Gil Scott-Heron was wrong.
In 1974, the soul singer (who passed away earlier this year) prophesied, "The revolution will not be televised."
Eight years later, however, it was.
At 12:01 a.m. (ET) on Aug. 1, 1981, MTV began broadcasting to several thousand people in northern New Jersey. The images began with four long minutes of a space shuttle launch countdown. Apollo 11 then roars into space. A man walks on the moon and plants … the multihued MTV flag as Jack Lack announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll."
The first video: "Video Killed the Radio Star," by The Buggles.
The first marketing slogan: "You'll never look at music the same way again."
It's hard to imagine, 30 years later, but in the earliest days of "music television," the nascent network's five original "video jockeys" (Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn and JJ Jackson) had to jaunt over from New York to New Jersey just to see themselves on TV, because MTV wasn't even available in their home state. And, in Goodman's words, "Part of our job was to hang out with cable operators and convince them to pick up MTV."
The strategy worked. With a vengeance.
By the end of 1981, 2.1 million cable subscribers had access. And by the end of 1991, 54.7 million. Today, MTV beams into 100.6 million homes, according to Fast Company.
Shortly after MTV's liftoff, music videos became an integral part of the music industry. And as MTV broadcast videos 24 hours a day (imagine!), those three-to-four-minute snippets of cinematic musical storytelling afforded a talented young crop of emerging entertainers a platform upon which they'd build their careers.
The video, it seemed, was here to stay.
Except something strange happened along the way to ubiquity. The cable channel that changed the way we think about music, changed the way it thought about programming. It added a game show here. A reality show there. And as shows encroached, videos got pushed into the margins. More TV. Less music.
Then came the Internet. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I Want My New Cable Channel
In the heady days after MTV's inception, the newborn network was so starved for music videos that it would air just about anything. Music video historian and blogger Stephen Pitalo (goldenageofmusicvideo.com) says of the time, "When MTV hit the airwaves, it had to provide 24 hours of content. The problem was, there wasn't much content out there—so they had to take their chances and air whatever they could get their hands on." VJ Mark Goodman says, "I think we only had about 300 videos at first. Which is why you saw Andrew Gold every few hours. We also had lots of Rod Stewart, and even acts like Charlie Daniels. One of the early success stories was Duran Duran. We started playing 'Planet Earth' early on and it got them wide exposure. We started to hear about British bands coming to the States and being shocked by how many people showed up."
And when bands figured out that a video on MTV equaled seats sold at venues and cassette tapes (no CDs yet!) sold in stores, they showed up too. Everyone who was anyone had a video on MTV, from Culture Club to Def Leppard, from Genesis to Rush, from The Cars to The Scorpions. For some, it was a place to show fans what they looked like in concert. But for others, Madonna and Prince immediately come to mind, the emerging medium represented a new way to push the envelope by matching risqué lyrics with even steamier (for the time) imagery.
MTV was only too happy to oblige when it came to smudging cultural mores and taboos. In an interview with The Atlantic, longtime MTV news reporter Kurt Loder reflected on MTV's prevailing mode of operation: "I think cultural liberalization, in the libertarian sense of opposing the suppression of people's rights, is implicit in rock and roll music. And while I think MTV, if it could speak with a corporate voice, would acknowledge that it is also politically liberal—a different thing—it always came down on the 'pro' side of individual freedom and irrepressible flamboyance, often to the delight of … not everybody. This was something new in mass broadcast media."
I Want My Face Framed by Fame
The irrepressible flamboyance of the music video resulted in a multipronged cultural impact in the '80s and early '90s. Because the same videos were playing on MTV and other networks with block-scheduled shows trying to hitch a ride on this new starship, they had a homogenizing effect on the way we interacted with popular music. And the ascendancy of image—often at the expense of substance—is one of their lasting legacies.
Image has always been important in music, of course, whether we're talking the Fab Four's boyish good looks or Alice Cooper's glam-shock makeup. But MTV's arrival made what an artist looked like astronomically more important. From Madonna to Cyndi Lauper to Boy George to David Lee Roth, image increasingly became a core element in an artists' "brand."
Today, 30 years after the fact, the centrality of a popular musician's image is so interwoven with his or her music that we barely even give it a thought. How an artist looks is as important (maybe more so) as how an artist sounds. Most of us just accept that now. It's simply impossible to imagine the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha or Britney Spears enjoying the popularity they do apart from a medium that focuses on their form.
And along the way, the music video paved the way for our culture's embrace of some significant stylistic elements that we now take for granted in other visual media. "MTV impacted not only how we listen to music today," Pitalo says, but also filmmaking as a whole. The fast-editing and experimental styles we see in films and commercials today are directly traced to the videos MTV aired."
I Want My YouTube
So the 100 billion dollar marketing question is: Are music videos dead because MTV stopped playing them, opting for The Real World over The Boss, Beavis and Butt-Head over Lady Gaga? After all, the network even removed the words "Music Television" from its logo last year. (And MTV2 really doesn't count.)
The short answer: No!
The longer answer: When MTV cancelled its long-running video countdown show Total Request Live in 2008, it was merely acknowledging a new media reality. No one had to tune in to watch their favorite videos on TV anymore. Indeed, everyone interested in seeing their favorite artists' latest videos will likely head to YouTube or musicians' own websites. Shannon Connolly, vice president of digital music strategy at MTV Networks, says of YouTube, "At a macro level, new technology has fundamentally changed how people experience music." Before videos' easy availability online, "people waited around to watch a video on TV" and used TV as a means to "discover new music and artists." Now the Internet serves both functions.
The ironic legacy of MTV is that more folks may be watching videos now that they're not on the network than they did when they were. Many if not most musicians are still filming videos for their new material. Some even release those videos before they release their singles. Lady Gaga, for one, has embraced music videos with a cinematic zeal not seen since Madonna. And for good reason: The hit counter for her song "Bad Romance," as an example, shows that the video has been viewed more than 400,000 million times. Justin Bieber's "Baby" has garnered more than 600,000 million views.
Clearly, music videos are alive and well and flourishing in 2011. But something has changed since MTV picked up Jersey Shore for a fourth season. Where videos and the music they fronted might once have been a shared cultural experience, today the presence of millions of them on YouTube (and myriad other websites) is now fragmenting our entertainment experience. They're simultaneously revving up the envelope-pushing practices tinkered with by so many of those '80s artists. As lax as MTV's broadcast standards have become, they're still stiffer than none at all, which is exactly the case online.
MTV is dead, at least when it comes to airing the thing that gave it life. But it doesn't really matter. Its birth is what changed us. I grew up in the revolutionary era of MTV's music video, so it's tempting for me—really tempting—to wax nostalgic for the good ol' days when everyone knew the same songs and had seen the same videos. But the fact of the matter is, simply sharing an experience doesn't mean it's a good one.