A music video is a short film that integrates a song with imagery, and is produced for promotional or artistic purposes. Modern music videos are primarily made and used as a marketing device intended to promote the sale of music recordings. There are also cases where songs are used in tie-in marketing campaigns that allow them to become more than just a song. Tie-ins and merchandising can be used for toys or for food or other products. Although the origins of the music video date back to musical short films that first appeared in the 1920s, they again came into prominence in the 1980s when the channel MTV (originally "Music Television") based their format around the medium. Prior to the 1980s, these kinds of videos were described by various terms including "illustrated song", "filmed insert", "promotional (promo) film", "promotional clip", "promotional video", "song video", "song clip" or "film clip".
Music videos use a wide range of styles and contemporary video-making techniques, including animation, live action, documentary, and non-narrative approaches such as abstract film. Some music videos combine different styles with the music, such as animation and live action. Combining these styles and techniques has become more popular because of the variety for the audience. Many music videos interpret images and scenes from the song's lyrics, while others take a more thematic approach. Other music videos may not have any concept, being merely a filmed version of the song's live performance.
In 1894, sheet music publishers Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern hired electrician George Thomas and various performers to promote sales of their song "The Little Lost Child". Using a magic lantern, Thomas projected a series of still images on a screen simultaneous to live performances. This would become a popular form of entertainment known as the illustrated song, the first step toward music video.
In 1926, with the arrival of "talkies" many musical short films were produced. Vitaphone shorts (produced by Warner Bros.) featured many bands, vocalists and dancers. Animation artist Max Fleischer introduced a series of sing-along short cartoons called Screen Songs, which invited audiences to sing along to popular songs by "following the bouncing ball", which is similar to a modern karaoke machine. Early 1930s cartoons featured popular musicians performing their hit songs on-camera in live-action segments during the cartoons. The early animated films by Walt Disney, such as the Silly Symphonies shorts and especially Fantasia, which featured several interpretations of classical pieces, were built around music. The Warner Brothers cartoons, even today billed as Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, were initially fashioned around specific songs from upcoming Warner Brothers musical films. Live action musical shorts, featuring such popular performers as Cab Calloway, were also distributed to theaters.
Blues singer Bessie Smith appeared in a two-reel short film called St. Louis Blues (1929) featuring a dramatized performance of the hit song. Numerous other musicians appeared in short musical subjects during this period.
Soundies, produced and released from 1940 to 1947, were musical films that often included short dance sequences, similar to later music videos.
In the mid-1940s, musician Louis Jordan made short films for his songs, some of which were spliced together into a feature film, Lookout Sister. These films were, according to music historian Donald Clarke, the "ancestors" of music video.