Non-Foods: Video-Assisted Ignorance
By Frank Zappa
From Guitar Player Magazine, April 1984
All previous "Non-Foods" columns have been prepared as question-answer items, resulting from interviews conducted by Guitar Player staff (either by phone or in person). This column, and hopefully some others in the future, will be handled as pieces of original writing, designed for the interests of GP readers.
Since I seldom touch the guitar anymore, trying to think of "guitar-oriented conversational topics" – in the strictest sense – is a bit difficult, but as the name of the column suggests, there are other matters worth commenting on for the benefit of people who play music. Our topic for today will be: Video-assisted ignorance.
Rock videos are expensive. An average cheapie costs $40,000, and on the high side they cost $300,000 (and some, I have heard, cost even more than that). Everybody wants to make one. Everybody believes they are wonderful. Everybody believes they help careers and motivate tremendous record sales. Let's look at it realistically.
Who pays for it? You probably will. Even with "exclusions" in your record contract, plainly stating that if a video is produced, the company will pick up the tab, you (as an artist) are at the mercy of the record company if they decide – as one major record company recently did – that all such exclusions are void. This means that even if the record company told you they were going to pick up the tab for your splendid little video masterpiece, they can give you a hose job any time. They hold all your royalties. They will take the cost of the video out of your pocket before you make a nickel from any records sold. And as an artist, you don't stand a chance of prevailing against them in court, even if you decide to spend five years and a few hundred thousand dollars suing them.
As a musician in America, your value as a human being is (to put it mildly) small. If you are a rock and roll guitarist – less than small. If you go to court with them, the judge will look at them and their well-tailored lawyers and say, "These are honest, worthwhile, productive members of an important American industry. "Then he'll look at you and say, "Scum of the earth! How dare you complain about your treatment by these fine men? Do you think you even have a right to be alive in our great land? Go away, and be thankful I have not given you the death penalty for questioning the behavior of this spotless company!"
Make no mistake: You will pay!
What will you get for your money? Less than you think. If you think your video promo with that terrific new song (that sounds like everybody else's new song, and even uses the same stupid shots of the "group running down the wet street," the close-up of the "rented cute girl's lips," the medium shot of the car door, the dove, the "outer space," the wide-angle "lead vocalist's grimace," the etc.) is going to get the entire planet excited, then you are jerking yourself off. You can listen to a good record hundreds of times and still like it. You can watch a video maybe six times and it's boring.
When you watch a video, better than 50% of what you experience and react to is visual. You don't hum it; you watch it, like any other TV material. It doesn't matter. It is only "stuff." It is (usually by intent) just a commercial for a record. Some people have the nerve to think of this as video art. These same people think of Cabbage Patch dolls as a revolutionary form of "soft sculpture."
But won't we sell a million records? Maybe you will. Maybe you have good music on your record. If the radio plays it, then it will sell. If your video gets exposure, maybe the radio will play your record. But it will be the radio that sells the record.