The music video for the 1983 hit single “White Wedding” featured a barbed-wire wedding ring, a motorcycle crashing through a stained-glass window and the singer Billy Idol unveiling his telegenic sneer. Its director, David Mallet, said it was filmed in one day, like many of the clips he did then, and aimed for a display much different from those we’re accustomed to today.
“We were making videos for a screen that the very largest was 32 inches,” Mallet said in an interview, also lamenting that a lot of video work wasn’t carefully archived. As a result, YouTube — the place most consumers watch music videos today — still has plenty of videos represented by glitchy dubs off ancient VHS tapes. “A lot of them just don’t hold up when they get blown up to 60-inch screens,” Mallet added.
On Wednesday, however, YouTube and Universal Music Group announced that they were upgrading more than 1,000 popular music videos to high definition, releasing them through 2020. Artists in the initial batch of 100 videos include Lady Gaga, Tom Petty, Boyz II Men, the Killers, Lionel Richie, Kiss, George Strait and the Spice Girls.
“Once that dirty coloring is removed, it’s a lot more vital somehow,” said Billy Idol, who has six videos in the first wave of upgrades, including “White Wedding,” “Rebel Yell” and “Dancing With Myself.” “It gives these videos a chance against the modern high-quality definition. And I’m forever that age in these videos — it’s kind of fantastic.”
Upgrading the clips meant archival work with a dizzying array of formats. Barak Moffitt, the executive vice president of content strategy and operations at Universal, named a few: “We have sources coming from everything from original film to Digibeta, HDCAM to one-inch Cs and Betacam SPs to D2s — and the format it was shot in isn’t necessarily the format it was edited in.”
Universal tried to remain true to artists’ original intentions: The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” looks so much crisper after its renovation, Universal contacted the group and the director Spike Jonze to make sure they weren’t violating the video’s aesthetic of cheap 1970s cop shows. Moffitt noted, “The graininess of a tube television set, which is what they were going for, is not the dithery compression artifact that you can see on a highly compressed video, so cleaning it up went more to the retro intent.”
Sometimes detective work was required, as when the team discovered that the audio for Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days” video was a unique recording made just for the clip. And sometimes it was as straightforward as upgrading the audio to a better source. Michael Nash, the executive vice president of digital strategy at Universal, explained that historically, “A lot of times, the first thing you were putting in front of consumers was the music video, even before the single went to radio. Very often a music video would be sent to MTV before the final stereo mix of the single was done.”
YouTube long ago supplanted MTV as the primary venue for music videos, but it has recently seen threats to its dominance with the rise of “vertical videos” formatted for Instagram and Spotify, and periodically it has contentious negotiations with record labels over the royalty rates it pays each time a song is streamed, and whether that constitutes a “value gap.”
So a project that burnished everyone’s reputation was particularly appealing for YouTube. “The entire industry can come together and do something great. There are lots of winners and no losers,” said Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, who previously had stints as a top executive at Warner Music and Def Jam — and began his career managing hip-hop artists, including the Beastie Boys.
When the Universal team showed Cohen a demo reel of their high-definition efforts, they made sure it included “Sabotage.” It had the desired effect: “I went into the studio and I saw the Beastie Boys, and I had a mind-melt,” he said.
Making the initiative happen at Universal meant shifting how the company thought about these old clips, considering them not just as commercials for intellectual property (such as albums) but as valuable pieces of intellectual property themselves. “We are convinced that this effort will pay for itself over time,” Nash said.
While it is possible to watch YouTube on 70-inch 4K TV sets with surround sound, many people use their phones. So will Lady Gaga fans even notice when the audio and video of “Bad Romance” get upgraded? With evangelical fervor, if no hard data, Nash insisted that they will.
“Audiences can tell the difference when it’s put in front of them, they can understand the difference when it’s explained to them, and it’s our obligation as partners of the artists to put the closest representation of the artist’s voice and vision in front of audiences,” he said. He paused for breath. “If you didn’t educate consumers about what grand cru was, everyone would be drinking wine out of a box.”