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Interactive music videos

Karsten Kaminski/gnbDecember 12, 2013

In the internet age, users can now interact with music videos. Musical heavyweights like Bob Dylan are keen to take advantage of this new technology, and it’s proving a hit with fans.

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A completely new channel-hopping experience: the viewer flicks between programs and sees a newscaster, reality TV contestants, a weather forecaster - all singing the same song. That's the concept behind the new, interactive video for the 1965 Bob Dylan classic "Like a Rolling Stone." Structured like a virtual TV with 16 individual channels, the video is updating the almost 50-year-old track for the internet.

It’s the first time Dylan has ever released an official music video, and with this one he's firmly targeting the digital generation. It also works as a neat bit of advertising for his latest greatest hits compilation, "The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1."

The same principal is used by US rapper Pharell Williams on his new 24-hour song in which users can click through an entire day. The viewer sees a continuous loop featuring various people, among them a number of celebrities, all dancing to the track "Happy."

A click into the future?

For Martin Behrens, Director of Pop Music Studies at the University of Osnabruck, this interactivity isn't revolutionary in itself. "Pop music has always tried to find new ways to grab people’s attention," he says. "It all started with ambitious light shows in the 70s. Nowadays concerts are presented across multimedia platforms." This includes elements such as live streams and photo galleries, all attempts by an artist to better reach his or her audience. "It's a much more emotional connection, and thanks to this participation the product becomes more trusted by the end user."

Behrens predicts even more cross-platform links in the future, particularly with social media as the internet becomes increasingly important for the music industry. "Fun is the key factor for users these days, and the old 'Buy me!' message has fallen by the wayside."

The new generation of music videos not only means a higher entertainment factor for users but also greater financial strain on record labels - but without consequences for fans. "I don’t think the price of CDs or i-Tunes tracks will increase," says Behrens. "It's all about better marketing and will be profitable through product sales."

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US musician Pharrell Williams experiments with an interactive video on his new 24-hour track, "Happy".Image: Getty Images/David Buchan

Neither does Behrens think this new generation of music video will mean competition for existing platforms such as YouTube, which he sees more as a source for passively consuming videos. The advantage of interactive videos is that it is fun to click around. The disadvantage, however, could be when such videos become the standard. "The cost of financing elaborate productions like these can so far only be covered by the biggest bands." But he has faith in the experience of the music industry. "New trends have to prove themselves first, and in time even newcomer bands might be able to afford to make videos like this."

German bands lagging behind

Music video researcher Henry Keazor of the University of Heidelberg sees nothing new in the recent videos from Dylan and Williams. "Up to now these videos are just an internet hype which only big name musicians can use," he said in an interview with DW, adding that interactive videos have existed for some time.

The interactive video can be traced back to Peter Gabriel’s 1996 CD-ROM release "Eve," which enabled the user to click through acoustic highlights and move Adam and Even through different locations in the Garden of Eden.

In the 2000's, more musicians caught on to the possibilities of new technologies, including Swedish pop singer Robyn and the British band Placebo. These new videos saw faster editing and the use of 3D effects, while tracks could be changed and remixed.

Henry Keazor Kunsthistoriker mit dem Schwerpunkt Musikvideos
Music video researcher Henry Keazor thinks more interactive videos will be produced in the future.Image: Oliver Dietze

But so far German bands taking advantage of interactive music videos have remained few and far between. Only Berlin-based hip-hop crew K.I.Z., under contract to Universal Music, has so far done so… and that was in 2008.

Their video was done in the style of a shoot 'em up computer game with the user firing shots from a first person perspective. But the bloodthirsty violence and adult language in the clip meant that access was restricted. "The K.I.Z clip was too specific," says Henry Keazor, "Certain parts of it could only be used after 10pm. That was counterproductive and only frustrated the users."

Keazor predicts that the future of the interactive video lies in the domain of light entertainment as used by Bob Dylan and Pharrell Williams. He also thinks that as of next year, more and more German bands will exploit interactive video technology as increasing numbers of them are signed to international labels which tend to have a sharper eye on new online trends.