to show Tinie looking out his own window, connecting with his friends via hologram technology. It was a tight turnaround so I worked a lot of 18-hour days.”
Strange says he developed a “closer working relationship” with Tinie than most other artists, even though they were communicating remotely.
“He sent me so many good ideas and most made it into the video,” he says. “Number one being the inclusion of his pooch, Pablo.”
Best Zoom choreography: Thao and The Get Down Stay Down – Phenom
Oakland-based band Thao and the Get Down were one of the first acts to harness Zoom in a music video, and they set a standard that’s hard to beat.,
Dividing the screen into a three-by-three grid, Brady Bunch-style, they choreographed an awe-inspiring dance routine that ripples across each of the panels. At one point, Thao and the eight dancers form a Frankenstein-style body. Later on, a glass of water is poured out of the middle frames into the mouth of the dancers below.
The video came together in less than a week, and was shot in one take after five hours’ rehearsal.
“Certain dance moves had to be adjusted to look good in Zoom’s gallery view and didn’t translate if they were too chaotic,” Thao told The Verge. “We found that the moves had to be really clean and clear and simple. I had to be the focal point and if too much was happening you wouldn’t know exactly where to look.”
Best awards show performance: Megan Thee Stallion – Girls In The Hood / Savage
There have been several award shows and benefit concerts during the pandemic, but none of them matched the scale and ambition of June’s BET Awards.
The creative team actually outlawed the term “virtual performance” because “it immediately put the experience in a box,” says BET’s head of specials and music programming, Connie Orlando.
“We had to adjust our thinking and step out of what we had done in the past,” she adds. “Once that clicked, the question wasn’t, ‘How do we do last year’s show?’ It was, ‘What does the show look like this year?’ There was a huge freedom in that simple shift in approach.”
Instead of lo-fi performances from people’s kitchens, BET provided budgets for clips that were often more like mini-movies.
Many chose to reflect the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, with powerful, political performances by the likes of Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Public Enemy and DaBaby.
But Megan Thee Stallion stole the show with a desert-set, Mad Max-inspired performance of Girls In The Hood and Savage.
The video was staged with the help of a “Covid-19 taskforce” who ensured safety regulations were taken into account – but the viewers were left unaware.
“Megan is such an incredible artist, so creative, so talented,” says Orlando. “It took lots of planning and meetings but in the end the performance is so epic you don’t even notice that everyone was socially distant, you are just blown away by her slaying the screen.”
Best celebrity voyeurism: Drake – Toosie Slide
One of the joys of lockdown has been peeking inside celebrities’ homes and judging their curtains. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to rating the living rooms of the rich and famous (Barbra Streisand received particularly high praise for her cushions).
But Drake took the gauntlet with the video for Toosie Slide, which follows the star around a Toronto mansion that’s apparently the size of the British Museum.
Along the way, Drake showcases his collection of basketball jerseys, an array of music awards, an Andy Warhol painting of Mao Zedong, a flashy grand piano and a gigantic indoor swimming pool.
It all ends with a fireworks display for one, which is potentially the saddest thing you’ve ever seen.
Most perfect evocation of the existential angst from which we will never escape: Jessy Lanza – Over And Over
Riding up and down a deserted escalator is the stuff of most kids’ dreams – but amidst the alienation of lockdown, the act of lonely repetition becomes infinitely more melancholy.
That’s the mood Canadian alt-pop artist Jessy Lanza captured perfectly in the video for Over and Over, which was shot early one Friday morning in an empty mall in downtown San Francisco.
“Jessy had the song playing on headphones and did four takes going up and down the escalators,” recalls Lanza’s partner and collaborator Winston H Case. “Once I picked the take – which happened to be the second take – I put markers on the clip where I thought I could adjust the timing to enhance the moments to seem more synchronized with the music.”
Case says working from one locked-off shot was “therapeutic” compared to the painstaking process of piecing together a normal music videos. And Lanza found the video shoot restorative, too.
“I was terrified of escalators as a kid so I’m happy to have come this far,” she says.
Cinéma Vérité Award: Twenty One Pilots – Level of Concern
Level Of Concern was written as a direct response to the pandemic, with singer Tyler Joseph expressing his feelings of panic and hopelessness to his wife and their newborn daughter, who arrived just weeks before the lockdown.
The video is essentially a “making-of” – showing the two members filming and recording their respective parts, then posting the results back and forth on a flash drive.
Those sequences are interspersed with homely clips of Joseph and drummer Josh Dun spending time with their partners and decorating their houses with flashing lights and fluorescent stars – undercutting the song’s anxieties with a message of hope and positivity.
Proceeds from the single went to help support the band’s road crew. And there’s a great joke at the end, too…
Most creative use of green-screen: Phoebe Bridgers – Kyoto
Originally, Phoebe Bridgers was due to travel to Japan to shoot the video for Kyoto – but that got cancelled after she missed her flight due to a flat tire (only joking, the whole trip was cancelled due to the pandemic).
Not to be outdone, the singer jumped in front of a green screen and took a virtual tour of the country, performing over stock footage of Kyoto station and the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, before flying over Lake Biwa and defeating Godzilla by shooting lasers out of her eyes.
The song itself is about impostor syndrome – written after Bridgers toured Japan and felt she was “living someone else’s life” – and the artificiality of the video emphasises that sense of detachment, without getting too bogged down in sentiment.
Best fan participation: Tove Lo – Matteo
Remember when almost every music video had a scene where the main character woke up suddenly from a nightmare? Well in 2020, the equivalent is getting your fans to lip-sync to one of your songs.
You know the format: There’ll be a precocious kid, someone dancing slightly out of time, a mum duetting with her daughter, and some guy who’s learned the chords and makes a big show of it.
Tove Lo’s clip for Mateo somehow manages to swerve all the clichés, partly because she received more than 1,000 submissions (the track is a fan favourite from her 2019 album Sunshine Kitty), and partly because her left-field brand of pop appeals to an audience of misfits and outsiders.
“So much of the last few months has been about what can’t happen,” she said. “Doing the quarantine karaoke challenge was a way to still connect with my fans and give everyone something to safely do while locked down
“[I was] so happy to see all of your faces and places, makes me feel like we’re together while apart.”
Best claymation: Duval Timothy – Slave (ft Twin Shadow)
Duval Timothy’s haunting, piano-driven song Slave explored the music industry’s difficult relation with black musicians. At its centre is a sample of Pharrell Williams discussing the ways that record labels pressure artists to give up the rights to their own music.
The music video, which Timothy created with the artist Max Valizadeh, takes that idea a step further – depicting an audio file that becomes sentient, before managers and labels capture and multiply it.
“After I created the story, we spent a week together both working with plasticine to create the characters and settings for each shot: The labour-intensive process of creating a stop motion animation echoing the story being told,” Timothy tells the BBC.
“Many artists that have famously spoken out about the importance of artists owning their masters and have also equated elements of the music industry to slavery such as Prince and Nipsey Hu$$le are depicted on the peak of the mountain which I climb to join them in the end sequence,” he adds.
“The story is an adaptation of my own experience of the music industry and in 2019 I bought back my masters.”