What it’s like for an indie artist to fail—and fail and fail and fail—to make a viral music video.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Innocent Ghosts by Geographer and mdeni/YouTube.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Innocent Ghosts by Geographer and mdeni/YouTube.

This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.

When I’m not watching YouTube for work, I’m watching YouTube for pleasure. And when I watch YouTube for pleasure, I watch music videos on YouTube—mostly old, weird, pre-MTV music videos. I’ve always liked the video for the John Fred song “Judy in Disguise,” in which the drummer has been deprived of his kit and just stumbles around in the background morosely banging a tambourine. About once a month I’ll watch the rotoscoped video for the Los Bravos song “Going Nowhere,” which has always reminded me of a Ralph Bakshi movie. This video of an insane-looking Alex Chilton fronting the Box Tops doing “The Letter” is a longtime favorite, too. And when I’m feeling particularly low, I will watch old live clips of the Four Tops until my mood improves. Truly, Motown on YouTube is my Zoloft.

Though I like to use YouTube to rediscover old bands, the more normative use case is to enjoy new music on YouTube. A truly clever video can make an artist’s reputation and win it fans all over the world. Musicians know this, and many of them feel compelled to keep creating new content for the site, in hope that one of their videos will go viral and their band will become the next OK Go. Spoiler alert: It almost never works out that way. “It just probably won’t break you,” said San Francisco–based musician Michael Deni, who has been making music videos on YouTube since 2008, and who agreed to chat with me about why you’ve probably never seen any of them. “And you’re going to get miserable if you keep thinking that this is a thing that’s going to break you and then it doesn’t. It’s just so depressing.”

Deni has been performing under the name Geographer since 2007. When he called me last Friday, he was in Davenport, Iowa, in the middle of a spring tour to support his new EP, Alone Time. He spoke with rueful humor of his decadelong efforts, as an independent musician working on a limited budget, to chase viral-video success only to always come up short. “My videos are basically someone’s best attempt to fix a great idea that, like, tripped and faltered,” he told me. “You think, like ‘OK, music video, here we go!’ ” he said, mimicking the excitement that an independent musician feels when embarking on a video shoot. “You’re, like, rubbing your hands together. And then you just see the errors.”

Deni made his first music video as Geographer in 2008 for a song titled “Can’t You Wait,” off the album Innocent Ghosts. “I feel like back then the Feist music video was really big, the one for ‘1234’—sweeping, single-shot videos that look really DIY. But when you dissect them, they probably cost about $100,000,” he said. “But, like, you don’t realize that as an indie artist. So I tried to make one of those videos.”

Gathering friends of friends as willing collaborators, Deni tried to plan his own Feistian viral hit. “It was so ambitious. I sat down with this guy and we set about a single-shot thing with five different groups of people, each wearing color-coordinated outfits,” he said. “And we mapped out how the camera would sweep. And he and I, this guy—neither of us dancers—choreographed all their dance moves.”

The final product did not live up to Deni’s initial vision, especially since “endearingly homemade” was not the aesthetic he was going for. “You can see the cheapness of the camera. There’s no cinematography, there’s no lighting. We just shot it outside, and we just lucked out with a foggy day. We did our own wardrobe, everyone looks terrible,” Deni said. “The only budget of the entire video was peanut butter and honey sandwiches, which I made for everyone.”

When Deni signed with a manager, he suggested that Deni take the “Can’t You Wait” video off the internet, fearing that leaving it up in all its low-budget glory might be a bad thing for Geographer’s image. Deni resisted the advice. “You’re like, ‘Well, this is my best song, and it has lots of views, so we’re just going to leave it up.’ I think I might have taken it down now. I hope I didn’t. That would be dumb. But, you know, it’s just so embarrassing to do something bad.”

A cheap-looking video can be especially embarrassing for a musician who is trying to cultivate a certain image. As a visual representation of a band and its music, a video has a lot to do with whether or not a group is seen as cool—something that can have business repercussions. “There’s lots of opportunities that I haven’t gotten, as an artist, and I often wonder: Is it because a lot of the content is so uncool?” said Deni. “It was just, like, failure after failure of really cool ideas.”

One of those “failures” was the video Deni made for the song “Lover’s Game,” off the 2012 Geographer album Myth. Unlike his first video, “Lover’s Game” was a professional production, shot by a full film crew assembled by directors who pitched Deni on a unique, special-effects heavy concept. “This, to me, felt like groundbreaking, like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the video.’ ” Deni said. “Because that was the time when a good video could break your band. Like, the Grizzly Bear video ‘The Knife,’ or something like that. That could actually be the thing that happens, instead of radio or a blog or something like that. Viral videos.”

The video for “Lover’s Game,” which features a bunch of people in raincoats and spooky visual effects that didn’t really work, was not what Deni had hoped for. “In my mind, it looked amazing,” said Deni. “But what I realized was my mind had a huge budget compared to the budget I gave them. Which was basically, like, handcuffing them and gagging them at the same time and saying ‘OK. Go run a marathon.’ ” The director has since apologized to Deni for the flaws in the video. “I was like, ‘Dude, it was my fault,’ ” he said. “ ‘I barely gave you any money for a special-effects music video.’ ”

In recent years, Deni has come to suspect that the work he has put into his music videos has outweighed the benefits he has derived from them. “If I look at my music videos of the last couple album cycles, the music videos got so few views. So few views. A song that would get a million streams—which is decent, you know? That’s a good chunk of streams—got maybe, I think, 2,000 views,” he said. “I think unless your video is worth watching, don’t put it up on YouTube.”

But abandoning a video once it’s been made—even if the video isn’t very good—is easier said than done. “Every time I make one, I say that—that I won’t [release it on YouTube]—but then you just spent $2,000. Which is nothing for a budget, but which is also an enormous sum of money for an indie artist,” Deni said. “When you’ve spent it, you don’t just want to throw it in the trash. So you put it up, ’cause you’re like ‘Well, PR’s asking me for a video. They wanted a video for the premiere.’ And then you put it up on the premiere, and 1,500 people watch it, and then nobody watches it. And then maybe a lot of cool people who watch it, or festival promoters, are like, ‘Well, this band’s lame. Look at this.’ ”

Deni’s favorite Geographer video is his most recent one, which has not yet been released. As he describes it, the video is very simple and does not bother trying to mimic a big-budget production. “It’s because I was like ‘Screw this. None of this high-concept stuff. If I’m gonna give someone no money, let me do something that costs no money,’ ” he said. The video features Deni walking around a crowded city as the song’s lyrics appear on-screen. His face is never seen in the video. “It’s not the most exciting thing you’ve ever seen, but it captures the idea of the song in a very metaphorical way,” he said “It’s just sort of a companion to the song rather than an artistic statement.”

He is keeping his music-video ambitions modest for now, in part because he believes that it’s easier these days for bands to be discovered via curated Spotify playlists than through viral YouTube videos. “I genuinely don’t think it matters. Just because of Instagram, too. There’s so much content that, like, there’s no way you’re going to be able to compete with a baby putting his face in a cake,” he noted. “Music videos are almost now for huge artists to solidify their huge-dom, rather than another interesting way to discover an indie band.”

Whither the viral indie-rock video? “Viral videos are dead,” said Deni. “They’re no longer applicable for what they’re actually designed for, which is breaking people who don’t have a budget and don’t have the means to make a gorgeous video.” Perhaps aspiring musicians should take note of Deni’s dour advice and just accept that it’s hard to capture the attention of the masses with an inexpensive music video. Viral success is unpredictable and elusive, and so if bands enjoy making videos, they should make them; and if they dislike making them, they shouldn’t. Either way, bands shouldn’t put too much stock in the notion that a hot video will win them a major-label contract and an invitation to Coachella. “I think if you wanna make something awesome and it happens to be a music video, then make it,” Deni concluded. “But, if not, just videotape some kid and see if he’ll start yodeling.”