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Put your hand up if you remember when MTV was all about music videos…
Bands had already been experimenting with videos to accompany their songs (Richard Lester, the director of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love from A Hard Day’s Night was credited by MTV decades later with ‘basically inventing’ the music video), and shows like Top of the Pops in the UK and Countdown in Australia paved the way for what would become the MTV revolution.
In an industry rooted in radio and live performances, 12.01am on 1st August 1981 represented a paradigm shift in the world of music. A technological revolution was starting. Music suddenly became a visual phenomenon and perhaps most importantly, a marketing tool. For many, we didn’t know what our favourite bands looked like. Album covers were getting more abstract by design and videos represented a new and exciting form of engagement.
Buggles – Video Killed the Radio Star Video
The first video played on the new channel – Video Killed the Radio Star by Buggles – was a message to the industry that they should embrace MTV for what it could potentially do for their artists, but in those early days, no-one could have foreseen quite what.
Initially, the videos (provided for free by the record companies) were non-stop, introduced by ‘VJs’ who became celebrities in their own right, and very quickly the industry recognised the value in producing videos that were getting progressively creative, complex and by definition, expensive. They used them as promotional tools and the careers of the A-list musicians of the time – Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and Duran Duran – benefitted hugely from their videos being played in heavy rotation to previously untapped demographics.
Dire Straits – Money For Nothing Video
In 1989, MTV aired Madonna’s Like a Prayer video (a day after Pepsi premiered it as part of a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal) to consternation from a number of religious groups around the world who deemed it blasphemous, racist and sexually provocative. Such was the power of MTV at the time, at the 1989 MTV Music Video Awards, Like a Prayer earned nominations in the Viewer’s Choice and Video of the Year categories, winning the Viewer’s Choice award ahead of Fine Young Cannibals, Michael Jackson, Steve Winwood and Neil Young.
When she came onstage to collect her award, she said ‘I would really like to thank Pepsi for causing so much controversy’.
Madonna – Like a Prayer Video
Recognising the fact that in the US (to which the UK and Europe followed), MTV was an influential and almost vital source of popular culture to young adults, they diversified their offering to include teenagers and adolescents and added non-music based programming to their schedule including The Real World, The Osbournes, The Hills, My Super Sweet 16, Laguna Beach, Beavis and Butthead and Celebrity Deathmatch.
More recently, less emphasis is put on broadcasting music videos (in part because we can get whatever we want on our phones, laptops and tablets instantly) and there has been a shift towards documentaries, game shows and public service programming aimed at their target demographic on topics like safe sex.
These days, MTV isn’t the powerhouse it once was but its impact on the industry cannot be underestimated. As it turns out, video didn’t kill radio stars per se, rather it gave them an additional platform to show us what they could do.
Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire Video
God-awful ‘talent’ shows aside where only Simon Cowell benefits, teenagers are still forming bands in garages and at school, children still stand in front of the mirror and pretend they are [insert whoever the most relevant star is] and there is a vibrant and exciting music scene here in the UK and MTV is in part (but not fully) responsible for kids wanting to become pop stars.
Michael Jackson – Bad Video
MTV changed the music landscape by allowing us to shift the relationships we had with our musical heroes from just listening to them on the radio to seeing them perform, dance, even talk in interviews. It gave us access to artists we had previously never heard of and genres we previously had no interest in.
Cynical marketing on the part of the record companies perhaps, but who among us doesn’t hear the lyric ‘I want my MTV’ from Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing and feel a tinge of nostalgia for Ray Cokes?