Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media


Conservation and Curation: Theoretical and Practical Issues in the Making of a National Collection of British Music Videos 1966­–2016

Emily Caston


[Abstract] [PDF]


In 2015, I was tasked with creating a national collection of British music videos for the British Film Institute (BFI) and British Library (BL). This was an output from a large research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 2015­–2017 to be accompanied by a monograph (Caston, British Music Videos). Using my industry access as a music video producer from 1991 to 2003, the project sought to redress the focus on the USA in established scholarship by examining British music videos released between 1966 and 2016. It sought to examine the impact, influence and industry of British music videos as “an industrial product and cultural form” (Laing), using archival analysis and oral history methods (Ritchie; Abrahams). In so doing, it sought to test the idea of the British music video production industry as a creative cluster and “imagined community” (Anderson), sharing a collectively held memory of events.

The primary task was archival. As the BFI’s then Curator of Fiction Dylan Cave had written,

from an archival perspective, music video has failed to gain serious consideration for preservation and conservation. Originally conceived as little more than pop ephemera, music videos, unlike movies or high-end television, are still fighting to be recognised as worthy inclusions in the moving image canon. (80)

Cave’s 2017 article documented the gaps in the BFI’s holdings arising from this. Between 1966 and 2016, I estimated that over twenty thousand videos were made in Britain, and the task set by the BFI was to select one hundred to form a national collection. Without intervention by the BFI, there was a risk that Britain’s heritage in music video would not be preserved beyond YouTube. YouTube, however, was not a “stable archive” for music video that could form the basis of serious scholarship for reasons that had already been identified by Carol Vernallis (Unruly Media 262).

The result was that I curated a DVD box set titled Power to the People: British Music Videos 1966–2016 (2018). The curation and production of this box set raised a host of complex theoretical issues. Apart from practical issues such as music video archiving, digital preservation and restoration, license negotiation in the field of collective authorship, or authors’ moral rights, this article also considers important methodological problems of public collection building and curating and, specific to the music video, defining genre, production processes, authorship, and the challenge of defining “Britishness” in a cultural form that many perceive as fundamentally transnational. It also considers issues arising from the use of oral history methods with a cluster of freelance workers, micro-entities and SMEs to research film production history.[1]

The first task was to identify the most effective way to engage the public as an audience for the collection. The core collection of one-hundred videos was to be held by the BFI in Berkhamsted. The question was how to distribute it to the primary target audience of students and teachers in secondary schools, FE (further education) and HE (higher education), our primary target audience. The Board of VPL (Video Performance Ltd), the agency charged by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) to collect and disperse royalties from music video licensing and sales, declined our request to make the collection available online through the BFI Player because the videos remained in copyright. Instead, they gave their support to the idea of physical format. Rob Dickens CBE, who had chaired the BPI board between 1986 and 1988, took a role on our advisory board, as did John Stewart, founder of leading British music video production company Oil Factory. All but one of the of the major and indie labels we approached for licences agreed to waive any royalties due from the sales in the interests of keeping the price down, provided the format was limited to the sale of two thousand copies.

A physical format satisfied the requirements of our AHRC funding because it avoided the regional bias that would have arisen had we presented the collection as a series of cinema screenings or an exhibition in a single city. A touring exhibition was considered but rejected because it proved too expensive. Instead, we appointed an independent British-owned film distributor, Soda Pictures, with experience in the education sector. Digital sales had only overtaken sales of DVDs and Blu-rays at the end of 2016, and UK disc purchases were still £900 million per year in 2016 (Wroot and Ellis 4–5). Home media formats were persisting for niche markets of cult films. Soda had recently distributed limited edition box sets for the Jarmusch Collection (Soda, 2014), the Chris Marker Collection (2014), and Norman McLaren: The Masters’ Collection (2007), giving them additional valuable experience in niche collector’s markets.

Much debate took place around the issue of price. In discussion of physical manufacturing costs, it was explained that increasing the collection from one to two hundred videos was marginal and worthwhile given the greater scope to curate a representative collection. A recommended retail price (RRP) of £30 was agreed because it was less than a third the standard RRP for Soda’s comparable special edition collectors’ box set and, therefore, more suitable for the target market. The DVD went on sale for that price in March 2018, at which point Soda had been rebranded as Thunderbird. In March 2020, having engaged A-Level Media students with the research through a series of talks at the BFI, we reduced the price to £5 for students whose exams had been cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. The organisation who worked with us on this was Media Magazine, with a school circulation of 34,000 students and teachers. It was also offered at a discounted rate to members of the BFI.

The act of curating is implicated in what Pierre Bourdieu has called the “cultural production of the value of the artist and of art” (261). One ambition of the research project was to remedy the cultural hierarchy of screen arts in Britain which left music video at the base of this hierarchy (Caston, Pioneers) and, as a result, not collected or catalogued by the BFI. Theorists of curation such as Paul O’Neill have rightly argued that “[c]uratorship is linked to processes of producing, constituting, and instituting art”, and it would be disingenuous to maintain the project did not have this ambition (87). There had been previous attempts to “elevate” the status of music video such as the Music Video: The Industry and Its Fringes exhibition held by MoMA in 1985, and the Mirrorball strand of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (1996–2008). But to assert the cultural value of music video as an art appeared to mean agreeing on a set of criteria by which each music video could be judged.

The expectation that a canonshould be produced was problematic. Vernallis had made a forceful and timely case for a canon in her essay on the instability of music video archives. Some scholars argued that a canon was needed because it alone embraced value, exemplification, authority, and a sense timelessness. They argued that, without such a canon, music video could not gain elite status or recognition. Art forms are typically discussed in terms of a canon, where works are “typically presented as peaks of the aesthetic power of the art form in question, as ultimate manifestations of aesthetic perfection, complexity of form and depth of expression which humans are capable of reaching through this art form” (Regev 1). In their book catalogue for The Art of the Pop Video exhibition, held at Cologne’s Museum of Applied Arts in 2011, Michael P. Aust and Daniel Kothenschulte had made precisely this case for the urgent need for “canon formation”.

The concept of canons had problems, however. As Janet Staiger has argued, scholars need to use canons with greater caution and transparency. Throughout film history, canons have privileged some social groups over others. Many canons have “privileged Western, white, male, and middle-class cultural work” (Shuker 107). The BFI, BL and the research team were agreed that as diverse a body of music genres and music videos as possible should be included in the national collection in order to avoid making that mistake, as was subsequently reported by the BFI curator, Dylan Cave. Creating a single canon of music videos would be like trying to create a single canon of British pop music from the diverse genres of EDM (electronic dance music), Country and Western, and Grime. Just as the ingredients that might make a song successful with audiences in the Country and Western genre are unlikely to be found in EDM or appreciated by EDM audiences, what makes a significant or pioneering or landmark video in the Country and Western genre will not in the EDM genre. Some scholars had already noted generic differences in videos according to music genres (Fenster). This was especially the case for stadium rock bands such as U2 and Oasis which through the Golden Era of the 1990s had resisted the more narrative and experimental videos that were fashionable in London, seeing them as “inauthentic” mediatizations of a “pure” live rock. Likewise, the significance of the response of Grime artists to the high production lifestyle videos of US RnB by producing lo-fi street videos with striped down aesthetics such as Wiley’s On a Level (Skepta, 2014) would be lost by deploying a concept of a canon based on a universal set of “art” criteria. The very concept of a canon was inappropriate.

Instead, I chose the concept of a landmark. A common dictionary definition of landmark is that it denotes an object or feature of a landscape that enables someone to establish their time and place in geographical history. I was partly influenced by the concept of “Game Changers” that Paul Shrader deployed to design a course in film history: films that changed filmmaking. Examples of landmarks that would end up being selected included George Michael’s Faith (Andy Morahan, 1987), a landmark in the use of telecine and the representation of solo male artists. Shynola’s video for Unkle’s Guns Blazing (1999) was a landmark use of domestic home video technology. The All Seeing I’s The Beat Goes On (Shadforth, 1997) was a landmark use in Avid editing software. London Grammar’s Wasting My Young Years (Bison, 2013) was a landmark rebellion against the widespread use of postproduction techniques and achieved all effects in-camera. This concept of landmark necessitated industry involvement in the identification of potential videos to be included because it was the practitioners (artists, commissioners, producers) who held this insider knowledge.

The first step was to identify the “parent population” from which these landmarks could be identified. That was not straightforward, because there existed no database of videos produced or released in Britain between 1966 and 2016. The editor of the main B2B trade publication, Promo News, estimated that the magazine held production information on approximately 12,500 videos released in Britain between 1992 and 2007 (based on listing seventy video productions per month). But this was only a percentage of the total number of videos released or made in Britain between 1966 and 2016. VPL were asked to produce a database of all videos according a licence in the UK for the project. This included videos produced elsewhere but licensed for broadcast in the UK and did not include videos broadcast before the licensing system was established in the early 1980s, but it was a positive step.

The second was to establish a clear set of criteria for selection of the landmarks. But there was no published history of the music video industry since the 1960s which took account of technological changes in cinematographic equipment and postproduction in a detailed and systematic way, nor one that had documented the changing landscape of industrial production in the fifty-year period that could serve as a guide for the identification of landmark works. Nor was there any published history of British music videos on which to draw. The first wave of scholarship had come in response to the MTV phenomenon and was characterised by issues of cultural representation, postmodernity and Americanisation (Laing; Kaplan; Goodwin; Frith, Goodwin and Grossberg). Postmillennial scholarship had re-examined music video’s form, aesthetics and authorship (Vernallis, Experiencing and Unruly Media; Donnelly; Railton and Watson; Arnold et al.; Burns and Hawkins; Korsgaard). Useful data on significant shifts in exhibition could be mined from the work of Saul Austerlitz, Jack Banks, and Maura Edmond, and on creative trends from the work of Steve Reiss and Neil Feineman, Matt Hanson, and Henry Keazor and Thorsten Wübbena. But the literature contained little on the years 1966 to 1981, and less still on British audiences, industry, production cultures and domestic music television.

The main resource, therefore, was the oral memoryof the music video practitioners themselves, by which I mean the commonly held knowledge of the music video creators who had worked in production and postproduction companies in Soho between the late 1960s and 2016. Industry knowledge was needed about the evolution of editing software, camera lenses, distribution platforms and the dates about when those shifts occurred, and about significant releases within the different music subcultures of British music videos. An email database of over three hundred video commissioners, record label managers, directors, producers, production company MDs, executive producers, cinematographers, editors, colour graders, assistant directors, animations and production designers who had made significant contributions to the industry between 1966 and 2016 was assembled. A closed Facebook group was established through which the team could communicate with these practitioners, many of whom lived abroad. Viewing copies of the lesser known of this long list of one thousand were prepared for the panel to view.

The research team compiled a set of detailed programme notes on each video that was suggested for the shortlist. As well as detailed information about the crew, production company, material originated (such as celluloid or video), when the video was broadcast, press reviews, awards, evidence of viewings, evidence of impact on sales figures, notable cast, and so forth, each programme note contained an essay on the historical and industry production context. The programme notes were drawn up using call sheets, interviews with filmmakers and artists, biographies and trade press. Because production data about videos produced between 1988 and 1992 could not be sourced from the trade magazine Promo News (these editions were missing), the research team used call sheets and the closed FB group to source the data. Many crew had retained them because production call sheets functioned in lieu of job contracts (employment was contracted verbally in the UK) as a source of invoice information. The FB group corrected factual inaccuracies that our research team had picked up on Google and IMDb. Particularly important research was undertaken at this point by our research assistant Alex Wilson on the industrial music scene in Sheffield which enabled us to appreciate the significance of music videos directed by Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle.

A revised short list of five hundred was then taken to our industry collaborators. In a series of three meetings with an industry panel of sixty at the British Library we viewed copies of the videos. My role in these meetings was to facilitate debate, bring the discussion back to the concept of the landmark when it ranged too far out, and ensure the selected videos reflected diversity in genre, region, ethnicity, and geography. In some cases, it was not the video that first used a new technique or platform that changed the way videos were made, but a later video that crystallized that technique or platform, or led to the adoption of the technique in advertising or high-end drama. This was particularly observed in editing and postproduction techniques. Each video had to represent a landmark in music video history; a new genre, film technique, postproduction method, distribution channel, or type cultural representation conventional to a genre of music. Votes were taken during the consultations and in-between consultations.

Focus group meetings at the BFI were also held. Focus groups are a method for collecting data through group interaction on a topic determined by the researcher, and it is the interaction in the group discussion that functions as the data source. Commonly associated with applied research, and particularly with marketing in consumer organisations, the focus group or “focused group interview” is an established element in social scientific and business research (Morgan; Blackburn and Stokes), less commonly used by film historians. For our project, these focus groups were formed to identify landmark works in animation, dance, and narrative, and proved to be very rich sources of data. The dance focus group included choreographer Arlene Philips who had choreographed some of Britain’s earliest videos directed by David Mallet for artists such as Elton John and Queen. Where industry experts were not available to attend focus groups in central London, they were interviewed by phone, sometimes during the focus group so that they could participate in a group discussion (director Max Giwa participated in the dance focus group by this method).

A recurring question raised within these meetings was whether a video qualified as British. This raised a debate about authorship. Rob Dickens, former Chairman of the BPI, argued that the nationality of the video’s director should determine whether or not a video was included. Collected editions such as the Palm Pictures Directors’ Label editions had promoted the concept of the video director-as-auteur, a conception further popularised by Carol Vernallis and Hannah Ueno, Roger Beebe, and James Leggott. However, Simon Frith, I (“Not”; British Music Videos), and others have argued for the urgent need to reframe music video as collaborative authorship embedded in both the music industry and film industry, and for ethnographic research to examine this. Where 1980s scholarship in cultural studies and popular music studies had emphasised artists as authors of music videos, the new wave of post-2004 film scholars were in danger of putting too much emphasis on the filmmakers as authors. Within the panel meetings there were intense debates about authorship on individual videos; because not all artists were involved in determining their videos to the same extent, it was necessary to investigate and debate each video.

The project sought to draw attention to the collaborative authorship of music videos characterised by long-standing partnerships between filmmakers and musicians, such as David Mallet and David Bowie; Sophie Muller and each of Annie Lennox, PJ Harvey, Sade, Shakespear’s Sister, and Gwen Stefani; Vaughan Arnell and Robbie Williams; Dom & Nic and The Chemical Brothers; Chris Cunningham and The Aphex Twin; and Andy Morahan and George Michael. The original concept for a video and the execution of that concept are the result of a long and complex constellation of creative interactions involving the artist, management, record label, commissioner, executive producer, director, editor and DoP. It was held crucial to take into consideration the nationality of the record company, commissioner, artist and production company as well as the nationality of the director. It was also necessary to take into consideration the production culture of all those involved, given the underlying hypothesis of the project that the music video production industry was (and remains) a distinctive community operating as a creative business cluster in Soho. In her interview in this dossier, commissioner Carrie Sutton draws attention to this when she talks of a zeitgeist in the industry which can result in video treatments resembling each other.

The Chemical Brothers’ video for Elektrobank (1997) illustrates this. Although directed by a US filmmaker (Spike Jonze) and filmed in California using a US cast (Sophie Coppola and a stunt double), it was commissioned through the London offices of Virgin Records by the highly influential British commissioner Carole Burton-Fairbrother as a video for a leading British band. Moreover, the US company that produced it, Propaganda, was not only cofounded by one of the UK’s first British video commissioners, Nigel Dick, but was a subsidiary of Polygram Filmed Entertainment launched by British producer Michael Kuhn as a cross-sector European studio to compete against the US studios. In addition, the video was brought to London for all offline editing and colour grading by acclaimed colourist Tom Russell at the then pioneering post house VTR (Videotape Recording Ltd) to affect the generic desaturated news VT Eastern European look at that time fashionable in London. Elektrobank was a particularly interesting case study because it fused the zeitgeist of the creative cluster in New York and Venice Beach with the zeitgeist of London.

In the end we had a shortlist of approximately three hundred. The final decision of which videos would make it into the final two hundred depended on the curatorial categories I chose to work with, and whether or not licences and masters could be obtained. Genre was the focus of the first two discs. Lecturing on music video production for students on the Music and Media Management BA at London Metropolitan between 2003 and 2008, it was my lectures on genre as a marketing tool that the students appeared to have appreciated most. From the early 1980s onward, as the industry became more institutionalised, labels commissioned videos through the briefs of performance, concept and narrative video. The origination of music video pitches occurred as the director digested the budgetary, scheduling, and physical parameters of the brief in relation to her knowledge and understanding of the song and the artist, the musical tradition and fan base. Within the framework of these core genres it would be possible to identify and demonstrate landmark innovations in each. Thus, in the performance genre I was able to identify The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock n Roll (But I Like it) (Lindsay Hogg, 1974), as an important landmark mediatised video which exhibited all the core features of that genre. Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart (Stuart Orme, 1980) and The Clash’s London Calling (Don Letts, 1979) were rebellions against the mediatisation of performance taking place amongst bands and artists such as Queen and Bowie by artists embedded in politicised punk-influenced opposition to the artifice of the pop promo, attempting to communicate “authenticity” (Caston, British Music Videos).

Similarly, whilst the intense focus of FKA Twigs’ Water Me (FXA Twigs and Jesse Kande, 2013) on a close-up of the artists’ face might appear significantly original viewed on YouTube in 2013, viewed differently in the context of the DVD it is a recent work in an established genre of portrait cinematography of the human face in music video epitomised by Godley and Crème’s Cry (Kevin Godley, 1981), Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U (John Maybury, 1990), Radiohead’s No Surprises (Grant Gee, 1997), and prior to the video era, the promo clips of the French yé-yé girls in the 1960s. Each one of those videos added new elements to the formula in a way that delivered novelty and spectacle, and invited intense emotional engagement from the audience, each representing a landmark step in the historical story. They are curated on Disc One of the box set, to enable to viewer to make connections between them. Partly because music videos have been historically produced within a relatively small (socially) cluster, the directors often share encyclopaedic knowledge of each other’s work and create videos in explicit reference to work of the previous generation, as I’ve argued elsewhere (“Not”; British Music Videos).

The third disc focused on dance, to accompany an article and book chapter on dance in which I related much of what had been created in dance music videos in Britain since the late 1960s to scholarship on the Hollywood musical and scholarship on genres such as ballet and contemporary dance in dance studies (“Dancing”; British Music Videos). In particular, there was overlap with a subdiscipline of “screen dance” dated to the publication of Sherill Dodds’s work in 2001. This disc was curated to demonstrate ways in which music videos had developed the cinematography of dance whilst enabling the choreography to take centre stage. It continued an exploration of the role of the camera as a dancer that had begun with Dawn Shadforth and DoP Robbie Ryan at the FRAME London Dance Film Festival in 2016 in regard to her video for Hurt’s Lights (2016). It included videos such as The Prodigy’s Out of Space (Russell Curtis, 1992), which represented the authentic club dance video that had thus far been neglected in dance studies of music video but which forms an absolutely crucial component of music video as a unique cultural form.

Discs four and five I curated in relation to a central research question of whether there were distinctive artistic traits to British music videos. They focused on British narrative videos (short films) originated and executed by such directors as Julian Temple, who simultaneously experienced success as feature film directors, on politically themed videos bearing the hallmarks of British social realism such as UB40’s Red Red Wine (Bernard Rose, 1984), controversial drug-themed videos such as Richard Heslop’s for The Shamen’s Ebeneezer Goode (1992), comedies, and on videos which “mismatched” video genre with music genre such as Mat Kirkby’s Witness (I Hope) for Roots Manuva (2001), as well as self-conscious ruminations on the postmodern state of mediatized existence itself such as Orbital’s The Box (Luke Losey and Jes Benstock, 1996) starring Tilda Swinton. The goal was to draw students’ attention to the homages and deliberate intertextual references which surface in discussions of remediation in music video by authors such as Mathias Bonde Korsgaard, as well as the distinctive political and antiestablishment themes of the work. It was in the curation of discs four and five that the greatest creative contribution was made by me.

The final disc focused on femininities and masculinities in order to demonstrate that, contrary to the pattern attributed to US music videos of the 1980s, music videos in Britain have been a radical and progressive force in challenging gender stereotypes from the mid 1960s onwards by offering visions of a fully authored artist Kate Bush, a transgender Freddie Mercury or the first visual narratives of the horrific consequences of homophobia during the early months of the AIDs crisis. It has been on gender more than any other topic that music video scholarship has focused (Hawkins, Routledge and British Pop Dandy; Whiteley, Women). A widespread view amongst scholars since the 1980s that the representation of women was negative (Wallis) has been echoed in the mainstream press, yet the panel cited many landmark videos which did not conform to that pattern. The androgynous videos of Annie Lennox in the 1980s and early 90s were a landmark of a period in cinematic history in which it was not standard for women to sexualise their agency for the camera. The panel were unanimous in stating that James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful (Sam Brown, 2005) and Robbie Williams Rock DJ (Vaughan Arnell, 2000) were both landmark videos for male solo artists, breaking the usual conventions for the representation of masculinity.

The second factor was whether we could secure a licence or master to include the video. The industry source for video masters was a postproduction company called Vanderquest, founded in 1978 to supply videotape masters compliant with broadcast technical standards to broadcasters on behalf of the record labels. However, not all labels had lodged copies with Vanderquest. That was partly because not all record labels and artists registered their videos with VPL, which worked in partnership with Vanderquest. Furthermore, the status of Vanderquest’s masters was unclear. Multiple versions were often produced in the 1990s for different territories and which version Vanderquest held was rarely recorded. By 1997 it was also commonplace for directors to master director cuts as well as label cuts. Many production companies and directors held masters of a superior digital quality to the copies held by Vanderquest (production companies in the 1990s often mastered to D1 rather than the record label standard master Beta SP or DigiBeta). Furthermore, Vanderquest charged an expensive rate per copy and declined to offer an educational discount. For all these reasons, our research team sought to secure a copy of the director’s master from the production company in the first instance.

In several cases, no adequate copy could be found, and we undertook restoration of two videos ourselves. One of the archivists at the National Film Archive identified old film prints of a 1967 Manfred Mann video for Mighty Quinn directed by John Crome. The 35mm crumbled under examination but the 16mm was strong enough to digitise. Digitisation was undertaken by the National Film Archive. The print was then colour-graded by Tareq Kubaisi at Raised by Wolves in Soho, one of the industry’s leading colour-grading companies. John Crome came out of retirement to attend the grading session and supervise the work. The research project jointly funded (with Sony Music) an HD restoration of Flowered Up’s Weekender, the 16mm rushes for which director WIZ had kept in his loft since 1992. Sony Music UK and the research grant invested the funds to digitise the rushes so that an eye-match edit could be done after the colour grading process. Directors Dom & Nic remastered all of their videos at Oscar-winning postproduction house The Mill, funding this restoration work themselves.

An accompanying booklet was designed to present production credits for each video. The credits were entered into the database template agreed with the BL and BFI to be exported into the BFI’s main CID catalogue. The Art of the Pop Video exhibition had published a substantial book catalogue to accompany the collection (Aust and Kothenschulte). Only a short essay was included in our box set because two major artist management companies had requested right of approval of anything longer. Focusing on the credits enabled us to draw attention to the telecine and VFX companies involved and would lay the basis for a separate essay arguing that music video had functioned as an R&D sector for colour grading, videotape editing, animation and CGI through such companies as Rushes, MPC, Molinaire and VTR. Scholarship on authorship in popular music and film has recently shifted significantly away from the notion of sole authorship as a useful analytic tool and accurate historical explanation, towards collaboration in film (Sellors; Carreiro; Murray), music (Negus; Moy), and remix culture (Logie). All credits were emailed to the producer and director for confirmation before publication.

Still more work was demanded in preparing the masters. The format of DVD was chosen over Blu-ray only after a long period of consultation. Most of the content, having been shot prior to 2004, had been originated on celluloid and had not been mastered to HD. Soda/Thunderbird advised us that their audiences were discriminating and would feel cheated if they were sold something as HD which contained mainly analogue material. Few of the directors wanted to remaster their work to HD or wide screen formats (Dom & Nic were an exception). In order to protect their moral rights, even though their contracts disavowed them, I emailed all the directors of pre-2004 works personally. Almost all the material generated for pre-2004 release dates had been mastered to a 4:3 academy frame for TV. Some of it had been framed during filming on ground glass for a 4:3 ratio so the material was not available. Jonathan Glazer had for several years declined the offer of funding from Sony Music to remaster Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity (1997). Everyone else chose to have the original broadcast aspect ratio preserved even if they had filmed the action on a wider frame (it was common in the 1990s to have ground glass made up with both widescreen [1:33 or 16:9] and 4:3 markings so the director could ensure all key action took place within the safety 4:3 zone when and if the broadcasters cropped the frame). Videos such as Dawn Shadforth’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001) for Kylie Minogue could not be redigitised because the effects were added to the 35mm print in post.

Individual licences had to be negotiated for each of the videos in the collection. Thunderbird had not previously produced a video DVD because of what it perceived as insurmountable problems in attempting to license videos from so many different independent and major record companies, and we were unable to secure licences for a number of the works or masters such as The Special’s Ghost Town (Barney Bubbles, 1981). The Huntley Archive refused to release the 35mm master of The Kink’s Dead End Street (Ray Davies, 1966) unless we paid them £12,500. BMG refused permission to include the videos of the Art of Noise and Fat Boy Slim. Due to a pre-existing royalties dispute between Some Bizarre and the Christopherson estate, we couldn’t include Coil’s Tainted Love (Peter Christopherson, 1984). Neither Eric Burdon & The Animals’ When I Was Young (Peter Whitehead, 1967) or Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (Stephen R. Johnson, 1986) could be included because of rights uncertainties. Bowie’s estate declined permission on the grounds of planning a separate release and the same reason was given for The Beatles and Pink Floyd.

Our model of industry collaboration did not appear to fit with existing models in the humanities and social science and, whilst it raised issues regarding the “gap” between academics and practitioners (Bartunek; Bartunek and Rynes), it was productive. The participants worked as “industry intellectuals”, experts in their field, using their expert knowledge to bring their craft to future generations of students (Caldwell). They were not consultants, because they received no payment: none benefitted from any royalties from the DVD. They were not interviewees, because their involvement was not through “interviews” in any formal research sense. They were not “subjects” of the research, in the classic sense used in models of social scientific research. But they were more than interviewees in focus groups; they were “partners”. They had a shared goal in the research, and that was the cultural recognition of the value of the screen industry in which they had spent the better part of their career. As industry intellectuals, most had spent much more time than scholars would think reflecting on their own practice and that of their peers. In only one case did I encounter a director who consistently promoted his own work for inclusion in the collection. All other directors and editors were endlessly generous in suggesting and positively appraising the work of their peers. The panel members took unpaid leave from work in support of the shared goal to elevate music video to an art protected and conserved by the BFI and BL. This in itself raises interesting theoretical questions about how a community of freelance workers define themselves as a community with a sufficiently strong shared history and identity that they collaborate effectively as a collective group in the absence of any professional trade association and in the absence of any economic reward (but in the presence of a perceived cultural value reward for their community and future audiences). It suggests parallels between construction of an “imagined community” in other areas of collective oral research where a collective created imagined community is upheld in shared memories (Smith and Jackson).

The project of putting the DVD together shed light on issues in oral history (Abrahams). I was aware of the problems of relying on individuals as a source of “fact” and had written a critique of the reliance on the individual director, in relation to the tendency of film historians to cite interviews with directors as a source of factually reliable information about “how films were made”, i.e. a reliable source for causal history (Caston, “Not”). Relatively little scholarship to date has been written about methods available to film historians, and Robert Clyde Allen and Douglas Gomery’s Film History remains the most significant; but given the paucity of archives available to many film scholars, oral history methods are crucial. Lynn Abrams has written:

Memory, with all its imperfections, mutability and transience is at the heart of our practice and analysis. We want to know why people remember or forget things, the warping and mistakes they make, and ask “why?” It is this use to which oral historians put memory that sets this type of historical research apart. From this has long arisen the complaint of critics that oral history exposes the fallibility of memory, the ability of memory to change over time, to be “infected” with outside influences. (23)

The research focus groups and industry panel meetings were designed to facilitate the imperfections of memory, and provide mechanisms for the omissions, fallibilities, and infections to be identified and negotiated by peers. In the process of seeking information about the production credits where no original call sheet could be traced, we encountered several conflicting recalls. One particular director was insistent that a producer had produced a 1980s video whilst the producer herself was insistent that she had not. The role of director on Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Chris Ashbrook, Dave Stewart, and Jon Roseman, 1983) had, we discovered, been the source of a bitter historic dispute. Kate Bush asked to be credited as codirector on both Cloudbusting (198, with Julian Doyle) and Wuthering Heights (1978, Version 2, with Keef). Siobhan Barron asked to be credited as producer, because it was not widely understood by “outsiders” that, in music video, the “executive producer” did the job of a “producer” in feature film production, and that the “producer” of a music video was more akin to a “line producer” in drama. This reinforced the extent to which production credits are not facts. We have to remind our students when teaching film that production credits are the negotiated outcomes of legal and ideological power structures prevailing at the time. A useful introduction to the analysis of production credits as the outcome of negotiated power is Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock’s book which looks at the phenomenon of “Alan Smithee” (the pseudonym of a director who has chosen to have her name removed from the credits), with particular reference to the case of Tony Kaye, a British commercials director. These conflicts cannot always be resolved and recognition that collaborative production is driven by such subjectivities is part of the historical research process, as indicated in existing literature on oral history research methods (Freund; Janovicek).

The entire project drew our attention to the poor state of British archives in music video. In a recent announcement Universal Music is said to have gone into partnership with YouTube to remaster 1000 music videos (Wilson). EMI Records holds masters of well over 100,000 video items—likely all the PMI video releases as well as video copies of TV appearances on British shows such as the BBC’s Top of The Pops. Many directors still hold the original rushes in their garages or lofts, and many record companies have not preserved their archives in a systematic, organised way, as we found out when we went to examine the Warp Records archive. The DVD was offered as a step forward in the development of a paradigm for music video appreciation and as a teaching resource for schools, FE and HE. The national BFI collection and landmark collection were aimed at securing the recognition of music video in moving image history. It is hoped that the research project achieved this, and paved the way for further research into some of the issues raised here.



[1] The concept of cluster is taken from the writings of Michael Porter on business clusters and is popularly used by policy makers in the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand in relation to creative industries (Pratt).



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Suggested Citation

Caston, Emily. “Conservation and Curation: Theoretical and Practical Issues in the Making of a National Collection of British Music Videos 1966­–2016.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, Dossier, Music Videos in the British Screen Industries and Screen Heritage, no. 19, 2020, pp. 160–177,


Emily Caston is Professor of Screen Industries and director of PRISM at the University of West London. Previously a board member of Film London (2008–2015) and Executive Producer of Black Dog Films for Ridley Scott Associates, Emily has produced over one hundred music videos and commercials. She is a member of BAFTA, has held research grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and contributes regularly to the Sky Arts series Video Killed the Radio Star. She has published widely on music video and her books include Celluloid Saviours: Angels and Reform Politics in Hollywood Film (2009) and British Music Videos 1966–2016: Genre, Authenticity and Art (2020).