Tuesday, 19 August 2014

How I Learned To Hate Record Collecting: Part 8 - The DVD Single

The DVD single should have saved the record industry. The concept of the pop promo was so well established by the late 1990s, that the idea of releasing the latest video - commercially - by your favourite popstar at the same time that the single was released seemed like a glorious idea. So why didn’t it work?

There had long been problems in how to make videos available “at the time” ever since MTV had come into existence in the 1980s. The most common approach, was to actually wait until it was time to release a greatest hits album, and issue a “Greatest Videos” VHS to coincide, after the event. This seemed like the only way to resolve the issue. But you never knew if the band you liked were going to survive long enough to release such a set, so you had to make do with having your VHS tape on “Record / Pause”, and then hit the record button whenever a video came on that you liked. You always missed the opening seconds, it was impossible not to.

Sometimes, extenuating circumstances would see some of these clips appear, not quite exactly at the time, but at least reasonably soon after the event. After “Let’s Dance” had turned Bowie into a superstar, there then followed the “Video EP” release, featuring the three videos from the album that had been in hyper rotation on MTV and which helped Bowie become even more famous than he already was. When MTV banned “Justify My Love”, Warners issued it on a two track Madonna single at more or less the same time as the audio editions. But these were the exceptions rather than the rule, and Video Singles really only ever appeared at random times, usually generated by some one off special event.

The DVD had an advantage over the chunkier VHS. It was the same shape as a CD, so the logistical nature of how you could make a “video single” available on the shelves next to the CD Single solved itself - as long as you put the single in a standard package, and not a movie style “long box”.

At first, the DVD Single appeared as a quirky “hey, look at this” gimmick release, following on from when the likes of Suede had issued a Minidisc single in 1999, and then never did it ever again. When Madonna got another one of her videos banned in 2000, “Music”, Warners issued a 2 track single again - but this time on DVD. It had the “TV Edit” and the “uncensored” versions, came in a long box, and was quite overpriced for what you got - about £7 for 8 minutes of music. But it was a start. When she managed to get another video banned a couple of months later, “What It Feels Like For A Girl”, another DVD single was on the cards. But this time around, there was no “TV version” available, so instead, the DVD was padded out with some remixes, rather than use any other video footage. And this, as bizarre as it sounded, would turn out to be the standard approach for the DVD Single in the UK.

Now. If the record industry was nice, they would have simply allowed people to issue a 3 track DVD, with videos for all three tracks, and at the same price as a 3 track CD. But no way were they going to agree to that. So, in order to keep prices down, various rules were announced whereby the actual amount of video material that could be included would be, well, “short”.

If I remember correctly, in order to be eligible to count towards sales in the singles charts, the DVD had to follow one of these three rules:

a) the video of the A-side, two minutes of “other” footage, and an audio only extra track
b) the video of the A-side, and two more audio only tracks
c) a video, not of the A-side, lasting no more than 10 minutes, plus audio tracks lasting in total for no more than five minutes

Do you spot the connection there people? DVD stands for (possibly) “Digital Video Disc”, and yet, several minutes of your life would be spent WATCHING A BLANK SCREEN. Or at least, a screen with no video action. Think about this logically. For those of you who, like me, still play VHS tapes (or can at least remember them), if you was watching a VHS and suddenly the screen went blank, but the sound carried on, you would assume there was some sort of fault. Has my SCART lead fallen out? Is the video faulty? Something like that. But here, we had a single format where the concept of including three minutes of non-video video was being actively encouraged. It felt like the equivalent of buying a Ferrari, and then taking the wheels off and leaving it in your garage. The DVD Single was probably thus doomed from the start.

Anyhow, in 2001, plenty of people began dabbling with the format - and started releasing crappy looking and shabby feeling DVD singles. The likes of Ash and Oasis opted for the “10 minute non video” approach, including some pointless “behind the scenes” footage which I never watched more than once. Meanwhile, the promo clips for these singles were either left in the vaults, or were shoehorned onto the inferior CD Rom part of the accompanying CD Single. The whole point of releasing a DVD Single in the first place was to try and include the promo, I would have thought, and yet here we had bands simply doing the exact opposite.

Most acts, thankfully, did at least try and put the promo video on the single, but for a lot of bands, they seemed to be a bit slow in doing it - Starsailor had issued several singles from their debut LP before they finally tossed out “Lullaby” on DVD - and for some reason, they also stuck the video on the CD edition as well, almost as some form of apology. Other acts started off quite well by issuing a DVD - with the video - for the first single from their new album (see The Magic Numbers “Take A Chance”), only to lose interest by the time of the second single (see, well, The Magic Numbers “This Is A Song”). There just seemed to be a completely random, disinterested, and slightly “can’t be bothered” approach from the labels, and maybe the bands as well, towards the format.

Even acts who you would have thought were born for the format struggled to show any interest - pop pin ups Girls Aloud managed just one DVD single in their entire career, instead deciding to showcase their videos by adding them as bonus features to each of their live DVDs, which surfaced on an almost annual basis. Britney rarely attempted any either. Madonna, meanwhile, had also given up and carried on issuing the usual audio formats instead, preferring to issue multiple 12“ singles instead of DVD releases, meaning you had to wait until 2009’s “Celebration” before any of her latter period promos appeared “officially“ on DVD.

Why was this? Well, I would argue that it was because the messy rules about what could or could not be included possibly just didn’t sit well with the bands or the labels, who just decided to go down the regular single route instead. Maybe there were cost issues as well, maybe they weren’t selling, I don’t know. But you really never knew, when somebody announced details of their next 45, if a DVD was in the offing or not - it was 50/50, possibly less. There seemed to be no pattern, at times, as to when somebody would issue one, and what would be on it.

Every so often, a genuinely interesting release would surface. In the UK, Bowie’s 2003 comeback single “New Killer Star” was issued on DVD only, backed with an (audio) “Love Missile F1-11” and the Electronic Press Kit for his new album. It was sort of like having an A-side, B-side, and a sort of bonus track, and because it was on this format and this format only, it felt special. But Bowie never issued another DVD Single. The year before, Supergrass had arguably gone one better, when they realised that they had, in their vaults, a song less than two minutes long, and therefore, a video for said song could be included as a B-side on the disc WITH THE VIDEO IN FULL, thereby complying to the rules. And so “Seen The Light” appeared with both the video for the A-side, and a live video recording of the hyper energetic “Never Done Nothing Like That Before” on “the flip“. Total genius. It would be three years before they would bother with the format again.

At the time the format came into view, through to when it died a death, I was still buying singles on a regular basis, and so ended up buying virtually all of the releases by the bands and singers I liked on DVD. They are all in a big box together, separated from the CD’s, and so, as a whole, are probably quite interesting from a historical viewpoint. A snapshot in time, you could say. But taken as individual items, they often just feel awkward - four minutes of a promo, and then nine minutes of B-sides whilst still photos of the band appear on the screen in screensaver style mode. Had everybody issued DVD singles, and they all followed the same rules, then it might have seemed like a more regular format - but the scattergun approach, both between different labels and then within each of their own acts themselves, killed off any form of “standardisation”, and meant that some DVD Singles seemed OK, whilst others seemed a tad rubbish in what you got for your £2.99. I’m sure if I did dig out one of those Oasis ones, Liam and Noel are probably moaning about something on it which could be quite fun to watch, but really, I’d sooner just listen to “Definitely Maybe” instead.

The DVD Single just sort of disappeared, as opposed to being properly killed off. I am sure somebody somewhere can tell you who released the last one, and although I believe chart rules mean somebody could still issue their next 45 on the format, I doubt there are many takers. In the end, the price put off the floating voters, and thus the sales of the single failed to be boosted by this super duper futuristic format. When iTunes came along and allowed people to download the latest Promo by whoever it was for about 99p, well, that was the end of that. The decision then by acts to have their own Vevo channels on Youtube, allowing you to watch these clips for free, well, this finally killed the format stone dead. Single sales were therefore not resurrected by the DVD Single. The labels had to come up with another trick, and we shall look at how this didn‘t really work either in the October blog. Next month, the insanity that was, and still is, Universal's "Deluxe Edition" album reissues.

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