YouTube is a wonderful platform to spread information to viewers, but it is not always great for music journalism.
There are plenty of music reviewers on there, some of which are very good. For every one channel that does its homework, there are at least five that tell you something sucks, something rocks, something is all killer, no filler, and fail to elaborate further.
Still, other creators are offering video essays that take deeper dives into songs, artists, albums, and even creative ‘scene’ movements. I am very impressed by several of them who have taken elements similar to those of film and video game essayists and made impactful contributions. Few stand out as clearly as Noah Lefevre and his Polyphonic channel. His rigorous research into a band, or a song, or even a visual that an artist has come to be associated with offers insights that even I, a jaded longtime music researcher, can appreciate.
What is equally impressive is that he’s not making money off the videos he produces. He has sponsorship and a Patreon campaign, but the actual monetization of his work, thanks to a lack of support from YouTube in conjunction with the big record labels, goes to them, not him. Fighting such copyright flags would be very expensive, likely not effective, and worse, cause to have him kicked off of YouTube entirely. And yet, he still creates. There’s value in the effort alone.
You’ll see his work for yourself in the various videos embedded within this article. MusicTAP caught up with Noah in April, amid the global Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown.
MusicTAP: Is this your full-time work or do you make the videos aside from another job? I imagine that making these is very time-intensive…
Noah Lefevre: Polyphonic has been my full-time job for a few years now. It’s nice to have this level of job security and not have a sudden routine change throw it all off, like this pandemic which is finding so many people unemployed.
You have previously put out nearly a video a week, but you recently announced that you’re dialing back to two a month.
The goal is to try it and see (how the reduced schedule works out). Normally on my old schedule, I would have released a video today. The new schedule allows me a chance to focus more and do long-form videos. I just finished one that’s roughly 20 minutes long, and that is something I would not have been able to do on the old schedule. That will appear first on my channel on the Nebula platform like my other videos. It will eventually migrate to YouTube.
What caused you to begin making video essays?
I love video essays, but most of them out there are on movies. Some are about video games. Now and then, one of these essayists would do something about music. I kind of just love this medium and thought, man, I wish there were more of them about music out there. I already had the skill set to do it, to a small extent. I had the knowledge and interest in the subject matter and the stamina to dig into the research. I thought, well, with all this, and that I was looking to find a new project to work on, I’d give it a shot. I put together some essays, put them out there, and started to find my audience. That propelled me to do more.
Polyphonic videos are among a few online (either through YouTube or other venues) where there is a strong amount of research and storytelling involved. Not to be too critical, but videos about music have often tended to be very static, and frequently have one person speaking about why a musician or album either “rocks” or “sucks.” Did you have this model in mind as something to avoid when you began, or did you have your vision for what Polyphonic would be, regardless of what else was out there?
A lot of my direction came from lifting from video creators I respect, mostly on the subject of movies, like The Nerdwriter…a lot of film essayists. I specifically did not want Polyphonic to be a music criticism channel. There are already lots of those out there with people rating and ranking albums in lists. From the start, I set out for this to be something different. It would not just be an unresolved statement of appreciation for an artist or an album. There would always be an angle to tell a story or bring light to what lyrics may have meant. It was about bringing up a deeper appreciation in a way that was a little more academic or literary.
I was struck by the recent video for Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” and how far into the lore you went. We all know the song as this huge first salvo of the Buckingham Nicks era of the band, all the member shifts before it, the cocaine binges, all the drama to come with the subsequent Rumours sessions, Stevie Nicks’ “White Witch” persona, but I don’t think many have taken that time to figure out the song itself.
There’s a tendency in music discussions to overvalue theoretical analysis. I also do a little theory analysis, but a lot of the time, others overlook all the emotions and narratives and stories around the music in favor of theory. Many believe there’s a basic one-to-one thing where ‘this song is sad because it is in a minor key.’ That can help reveal parts but there are all these instances of cultural context, and the characters musicians play…it’s a lot more than just the music. I mean, that’s the core of it, but with every great musician, it’s also everything surrounding them, the personas, the attitude, how their backstories impact the work. If we focus strictly on the song but neglect the singer, we miss the forest for the trees.
How long does the research generally take to get the narrative correct?
I’ve streamlined my process a lot. I know where to look for resources and the actual construction process is a lot more streamlined. The biggest thing has been…I had a baseline in video editing, no history with animation, no formal training in motion graphics and design. A lot of that has come to me over time. I purposefully try to make every video look different and distinctive unless it is a series where there needs to be that coherent through-line. Every video, then, is tailored to the song or artist it is talking about and has to be made up from scratch. Because of this, I’ve had the chance to explore all these different editing techniques and aesthetic feels.
I basically can’t watch my old videos now. It infuriates me how much worse I was in editing and the visual decisions I made. They feel very dated. The biggest thing is that the visual aspect of my videos has improved.
Another thing that’s evolved is I’ve covered so many of the typical subjects, and now that I’ve built an audience that will follow along with what I’m doing, I can experiment more. I’ve started doing videos outside of the classic rock purview. I still do those, of course, but I’ve been exploring different kinds of music, telling new kinds of stories…that’s been the progression over the last three years or so.
Each Polyphonic video features extensive animated text and graphics. How long does the visual component usually take for each video?
There are two phases: researching and writing scripts and then editing the videos. It’s not like I sit down once a week to write a script, though. Sometimes, I’ll sit down and pound out three or four scripts before making a video. Or I’ll pull something from the running list of ideas I have in my head. And sometimes I’ll sit down with a script and chip away at it over the course of a few weeks.
Generally, it will take around 10 hours of research and writing for a script. The more typical weekly schedule is when I finish editing the visuals of a video, I’ll look at what scripts I have and see what interests me. Sometimes I’ll be struck by an idea and do one completely from scratch but the real bulk of my work is the video editing. Depending on the video – some are longer, some are shorter – it takes anywhere from 40 to 60 hours or so.
Most days, I work from 7:00 or 8:00 am to 5:00 or 6:00 pm. A vast majority of that is in video assembly.
I suppose this question is unavoidable: YouTube’s copyright system is complicated and often hard to navigate, especially when the details of what gets flagged, what doesn’t, and why can be cryptic. Further, record labels are often ruthless about getting videos demonetized or shut down entirely, even when usage is well within “fair use” parameters or even completely mistaken. What have been some of the pitfalls most encountered for a YouTube content provider who talks about music?
The vast majority of my videos on YouTube get flagged for copyright violation. I’m not collecting monetization from them. The record labels are. YouTube’s auto-flagging system doesn’t have a fair-use defense. I can appeal the videos being flagged since I am well within the boundaries of fair use, but theirs is an incredibly flawed system. Appeals don’t go to a third-party arbiter. They go directly to Universal Music Group or Sony Music or whoever flagged the song. They can choose to either pull the claim or keep it going and – surprise, surprise – they always keep the claim. Very rarely does anything come from my claim appeals.
Also, I don’t have the power to go up against the big labels. The next step would be to file a counterclaim. There’s a process where I can dispute their appeal but if they turn down the dispute, I could get the more severe copyright strike. Three copyright strikes and my channel can be removed from YouTube.
That’s why I’m throwing so much support behind the Nebula platform. They assume fair-use on behalf of the creators’ behalf where YouTube does not.
I’m very lucky because I have enough of an audience that I can do this as a full-time job, but that revenue comes from sponsorships and my Patreon page. That’s how I keep the channel running. YouTube is not incentivized to protect independent creators like me and others because the big labels have an outsized revenue presence there. Advertisers want to be chained to the latest music videos, YouTube wants that revenue stream, and is not likely to make waves with the labels and jeopardize that.
Funny thing is that videos like mine help sell the back catalog for the labels, which is consistently proven to be where the money is at. Sometimes the labels will force the videos to be blocked in other countries, but they typically will let them run, flag the content, and take the monetization revenue. They get paid double, in a way: money for ad views off of my work which they never paid for, and money from the subsequent interest my videos generated.
The higher-ups at the labels don’t think of this beyond basic asset management, because if they did and if they were willing to work with me, I could have access to archival material and content. The videos could be even better and drive more consumers to their content. Instead, decisions are strictly financially driven. There’s no “value-add” for them there, so the simplest way to make money is just to keep things as they are rather than open up to potential partnerships. It’s really unfortunate.
In the course of making videos, what have been the backstories that surprised you most and caused you to say “I did not know about that”?
I find the information…I love digging up great quotes from artists that you may not have heard as much. You learn all these things you didn’t know or didn’t expect. Often, that becomes the impetus for making the video. Being able to uncover those stories is one of the coolest parts of my job…one of the perks.
At the same time, some artists have bits about their legend that are so well-known and beaten into the ground. Have there ever been subjects that you consciously thought, “I’m going to blast through this point as quickly as possible – everyone knows this bit too well”? It’s like, I think everybody knows the lore of Ozzy Osbourne and the bat, and nobody really needs to hear that one for the 1,000th time. At the same time, it’s an established part of the history, and for the sake of accuracy, it might be difficult to avoid it.
That’s another regular occurrence. I try to make sure I always provide more information than what people would find on an artist’s Wikipedia page. I came from a music journalism background, so I have a fair amount of inside information. But because of that, I cannot be sure if what I think is old news is just my over-familiarity with it, and those outside of the bubble don’t have that same level of detail. I could mistake what I know for common knowledge.
I’ll need to bounce things off of other people I know who aren’t as knee-deep in this stuff as I am. If they say, “I didn’t know that,” that’s a great litmus test. I know I can proceed from there.
Has there ever been a subject that you wanted to cover that, through research, you learned more than you wanted to and, subsequently, didn’t want to cover afterward?
A while back, I tried to do a video about the “27 Club.” (ED: The 27 Club refers to a list consisting mostly of popular musicians, artists, or actors who died at age 27.) I actually wrote the script and made the video, and it is still sitting on an old hard drive. I watched it and was really worried that it would romanticize mental illness, addiction, suicide…people have a dangerous fascination with the 27 Club idea, and Kurt Cobain and the pain of the tortured artist. I consciously tried to avoid that but, upon reviewing it, it was still too close to the line. I scrapped that one. It’s a topic I’d like to revisit someday, but I need to do it with a lot more care.
If I am covering a subject that I don’t have full knowledge or personal understanding of, I try to pull in friends who do, just so I am not misrepresenting something or speaking with false authority. I did a video about trans musicians and wanted to get that right. I brought in friends who are trans to look it over and make sure I was telling their story correctly.
There are artists and albums I’d like to cover but they, or their work, or both are too dense to crack, I’m not able to figure it out, how to properly explain or convey their story. I just finished a script about Ornette Coleman and the free jazz movement, and I’m going to start the construction process soon. This video has tortured me for a long time! It’s this story of such weird, strange, dense music, and I’m not entirely sure how to approach it.
Another video I’ve wanted to do for some time is Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Now that’s an album that’s very hard to unpack. It’s so dense. Now and then, I’ll pull up the script and try to figure out a way to rework it and just end up getting stuck and working on something else.
That is a difficult one. It is Peter Gabriel’s last with the band, and it is a two-record set…
Not only is it a two-album set, but it is also weird and experimental. The lyrics are, like, so packed with pop culture references to that time, the late 1970s…yes, it has a narrative. It is a story, but it is such an esoteric narrative. It’s not like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which I also intend to do a video for. The Wall is also a two-record set with a lot to unpack, but it is a lot clearer in its form, a bit more linear, it’s easier to see what’s going on and what its intentions are.
I discovered The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway when I was 16 or 17 and have listened to it regularly ever since, and even now it’s revealing things to me after all this time.
To see more of Polyphonic on YouTube, visit the channel at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXkNod_JcH7PleOjwK_8rYQ/featured
To contribute to the Polyphonic Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/polyphonic
To see Polyphonic content on Nebula: https://watchnebula.com/polyphonic