The early history of promotional video: Music videos

Title banner showing a crowd of people dancing

Promotional video has a long and rich history. From music videos to television advertisements and digital app promos, video is still one of the best tools in your arsenal when it comes to promoting your product, brand, or service. In this series of posts, we’ll be exploring the history of promotional video to demonstrate how dynamic and ultimately powerful video content can be.

From Beyoncé’s Lemonade (10 million views on Youtube and counting) to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, promotional music videos have long been an integral feature of the music industry. They give listeners a greater artistic insight into a piece of music by offering some visual context, which benefits both consumers and artists. Add that to a lot of viral potential, and music videos are then one of the most easily shareable visual mediums in existence.

A mobile device playing a music video

Many people think that music videos did not become a dominant form for promoting records until the advent of MTV in 1981 with videos like The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star and Pat Benatar’s You Better Run. However, while music videos have only been used to promote records on a mass scale in the industry relatively recently, combining music with video is a practice arguable as old as film itself.

Prior to talkies, pianists and record players were vital parts of the cinematic experience. They were necessary to soundtrack films, provide the images onscreen with the right rhythm, and set the right mood. Part of the beauty of this is that the same films could be given different soundtracks and remain coherent narratives—arguably something lost with the advent of sound film. (Check out this restored version of 1927 classic Metropolis with a classical score vs. an original modern score)

The earliest attempt to sync music with video, however, was The Dickson Experimental Sound Film in 1894. Using a wax cylinder recorder, filmmakers recorded a live violin on-screen while two figures danced. It’s hardly Runaway, but this was a major step in combining music and video.

However, it wasn't until the 1960s that the modern music video (as we know it) emerged. The Beatles need no introduction, but what many people don’t know is that they were some of the earliest pioneers of music videos. Videos for singles like Penny Lane, Hello, Goodbye, and A Day In The Life are undeniably innovative. A Day In The Life features, for example, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, as well as a timeless montage editing style which many music video directors still utilise today. They weren't the first to make a music video, but this was certainly one of the first efforts to use music videos for promotional purposes.

Music videos wouldn't come to dominate the music industry until the advent of MTV. The influence of that network is undeniable – Robert Sam Anson of Vanity Fair points out it has been “credited with creating icons, influencing fashion, spawning movies and television shows, saving the music industry, even ending the Cold War”. Although MTV might have moved on from music videos, digital channels like Vevo (over 12 million subscribers) are continuing its legacy. Music videos have long been an immensely powerful tool for promoting new music and offering musicians greater creative dimensions for their work.

In our next post in this series, we’ll be discussing the history of video advertising and its relevance today.