How Musicians Are Using Vertical Videos To Adapt To The Attention Economy

Selena Gomez and Spotify debuted the streaming platform’s first vertical music video in May of 2017. Gomez’s then-new single, “Bad Liar,” was promoted alongside an exclusive visual that Spotify users could access through the mobile app. With a subscription and a few quick swipes, Gomez made herself at home on your phone screen, singing and rolling around a foggy, pink-tinted bedroom. It was a good deal for all parties, a low-stakes feature that could offer more fans for the pop star, more traffic for the music service, and more content for our insatiable attention spans.

Later that year, Gomez and Marshmello released a vertical video for their song “Wolves.” This one was released with Vevo and publicly available on Youtube, but, of course, still designed to be viewed on an iPhone. It begins with an iMessage exchange between the two artists and transitions into a POV Facetime call. “So we should probably make a video for this track,” Gomez’s blue bubble text reads. Watching the video feels like a personal look into Gomez’s life, with only a screen between us as she prances around her mansion in a silk robe, wet hair and a full face of makeup. If “Bad Liar” is like a polished photoshoot in motion, “Wolves” is akin to quirky — albeit calculated — behind-the-scenes footage.

If you’re active on social media, you’re used to a constant stream of stylishly curated visuals and purportedly candid day-in-the-life content. Vertical videos try to win our engagement by mirroring the apps that have us hooked. Since Gomez christened the medium, vertical videos have become standard practice. Last year, Billie Eilish gazed into the camera with a mouth full of tarantula for her “You Should See Me In A Crown” vertical video. Carly Rae Jepsen tried on sparkly outfits and baked a giant cake to the tune of “Party For One.” Spotify kicked off 2019 with the launch of Canvas, a function that allows musicians to attach looping videos to their songs. Taylor Swift’s latest album Lover arrived on the platform just last month with a full visual package. In addition to three vertical music videos, each track has its own candid outtake or glossy animated portrait that plays behind it on repeat — a glimpse of Swift playing pool, selfie clips of the artist hanging out with her cat, glamour shots in front of a sparkling garden.

The format doesn’t ask for much in terms of viewers’ attention or artists’ time and money, so it’s easy to see the appeal. A vertical video is typically captured during pre-existing music video shoots, or extracted from said video’s post-production. The resulting content features the punchiest B-roll material, condensed to fit a 9:16 frame. Tiktok is the most obvious influence here. The wildly popular social media app, which serves up an endless stream of user-generated 15-second “music videos,” nurtures a casual kind of creation and consumption. Account owners range from Will Smith to the Washington Post to off-duty police officers, but Tiktok’s main demographic is Gen Z, an age group that gets their entertainment at rapid speed. The platform redefines the music video, simplifying the form and boiling it down to its parts. Music spreads through memes and is digested via smartphone. But Tiktok thrives in its brevity, requiring only a few seconds of active viewing at a time before administering the next serotonin hit. The model isn’t made to accommodate a three-minute song.

“I don’t find the vertical format appealing because I don’t watch music videos on my phone,” said Jessica Maffeo, a 21-year-old college student. “I usually watch music videos when my friends and I are hanging out or when I’m studying, but I usually leave them playing in the background unless it’s a really captivating video.” 19-year-old Natalie Duran said she rarely watches full music videos, “unless a video is going viral, like that ‘Thank U, Next’ video.”

Music videos have had to constantly adapt to our evolving tech habits, moving from our television screens to our computer monitors to the palms of our hands. Gone are the days of TRL countdowns and VH1’s two-hour music video blocks. MTV’s deprioritization of music videos coincided with the advent of Youtube in the mid-aughts. Music videos began to echo and adhere to the surrounding digital space. OK Go’s famous treadmill routine, filmed in one continuous take for their 2006 “Here It Goes Again” music video, spoke to the charming projects people were posting and seeking on early Youtube. Weezer’s 2008 video for “Pork And Beans” featured some of the first Youtube stars, including Chris Crocker (“Leave Britney Alone!”) and the “Evolution Of Dance” guy.

Today, music videos often garner the best feedback when they incorporate a meme-friendly moment, like Drake grooving to “Hotline Bling” in a color-changing cube. Interactive dance challenges briefly took off last year after Drake’s “In My Feelings” prompted people from all around the world to film themselves dancing outside of moving cars. Transitioning toward trendy, bite-sized smartphone experiences seems like the logical trajectory, but a return to the traditional form — or even an expansion of it — might better address worries of waning engagement.

In 2013, Beyoncé responded to our restlessness with her eponymous visual album. Each song came with its own video, a striking collection that begs to be binged and rewatched. She continued to push the medium with 2016’s Lemonade, which premiered on HBO in a 65-minute film. Rather than opt for the easily digestible, she challenged and captivated viewers with a cinematic retelling of her heartbreak, grief, and recovery. The iconic visuals are suited for a big screen. Beyoncé didn’t smash open a fire hydrant so you could watch it on your tiny cell phone. Watching Lemonade felt like an event, a cultural moment.

Of course, most artists don’t have Beyoncé’s music video budget. But her maximalist ethos endures. A sweet spot between vertical video-style intimacy and Beyoncé-level intensity can be found in Brockhampton’s videos, most of which are directed by frontman Kevin Abstract, whose surreal vision amplifies the everyday. Band members take turns rapping directly into the camera while partying in a school gymnasium or sitting on a couch wearing silver spacesuits.

A vertical video succeeds as a teaser or supplement for a full-sized traditional music video. It could inspire fans who wouldn’t normally go out of their way to find a music video. The diagnosis is correct — we’re watching more videos on our phones than ever before — but the treatment plan seems misguided. Younger generations crave exposure to content that moves them, beyond the music video morsels that saturate their feeds.

“There’s something cool about being able to scroll through social media and watch a full music video right there, but you can definitely put more into a full-sized video.” said a 17-year-old high school student (he asked that his name be concealed). “I watch full music videos pretty often. Anytime I see a video for a song I like, I watch it immediately. A great video can really add a lot of meaning to a song.”