Stromae’s viral music video «Formidable» reached almost 120 million YouTube hits in two years. We talked to Belgian music video director Jérôme Guiot about the process of creating buzz and how marketing strategies have become an integral part of producing contemporary music. From the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).
This Is Not a Lesson
[Hannes Liechti]: You have been working with Stromae for quite a time now. Why do you like to work with him?
[Jérôme Guiot]: Because I think he’s genuine in what he’s doing. To be honest, I’m not really into his music in everyday life. But I’ve known him for a long time now – we’ve been studying together in the cinema school – and I know that he’s really dedicated to what he’s doing. He’s not just releasing products to sell.
[HL]: You’ve had your first success with Strome on «Alors en dance» in 2010. Apart from the official music videos, you’ve been and you still are releasing different video formats with him. What are they about?
[JG]: We have two kinds of what we call experimental web contents. First «Les leçons de Stromae» (Stromae’s lessons): short, viral videos of him, explaining how he’s doing his songs. Second, another format called «ceci n’est pas un clip» (this is not a clip), in which you can see him singing in front of the camera. «Formidable» was supposed to be such a lesson, but since it turned out to be a mix between both concepts mentioned above, we decided to create a new label for this video: «ceci n’est pas un leçon» (this is not a lesson).
[HL]: So «Formidable» was not intended to be an official music video at first?
[JG]: No. At the time Stromae’s second album wasn’t out yet. He was just about to begin the promotion of it. We were looking for different ways to make people discover the songs than through the usual method of sending them to the radio stations, launching a music video and waiting for the people to like it. So basically «Formidable» was an experiment.
Some Kind of a Scandal
[HL]: What was the idea behind the clip?
[JG]: There was a guy who filmed Stromae at a gas station, sitting in his car eating something he had just bought there. This little crappy clip became viral. For us that seemed completely absurd: we spend thousands of Euros for producing video clips and this guy has just been an asshole for five minutes and hit as many likes as we normally do with big efforts. We asked ourselves what people would appreciate more: a music video with real content or one with some kind of a scandal of a famous person? That’s how we decided to let Stromae play drunk in the streets of Brussels.
[HL]: Have you been surprised by the result?
[JG]: The reactions of the people were totally reversed from what we expected. For sure people recognized Stromae. But instead of helping the drunken man, people filmed him and uploaded the clips on YouTube afterwards. That’s really awkward. On the other hand, the cops who approached Stromae during the shooting tried to help him, which really is not what they usually do with drunken people. They only helped because Stromae was famous. Indeed, the video is not really expressing a world I’d like to live in. But I apparently do.
[HL]: Did you have contact with the policemen later?
[JG]: Yes, we did. First we decided to be careful and to blur their faces, but later we got in touch and one of them even got on stage at some of Stromae’s concerts during the performance of «Formidable.» He came and arrested him towards the end of the song. That was funny.
Was He Drunk?
[HL]: I’d like to talk more about the shooting of the video. Can you describe it in detail?
[JG]: We did everything with hidden cameras, the whole set was invisible. We had seven cameras, four Canon 5D’s and three GoPro’s. One was in a car, driving around the roundabout the whole time, and another one with a long lens was in a building next to the place. We also had a sound engineer – hidden of course. Stromae wore headphones in order to be in sync and to catch the right pitch. We arrived around 8 o’clock, started around 9 and finished already at 10. Stromae went through the song maybe four times, but he never sang the whole thing, just screamed parts of it. Since the passers-by didn’t hear any music they really had the impression that he was drunk. He was even covered with beer and smelled like a drunken person. That helped as well.
[HL]: How did you choose the spot?
[JG]: We’d been looking for a central location in Brussels that would feature a lot of people moving around, but only in passing. It was important that people didn’t stay there for too long. Then we planned to shoot on a busy day, in our case Monday. Finally the weather was perfect: raining and super cold. That added a lot of drama to the video. Stromae himself looked even more desperate in that situation. By the way, we only outlined a rough sketch beforehand about where to start, where to stay and where to go after receiving my call. Besides that he was completely free to act.
[HL]: Were there any reactions in the press the next day?
[JG]: A lot! We shot on Monday morning and somebody instantly uploaded a clip on YouTube. The day after, all of the Belgian newspapers printed headlines like: «Drunken Stromae in the Streets.» We decided not to respond and to wait for the video to be launched. Stromae even went a step further: on Friday he had to do a huge TV show in France and he played drunk on the set too in order to increase the buzz and the expectations of the audience about an explanation. Finally we launched the video on Saturday or Sunday. But we never explained anything; we just let the video speak for itself.
Creating a Buzz
[HL]: What do you think about the fact that you reached such a huge success with a video that was not even intended to be a music video, while other music videos you’ve been making with a lot of passion and energy remain unseen by the broader public?
[JG]: I ask myself this question often because, I mean, we achieved exactly what the guy at the gas station did. Of course, that’s frustrating and for «Formidable» we just had a lot of luck, regarding the shooting and the timing. But let’s be honest: although «Formidable» was an experiment, the success was not that surprising on the other hand. It’s of course much easier to do such a thing with a famous person like Stromae. But you really have to try not to come to wrong conclusions after hearing the story behind «Formidable.» It would be wrong to say in general that you shouldn’t put a lot of money in your videos to make them seen.
[HL]: If it was an experiment, are you saying you weren’t aiming to create buzz with «Formidable»?
[JG]: I wouldn’t say it that way. I mean, we should not hide ourselves about the goal of a music video: it’s always about spreading the music through the Internet and to make it known to other people. So even for «Formidable» there was kind of a strategy behind it, although we didn’t know how it would develop. People have been accusing Stromae of strategic marketing. But why not? That’s how it goes today: musicians need to promote their work and as you can see Stromae is really talented at doing that.
Jérôme Guiot directed his first short film as a final student project to complete INRACI cinema school in Brussels 2009. Since then he’s been working as a director, mostly shooting music videos.
The interview was held on Skype on 5.3.2015 and published first in the second Norient book Seismographic Sounds.