If you ever wanted to be part of big-name artist’s music video, the barrier for entry has never been lower. Tens of thousands of fans a day have been able to insert themselves into the fast pace of clips that makes up a “never-ending music video” by Twenty One Pilots for their song “Level of Concern,” which has been airing continuously on YouTube since it premiered June 21.
The video’s creators concede that it may well end someday — the sun itself will surely go out eventually, right? — but they’re determined to keep it going as long as possible as a way for fans to see their own reflections alongside the duo’s lockdown-themed hit, which has been the most popular song of the year at alternative radio. Meanwhile, the ingenious video was preceded by a less publicized but even more ingenious alternate reality game (ARG) that allowed Twenty One Pilots’ most avid; clue-hinting, early-adopter fans to be the first to learn about and get fed into the video.
Variety talked with Twenty One Pilots’ singer-songwriter Tyler Joseph about what spurred the concept, and with the video’s (and ARG’s) director, Jason Zada (of “Take This Lollipop” renown), about bringing something that had never been done before to fruition in just a month’s time. Here are excerpts from those separate conversations.
VARIETY: Was this “never-ending video“ an idea you’d always had kicking around, or did it happen after you’d recorded “Level of Concern” and wondered how you could keep it alive?
JOSEPH: We’ve always felt like any time we lose the chance to interact with the fans, we need to replace it with something. It used to be at the merch tables. In our shows now, even though we’re playing for more than five people, we still implement moments where we’re interacting with the fans and letting them respond, trying to make it more of a dialogue than just standing up there and executing the show. And so obviously when the pandemic hit and you take shows away from us, talk about a shock. We found ourselves thinking on our feet: What are we going to replace with this? It’s always fun to tell people how smart our fans are, and in the past where we’ve tried to be either cryptic or speak in code, or to tease something without giving something up, they surprise us how quickly they figure it out.
With your last album, there was a deeper mythology behind it, and you have the fan base that likes clues or likes having to figure things out. So the game played into that. But the video itself is not that deep, so it appeals to someone more casual.
We wanted our fan base and our records to go as deep as someone would want to go. And a lot of our core fans know what the narrative of the records are about, know what kind of the backstory is on all these things. But then on the other side, I’ve got my parents saying, “What’s going on? Like, what’s happening right now?” It’s a little tougher to explain it to someone who may just be briefly rubbing shoulders with it. … We dip our toe in the more front-facing, normal stuff, I guess, but that’s never completely excited me. So we have to balance it.
I love the game so much, the code breaking, because it was really about them coming together and interacting together and trying to work together to accomplish something. And when it pans out that way, it seems to be a lot more of a sense of pride to be a part of that community. And this never-ending music video, it’s cool to say that no one’s ever really done anything like this before. But also it fits right in because it’s an opportunity for us to showcase our fans, who are just as cool as us.
We love any time that we can put them out front. Not just because they’re so cool, but also because I’m an insecure dude who likes to not be the face of what this is. And it’s definitely something that I’ve always kind of struggled with and continue to. But what’s great is how those two things have fed off each other.
In the ARG game component of this, were there any clues or challenges that you enjoyed including most?
These kids are smart, smarter than me. So even at my highest capacity trying to stump them, they always somehow figure it out. One of my favorite things was creating an alphabet to spell out additional codes. And one of the ways that we did that was finding spots on Google Maps that would point to certain buildings, and if you turned on satellite mode where you could actually see the topography, you would see that the building actually looks like a letter. So it was fun looking for buildings that were shaped like certain letters. It got pretty intense.
We think it’s cool that we have a fan base that’s right there with us that’s excited about something like that, and ultimately just a moment in time where they can escape. For me, music’s always been that. I’ve found that you can make music something even bigger than yourself in trying to interact with other people and trying to escape what reality you may be in that might not be the best head space.
The video has been billed as “never-ending.” Is infinity, like, a real goal?
[Laughs.] I asked them about that, and they said we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. You know, there is a vetting process. There’s someone on all the time to make sure that they’re sending things in that are appropriate. I don’t have to tell you that when we first put it up, like “upload any video and it’ll be on our YouTube channel,” of course people were trolling and trying to put all kinds of weird, gross, crazy, shocking things on there, which you have to expect. But as far as never-ending, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll hire to my little brother to do it for the rest of the time.
The song has been No. 1 on the alternative format for weeks on end. People complain about music not speaking to the times, but his song did, in a not-too-heavy way. It must feel good to have a hit with a song that is so obviously of the moment.
With a lot of artists there’s a giant ship that they have to steer in order to release music on a dime. There are a lot of partners, and it’s a tough thing to turn around quickly. And Josh and I have always kept things really close to the vest and as do-it-yourself as possible. I didn’t even realize maybe how lucky we were to continually treat our music and our band that way until this. Obviously the news was breaking (about coronavirus lockdowns) and I just wrote this song spur of the moment, and we have partners that know how to move quickly. I guess we forgot that we were able to do that. When we first started out, you write a song, you record it in your house, you have a buddy with a video camera come over, and you just put it online. And it was really cool in this moment with this song in particular to remind ourselves of where we came from and how we used to release music. It makes me want to just always do it like that.
So you do have a whole album in progress?
Yeah, currently working on new music. We had planned on traveling around the world, playing festivals, seeing all the markets that we kind of had waited on for this year. We were doing a lot of European festivals; we were going to be doing something down in South America; we were going to be just something in Russia. It is, I don’t know, maybe — hopefully — a blessing in disguise, this idea of being home where my studio is and being able to write and release music quicker than would have happened if things hadn’t gone this way. And I’m a new father. I have a 4-month-old and being around for these last four months, just to see her change every single day, I don’t know. I’m just looking for the positive in an otherwise pretty dismal time.
How long were you working on the lead-up to this thing?
I first got contacted by the record label, by Elektra, by Fueled by Ramen, when the song had already been out. We said, what’s something that we could do to activate the hardcore fans but also reach out to new fans— and what can we do quick? Basically it took a little bit over four weeks to do the entire thing, so it was very, very, very fast-paced. It’s quite an elaborate campaign where we started a 24-hour livestream, which led into an ARG, which was supposed to last a week, but the fan base just completely devoured it within 72 hours. And then at the end of all that they unlocked the never-ending music video.
The game was allowing people to solve the puzzles and upload their videos ahead of time. But once the never-ending video was launched, anybody could upload material without having to do the game, right?
Correct. The ARG and that initial activation was really kind of almost underground; it wasn’t really highly promoted. Fans sort of figured it out with just one tweet that I believe Tyler had put out to the fan base… And then once we officially launched the never-ending music video, then anybody could participate in it. Within the first 48 hours, there were over 100,000 submissions already. If you watch it long enough, you’ll see it really does pull in fans and new fans from all across the world and every region, and it’s pretty fun to watch.
It’s just another way of entertaining. I mean, people have been stuck in their homes for the last few months, and I think everyone is hungry for content right now. I think we’ve all watched… like, I feel like I’ve reached the end of Netflix. So it’s sort of like giving fans something fun to devour.
How many video contributions get cycled through? Do you have to repeat things if there’s a shortage of people submitting?
We can get about 80 people’s videos in within one play of it. So every four minutes, you have 80. There was a huge influx, and as it’s leveled out, it’s easier to see your video in real time.
The never-ending music video, it’s powered by my longtime tech partner, a man by the name of Jason Nickel. We did the Emmy award-winning “Take This Lollipop” [short film and app] using his software. With this video, we were able specifically to accept landscape and portrait videos, and then use them at their correct aspect ratio. So if we don’t have enough landscape videos, then you might see yours two or three times until a new landscape video is up.
People really prefer to shoot phone video now holding their cameras straight up, even though they know it’s going to make the image look smaller played back on YouTube or social media.
Most people do seem to be doing portrait videos. You know, the shooter in me always turns it to landscape when I do videos, but then I started realizing that Instagram and Snapchat and everything has [made it so] that an entire new generation of people, portrait is really the way that they shoot. That’s why we chose to create this sort of animated templates that people could put their video in, because we started realizing that YouTube is traditional format, 16 by 9, but most people have portrait, and it’d be really annoying to watch an entire music video that just was all portrait videos in the traditional format. So we created a really unique way of being able to show portrait in a couple variations and templates.
In setting up the game or puzzle aspect, were there some embedded clues that sort of amused you more than others?
For the ARG, we hid clues everywhere. You had to take a photo and open it up in a text editor and then in the thousands and thousands and thousands of lines of code were Google Earth coordinates. You typed that in, and then you had to get a code by looking at each building that it went to that [resembled] a different letter, from around the world. And we had stuff that you had to open up an image and look at it in a spectrogram and see that there was a code embedded in some audio. The fun part was taking all these different ways of hiding clues and figuring out ways to really stump the audience. And I think we’re at this interesting time where this hive mind of fans, they all work together. I was on a discord server, listening to them as they’re going through the puzzles, and it’s tens of thousands of fans all working together to solve a puzzle. It was really special architecting it for four weeks and then watching them work together to solve it as like one unit.
So fans didn’t treat it as a competitive thing so much as a collaborative effort where they wanted to work together to solve this thing?
They naturally did. It took them a long time to do, but they finally figured out the final code, and that led you to a website where you could enter your physical address, where you may or may not be getting something in the mail. I tried to warn them in some texts on the 19th (puzzle) that, like, “Hey, you might want to keep the 20th code for yourself, and not put it out there.” But when they shared it, we had it capped at a certain number. Basically, it was over before it even started, that’s how fast they were. It was pretty fun to watch. And I know it was fun and entertaining for the audience, but also extremely challenging and anxiety-filled, because it was quite the hard puzzle.
So the first people who cracked it got some kind of special prize in the mail or something?
We’re not sort of saying anything about that right now. [Chuckles.] But the theme that was running throughout the entire was that on each one of the USB drives that you downloaded, there were full files of basically personal photos and videos from Tyler and Josh, of them from when they were starting to nowadays. And that was part of the personal side of that connection between them and their fans.
Why did this project resonate with fans so much, generally, do you think?
I think if you’ve seen a lot of what’s been going on during the pandemic, in terms of people communicating, with ads or even some of the music videos, they were very touchy-feely and “we’re all in this together,” with everybody kind of saying the same thing. So to do something so radical and different during this time was really incredible, and as the newcomer on the team, we all gelled very well, because I spoke the same language that they’ve been speaking for years.
Is it specific past work you had done that made everyone want to bring you on for this?
The thing that usually people remember for is “Take This Lollipop,” which we did for Halloween in 2011. It took people’s interior Facebook credentials, and then you’d watch a video of a creepy guy sitting in front of his computer, and then all of a sudden your Facebook page would show up on his computer and he’d look through your photos and then he’d type in your address. And then it looked like he’s driving to your house to come get you. And it was so seamlessly done that literally people thought that this man was coming to their house. Before we took it offline a couple of years ago, it had been seen by over a billion people worldwide. So that’s something that I know that everyone on the team had seen and loved. I’ve done everything from feature films to commercials, but the thing that I’m most known for in these worlds is just trying to do never-been-dones, and innovative storytelling around different forms of content.
Should we assume the never-ending video is pretty automated, the way it’s set up? You guys don’t have to do a lot with it to keep it going?
Every four minutes, I’m editing a new video. [He pauses, then laughs.] I’m just glued to my computer 24/7. No, it’s fairly automated. I think moderation is the only thing that we’re doing just to make sure that in this day and age, nothing super-offensive gets through. People love to try to push buttons sometimes. But not a lot of stuff really needs to be moderated because it’s such a great fan base to work from. So that’s really the only work we have to do.
So, you’re not seeing a huge amount of attempts at porn-bombing?
I haven’t seen it! Though I’m not moderating it 24/7. But the majority of it has been really fantastic stuff, everything from little babies in Twenty One Pilots T-shirts to families … I think what we’re seeing is such an interesting, real-time slice of life of what’s been going on in sort of quarantine times over the last three months, just seeing a lot of face masks and seeing a lot of stuff around the house.