In 2003, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted an exhibition titled Golden Oldies of Music Video. The sights and sounds of Michael Jackson and Public Enemy bounced off the same walls that housed venerable Matisses and Picassos. As an art form, music videos could now be summarized in a tidy retrospective suitable for highbrow critics.
Try telling that to Music Video Asheville.
Now in its 10th year, the showcase of local musicians and videographers returns to the Diana Wortham Theatre on Wednesday, April 19. The awards show has grown from its modest beginnings at the now-defunct Cinebarre movie house into a red-carpet extravaganza downtown — a course of success that mirrors the ever-increasing relevance of music videos themselves in the online age.
Although its venue has quadrupled in capacity (from 120 to nearly 500 music video fans) the core purpose of Music Video Asheville has stayed the same over the past decade. “This is a firsthand way to see the best of what Asheville’s got when it comes to music: a diverse blend of genres, amazing talent and edgy style,” says event organizer Kelly Denson. “It’s the family reunion of the Asheville music scene.”
But Denson, now in her fifth year of co-organizing the awards with partner Jason Guadagnino, has also responded to shifts in Western North Carolina’s music video culture. The most obvious of these changes is the sheer quantity of videos now produced by area artists. “Back when we started, we showed every video we received,” says Denson. “If we did that now, it’d be a five-hour event.” This year, Music Video Asheville racked up a record 56 submissions, which a panel of local music, video and art professionals winnowed down to the best 90 minutes for viewing at the awards ceremony.
Complicating that curation is the concurrent rise of video quality, fostered by easier access to recording equipment and editing software. Artists with a big vision no longer need an equally big budget to capture their ideas. “I’ve seen videos that people made entirely on their cellphones come in and compete head to head with videos that were made on really high-quality cameras,” Denson says.
As the tools of creativity have become less expensive, local video producers have experimented with more sophisticated techniques — such as the stop motion in “Opium Den” by rapper Foul Mouth Jerk, winner of Best Visual Design at the 2015 awards. “It was one of the best videos I’ve ever seen at Music Video Asheville, and it was made in his house using Barbie dolls and handmade sets,” says Denson. “But it was definitely rated R, so he had to tell his daughter not to come downstairs during filming!”
In addition, technology has encouraged artists to create more and better videos by filling the void left by MTV and VH1 (which both originated with nearly exclusive music video programming). Brian Adam Smith, a member of the Digital Creativity faculty at Clemson University’s Center of Excellence and entering his fourth year as a judge of Music Video Asheville, emphasizes YouTube’s importance to the music video revival. “Anything can be on YouTube, from ballet to Bob Ross painting,” he says. “But out of the top 20 most-viewed videos on YouTube, every single one is a music video. It’s arguably the most popular art form in the world.”
YouTube has become the primary way that teenagers listen to music, as well as an important tool for booking agents to assess new acts. Given these high stakes, local artists are spending more effort on music videos — and Smith says that makes his job as a judge more difficult. “It’s getting harder every year for the panel to agree. The production quality is becoming so great, and there are so many talented musicians, videographers, directors and editors,” says Smith.
Denson also notes that Music Video Asheville has become more focused on craftsmanship as the event has grown. In the early years, awards like Best Use of the Color Red or Best Use of Tiger celebrated the idiosyncrasies of the videos, but since 2013, judges have compared submissions more directly in categories such as cinematography and editing. “It’s still done in a spirit of fun, but we’ve raised the bar of the competition higher and higher,” Denson says.
In the future, both Denson and Smith expect Music Video Asheville to keep growing. Smith even suggests an eventual category for 360-degree music videos. He is already working with regional and Grammy Award-winning musicians, as well as large music festivals, to produce 360-degree live performances and virtual reality music videos.
Denson is secretive, however, about what she has planned to celebrate the event’s 10th anniversary. “We have two surprise live performances that we’re going to keep under wraps,” she says. “They’re going to blow people’s minds, and that’s all I can say for the time being.”
WHAT: Music Video Asheville, musicvideoavl.com
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Square, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Wednesday, April 19, 5 p.m. $15 general admission/$30 VIP