Six Tips to Making a No-budget Music Video

A beginner’s guide to quick-and-dirty music video production

If you’re like most DIY musicians, there’s probably not a whole lot of extra cash left in the band’s bank account after shelling out for recording, mixing, mastering, duplication, registering your copyrights, and distribution. But you still have to promote your new record, right?

These days a music video is practically required in order to properly promote an album. And while yes, you could spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars shooting a music video, why would you? Especially when you’re at a place in your music career where every dollar counts.

Last week, KCRW (home of the fantastic Morning Becomes Eclectic radio show) premiered the music video for my song “Anonymous.” It’s a video I made for zero dollars in about two days.

It’s no “November Rain” or “Thriller,” but for a video with zero special effects, a crew of one, no budget, and just a few hours to shoot, I’m happy with what we ended up with. Regardless of what you think of the video though, I think I can share a few lessons that will come in handy when you’re brainstorming ideas for your next low-or-no-budget music video production.

[Note: if you’re working with other people to create your video, all the following tips will probably be helpful. If you’re working on your music video all alone, you can obviously take as long as you need to complete it, and be as elaborate as possible with your production. I’m thinking, for instance, of THIS VIDEO by my friend’s Rob and Naomi, which took them hundreds of hours to create on their own terms and timeline.]

1. Get your friends involved

My friend Craig is a filmmaker, so he was an obvious choice to ask for help. He ended up directing, shooting, and editing the video. But even if you don’t have a friend with film equipment or skills, you probably have a smartphone, right? And maybe you can get some friends to bring their smartphones too (which gives you multiple camera angles to cut between when you edit).

Also, if you need actors or extras who’ll work for free, call your friends. I had two of my friends (Doug and Anna of the graphic design team Chicken 3000) show up later in the shoot to play the part of the two mysterious “watchers.”

If you need a crowd, that’s doable too. If I remember correctly, folk songwriter Putnam Smith put out the call via social media to get people who owned cast iron pans to appear in the last scene of his music video.

Or you could even hold a kind of contest for your fans to appear in one of your videos.

2. Plan to work quickly

Here’s the thing about relying on free/cheap help: you want to be VERY respectful of everyone’s time.

A friend might love to hang out for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, drink some beer, and do a dozen takes or so, but if the shoot drags on too long or if you have to call people back on a separate day, it might start to feel like you’re taking advantage of their time. So don’t.

Whatever concept you come up with for your video, make sure it can be shot quickly, preferably in 4-6 hours on a single day (including setup and breakdown).

3. Shoot in one location, and make it count

I know you have a dozen elaborate sets in your mind, plus a concluding helicopter shot of you at the top of the Eiffel Tower. But yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

You have a lot to worry about already, especially if you’re going to be the main person on camera. Make the production as simple as possible for yourself, for the person worried about lighting and focus, and for anyone else who shows up to help.

Location, location, location! Find an interesting spot (and don’t ignore places in your local region that might have a ton of character), get everyone together, and put all your energy towards making the thing happen — not driving around, coordinating arrivals, etc.

In my case, we showed up at the YWCA in the early afternoon. After an hour or so of setup we still had about an hour of daylight. That served for the first third of the video. Then for the second part of the video, it’s dusk outside so things look darker. For the final third of the video, it’s totally dark outside, which lends another visual feel to the video. So yeah, be aware of the changes in natural lighting.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for access to locations that might seem out of reach: a monument, museum, etc. You might be surprised by how excited some facility manager or program director gets about the prospect of an artist shooting a video at their location.

4. Come up with one interesting visual element that can carry the whole video

I knew we didn’t have time to alter the environment, add a bunch of props, or have special effects, so that meant I needed one motif that wouldn’t get dull even if I had to repeat it a bunch of times.

So throughout this video I defy gravity, rising up out of the pool again and again and again while lip-syncing the song. To do this, I needed to memorize my song backwards and shoot everything in reverse (more on that process in the video below).

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