It’s the channel that defined a generation and solidified an idea. When MTV first launched in the summer of 1981, the video jockeys (or VJs) claimed, “Starting right now, you’ll never look at music the same way again.” A cultural phenomenon had begun. Before we had MTV, music videos (then known as filmed inserts) were considered a handy way to cheaply promote an artist without their having to make an in-person or live TV appearance. There are arguments over who started the first music video, Tony Bennett claims he’s the first, but it wasn’t until the Beatles began making their short, quirky films in the 1960s that the ball really began rolling.
At first, MTV only played rock acts, but after breaking down the color barrier and playing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the station quickly broadened its repertoire to include pop, R&B, alternative and hip-hop music. By 1984, music videos had not only become a way to directly influence an artist’s exposure and sales among young people, but also as an artistic extension of the album. That year saw the beginnings of the still enduring Video Music Awards (VMAs), honoring the very best of the year’s music videos.
By the time pop and R&B music took over in the ‘90s, production value had dramatically increased, with some of the most expensive music videos coming from that decade. Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 hit, “Scream,” still holds the record for most expensive video with a budget of $7 million. MTV also became the starting place for many film directors like Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Mark Romanek and Hype Williams. The videos had become iconic for their signature dance moves, occasional controversy (i.e., everything Madonna) and artistry.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane for a moment. For us millennials, music videos were more than just a promotion, they were a lifestyle. Remember when you could barely contain your excitement for your favorite artist’s next world premiere video? Or perhaps you fondly think back to the MTV Unplugged sessions, or a fresh-faced Carson Daly counting down the week’s top music videos with Total Request Live. Sadly, those days couldn’t last for long.
By the time YouTube came into the world in 2005, Napster and other illegal peer-to-peer video downloading services were already nipping at the heels of MTV’s floundering music video ratings. In response, MTV continued to dramatically scale back its music video playbacks to concentrate more heavily on its higher-rated reality programming, which it had first started experimenting with as early as ’92 with “The Real World.” While YouTube gained a more serious foothold in the video music space from fans and record labels freely uploading artists’ videos, a big question emerged. Were these iconic videos of our childhood nothing more than an advertisement or were they actually a standalone product that deserved royalties?
Today, YouTube has formed a partnership with two of the three biggest major record labels to create the official online music video service Vevo. Seen as a musical Hulu of sorts, Vevo showcases artists’ videos to the online masses, in hopes of a viral hit. Since the move to online, the videos have shrunk in budget and scale, while becoming more product placement laden than ever before. Once a must-see giant, music videos have become a way to check up on lyrics or act as background listening in a viewer-curated playlist. Since the original purpose of promotion for increased record sales has lost its fire, some could argue music videos are no longer necessary. In fact, artists taking to social media have become the new way to increase sales. While the future of the music video isn’t certain, all isn’t lost for the video countdown format. In an ironic acknowledgment to its roots, Vevo has its own strictly online version called Vevo TV. The service plays music videos 24 hours a day. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?