Monday, July 13, 2009

A History of Music Videos Part Six

The Music Video Fad of the Eighties

While the history of music videos goes back to the advent of sound film, it would not be until the Sixties that they would be made with any sort of regularity. It was in that decade that The Beatles and other artists inaugurated the practice of creating promotional films for various songs. The creation of promotional films continued into the Seventies, but it would not be until the success of a video shot for Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" that the record companies would start shooting videos for nearly every single they released. In the late Seventies interest in music videos had grown to the point that entire TV shows devoted to music videos were developed. By 1981 the growing interest in music videos resulted in the creation of MTV, the first cable channel devoted entirely to music videos.

MTV was an enormous success, but that would not have been the case had there not been a good deal of initial interest in music videos among the general public. In fact, in 1981, the same year that MTV was launched, two video albums were released. One was Elephant Parts, which Michael Nesmith of The Monkees produced through his company Pacific Arts. The other was The Completion Backward Principle by The Tubes. What set these video albums apart from earlier video albums (such as those released by Blondie and Split Enz) is that it was the artists themselves rather than the record company that instigated them. Even if MTV had not been launched in 1981, the completion of two video albums conceived by the artists themselves and the debut of several video shows (Video Soul, Night Flight, and so on) demonstrated the demand for music video at the time.

It is little wonder, then, that MTV became a phenomenon in the early Eighties. In fact, combined with the interest which already existed in music videos, MTV would spark an outright fad towards music videos. Nineteen eighty two would see yet more shows dedicated to music videos, largely because of MTV's success. On Nickelodeon, the channel which had aired the historic Pop Clips, Nick Rocks debuted. The series was a half hour in length and even at times featured guest hosts. It lasted until 1989. In 1982 the USA Network, which had debuted Night Flight the previous year, debuted Radio 1990. Strictly speaking, Radio 1990 was more of a music news programme, complete with interviews with music artists. That having been said, it did show a good number of videos. Radio 1990 aired on weekdays on the USA Network, lasting until 1986.

It would also be in 1982 that the music video service Bohemia Visual Music was launched. Unlike MTV, Bohemia Visual Music is a music video service provided to local broadcast stations. It started as Bohemia Afterdark and has aired on various stations throughout the years. Another development in the history of music video was the release of the movie Pink Floyd The Wall, based on Pink Floyd's hit concept album, that year. The film utilised a good deal of symbolic imagery, as well as an extended animated sequence. Pink Floyd The Wall had very little dialogue, with the story told largely through the music of Pink Floyd. It would prove fairly influential on music video.

By 1983 the music video fad was well underway. The year would see the launch of two music video channels and three important music video shows. Since the Sixties music video had been dominated by rock artists. With the growing interest in music video in the Seventies, there finally emerged videos featuring country artists. In 1982 two cable channels were launched which catered strictly to the country music crowd. Curiously the two channels debuted within a day of each other in March of that year. The first to debut was CMT (short for Country Music Television), on March 6. The channel was founded by Glenn D. Daniels, who served as its Programme Director and its President in its early days. It was originally called CMTV, although the "V" was dropped from the name following a complaint from MTV. CMT was essentially the country equivalent of MTV, showing music videos 24 hours a day. While CMT would later expand into other programming, it still shows a good number of videos and much of the programming (movies, reruns of variety shows and so on) it airs is devoted to music.

The Nashville Network debuted on March 7, 1983, only a day after CMT. Unlike CMT, the Nashville Network was conceived more as a channel devoted to country music in general. While The Nashville Network did air music videos, most of its programming was of a more traditional nature. It aired variety shows, talk shows, and even game shows centred on country music. Among its most popular programmes was a television version of old radio standby The Grand Ole Opry. After Westinghouse bought both CMT and The Nashville Network in 1995, the Nashville Network gradually moved away from its original programming, even airing TV series such as Dallas and The Dukes of Hazzard. By the late Nineties Viacom had bought the Nashville Network. In 2000 Viacom changed the name of the channel to The National Network and shifted its programming entirely away from country music. The channel started shows reruns of old broadcast TV series such as Miami Vice, Newhart, The Rockford Files, Taxi, and WKRP in Cincinnati. By 2003 the channel would change again, this time renamed Spike. It was meant, in theory at least, to be a network devoted to men. It is as Spike that the channel has continued to this day.

Nineteen eighty three also saw the debut of three important music video shows. The first to debut was Night Tracks, on the superstation TBS on June 3, 1983. Initially Night Tracks aired for three hours on Friday night, and was then repeated on Saturday night. Night Tracks differed from MTV in that it aired a greater percentage of R&B and dance music artists. Night Tracks proved successful enough that TBS debuted other video shows in its wake: America's Music Tracks (devoted to country music, fall 1983-February 1984), Chartbusters (1984-1991), Power Play (1985-1988), and New Alternative Express (1991-1992). Night Tracks itself would change over the years. In 1989, with the debut of the two hour movie show Night Flicks, Night Tracks dropped down to two hours. In 1990 it was further cut down to 90 minutes, with the 90 minute block often repeated the same night. In 1992 Night Tracks went off the air entirely.

The second music video show to debut in 1983 was New York Hot Tracks. New York Hot Tracks premiered only about a month after Night Tracks, on July 22, 1983. New York Hot Tracks was syndicated across the United States, primarily airing on ABC stations. The series aired dance and rap videos, with a few pop videos mixed in for good measure. New York Hot Tracks lasted until 1989.

The third music video show to debut in 1983 did so only a week after New York Hot Tracks, on July 29, 1983. Friday Night Videos was NBC's answer to MTV, and the brainchild of Burt Sugarman, who produced the show with Dick Ebersol. Its roots actually go back to The Midnight Special, which Ebersol produced. Ebersol left The Midnight Special for Saturday Night Live in 1981. Having a fairly bad experience with Saturday Night Live, Ebersol decided once more to do a Friday night show devoted to music. Friday Night Videos tended to concentrate on Top 40 songs, although it also showed a variety of videos from rock, R&B, and rap artists. It even occasionally showed older videos from the Sixties and the Seventies. In the beginning the show was 90 minutes in length, with the videos announced by an off screen announcer. By 1985 Friday Night Videos started using guest hosts, including Elvira, Yoko Ono, Ozzy Osbourne, John Ratzenberger, and George Wendt, among others. In 1987 the series was cut down to only an hour. In 1991 live music performances were added. By 1994, with ratings falling, the format of Friday Night Videos was changed and its title shortened to Friday Night. Friday Night showed celebrity interviews, movie reviews, live performances, and stand up comedy. It only aired two music videos a night. Friday Night was cancelled in 2000, with its final episode airing on December 29, 2000.

It was in the midst of the music video fad that there would be another music video which would make history. In some respects the importance of the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" has been overestimated. Storyline videos have existed at least as far back as the Sixties. In fact, in the early Eighties storyline and conceptual videos were generally the rule. Music videos had also become very sophisticated even before MTV was launched. Regardless, "Thriller" was historic for two reasons. The first was the sheer amount of money involved. "Thriller" was the most expensive music video of the time, made for $500,000. Second, "Thriller" was as much a film short as it was a music video. It was even directed by an established movie director, John Landis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Jackson. It featured Jackson's transformation into a werecat, a spoken word monologue by horror actor Vincent Price, and choreographed zombies. The video debuted on MTV on December 3, 1983. As of 2006 Guinness World Records estimated that it was the most successful music video of all time, selling over 9 million copies.

Nineteen eighty four would see the launch of more music video channels and more music video shows. The first of these was Music Box, a pan-European music video channel launched in March 1984. Created by Virgin Vision, one of Richard Branson's companies, Music Box aired throughout Britain, Europe, and the Middle East. Unfortunately, Music Box would not last as a music video channel. On January 30, 1987 Music Box ceased to be a 24 hour music video channel and became merely an independent producer of music programmes. It would continue to air ten hours of videos a day on the Super Channel, which took over Music Box's satellite frequency. By 1990 Music Box ended its satellite broadcasts entirely, continuing to this day as a producer of music shows for the British networks.

A more successful music video channel was also one of the earliest speciality channels in Canadian history. Without a music video channel of its own, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) granted a licence to CHUM Limited to launch MuchMusic, the first Canadian music video channel. MuchMusic was launched on September 1, 1984, "The Enemy Within" by Canadian rock band Rush being its first video ever aired. Even in its early years MuchMusic not only aired videos, but music and variety shows such as Electric Circus (a dance programme) and the game show Test Pattern. Unlike MTV, MuchMusic has been very lenient in censoring content, allowing even the "F" word to be sang or uttered and showing videos MTV had banned. Unlike other video channels, for most of its history MuchMusic did not drift too far from music oriented programming. Much of this was due to necessity. The channel's licence dictated that it show primarily music oriented programming. In fact, in the Nineties MuchMusic ran afoul of the CRTC when it aired Ren and Stimpy. Ultimately, it was forced to remove the show from its programming. Sadly, the Naughts would see MuchMusic airing more non-music programming, even reruns of The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Regardless, MuchMusic's success allowed it to even expand into the United States. In 1994 MuchUSa was launched.

While MuchMusic would see a good deal of success, an American music video channel launched in 1984 would utterly fail. With Night Tracks a success, Ted Turner of TBS attempted his own music video channel. The Cable Music Channel (CMC) was launched on October 27, 1984. It differed primarily from MTV in that it played a wider variety of music videos, everything from rock to country to dance to R&B. Turner apparently had big plans for the channel, even launching it himself. With the words, "Take that MTV!" he pressed a button, after which the CMC aired its first video, "I Love LA" by Randy Newman. Unfortunately for Turner, CMC found itself unable to sign up cable systems (many of who already had MTV) and unable to obtain the rights for top videos. On November 29, 1984 Turner decided to sell CMC to MTV. MTV in turn would use the channel's space on the SATCOM satellite to launch VH1 on January 1, 1985.

Nineteen eighty four also saw the debut of more music video shows. Back Porch Video debuted on January 28, 1984. It was created by the DJ Russ Gibb, then most famous for being instrumental in the "Paul is Dead (as in Paul McCartney)" rumour in 1969. Back Porch Video was unlike any other music video show on the air. It aired out of Westinghouse's Group W Cable studios in Dearborn, Michigan and was crewed entirely by local teenagers. It aired live on Saturday nights from 10 PM to 1 AM. From the beginning its videos tended towards mainstream rock and later alternative rock, although heavy metal and even hardcore punk videos were aired as well. Back Porch Video proved to be one of the most successful video shows of all time, lasting a full sixteen years.

It was on June 22, 1984 that ABC made an attempt to compete with NBC's Friday Night Videos. ABC Rocks was a half hour programme on Friday late night which showed top 40 videos. In the end it could not compete with Friday Night Videos, ending its run on August 2, 1985. More successful was Video Vibrations, which debuted on BET in October 1984. It lasted until 1997.

By 1985 the fad towards music videos was coming to a close. Despite this, two new music video channels would be launched that year. The first was VH1. VH1 was conceived by Warner Cable as a sister channel to MTV, one which would show videos which appealed to a slight older demographic. It was launched on the bones of Ted Turner's Cable Music Channel, taking over that channel's space on the SATCOM satellite. While MTV would eventually drift away from music programming, VH1 has never quite done so. Although it would start showing fewer music videos in the Nineties, to this day the vast majority of its programming is music oriented in some way.

The other music channel to debut in 1985 was The Video Jukebox Network, later simply called The Box. The Box would become well known for showing videos banned on MTV. It also became well known for allowing viewers to call in requests for videos. Initially free, The Box eventually set up a 1-900 line whereby viewers could request up to three videos for a small fee. At times popular videos would air on The Box well before MTV. Sadly, The Box would not last. In 1999 The Box was bought by MTV, who replaced its signal with that of their sister channel MTV2.

During the music video craze of the Eighties, music video infiltrated Anglo-American pop culture in a way that it never has before or since. The famous videos made for "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Legs" by Z. Z. Top, in which various individuals are helped by three mysterious, beautiful women travelling in a vintage 1933 Ford coupe, provided the basis for one of the dream sequences in the St. Elsewhere episode "Sweet Dreams," which aired during that show's third season. In the movie Beverly Hills Cop, the "Thriller" video was visually referenced. In Britain the series Not The Nine O'Clock News produced their own parody of music videos, "Nice Video, Shame About The Song." Even after the fad towards music videos had begun to fade, in 1986 the video to "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer would be endlessly parodied.

By 1985 the fad towards music videos was coming to a close. No new music video shows would be forthcoming in substantial numbers and no new music video channels would emerge. The music video fad lasted longer than most fads, approximately from 1981 to 1985, but like all fads it would come to an end. The end of the music video fad would have farther ranging effects than the cancellation of a few music video shows. Ultimately it would result in dramatic changes to the cable channel which had started the fad itself, MTV

The Fall of MTV
Reality Shows Killed the Video Star

By the mid to late Eighties the music video fad was coming to an end. As a result many music video shows went off the air. Video Jukebox may have been the first, cancelled by HBO in 1985. The USA Network cancelled Radio 1990 in 1986. Night Flight, once one of the most popular video shows, was cancelled in 1988 by the USA Network, only to return for another six years in syndication in 1990. Both Nick Rocks and New York Hot Tracks were cancelled in 1989. Both Friday Night Videos and Night Tracks would both be shortened in length.

As a result of the music video fad coming to an end, the ratings for both VH1 and MTV declined. Although sister channels, they would react to this decline in programming in very different ways. VH1 shifted from music videos to programming that was still music oriented--Behind the Music, Legends, and Movies That Rock. On the other hand, MTV began airing shows that had absolutely nothing to do with music. In 1987 MTV debuted a game show, Remote Control. While Remote Control would only last about three years, it was a sign of things to come. In 1992 MTV debuted the pioneering reality show The Real World. It would be followed by other non-music shows such as Road Rules, Jackass, and Singled Out. During this time MTV's ratings rose, encouraging the channel to air more non-music programming and fewer videos It is for that reason that as the Nineties progressed, MTV would show fewer and fewer videos. By 2000 MTV was showing only eight hours a day of music videos, and often those were confined to the early morning hours. By 2008 that number had slipped to only three hours a day.

While MTV's ratings increased during the Nineties and the early Naughts, the channel's change in programming also drove away viewers. Many of those who once tuned into the channel to watch music videos simply stopped watching it. While the ratings demonstrated that many enjoyed the reality shows on the channel, there were also many others who despised them. A running joke that became more common as the Nineties became the Naughts was that one was Generation X or older if he or she could remember when MTV showed videos. While giving an acceptance speech at the 2007 Video Music Awards Justin Timberlake, who is barely old enough to even remember when MTV showed music videos, called for MTV " play more damn videos!" Sadly, it seems his words fell on deaf ears.

As MTV moved away from playing music videos, the channel saw the need to create other outlets for videos. In 1996 M2 was created. M2 was what MTV once was, a 24 hour music video channel. It was renamed MTV2 in 2000. Unfortunately, in the early Naughts the reality shows and other non-music programmes from MTV had overwhelmed MTV2 as well. As a result MTV created a new channel, MTV Hits, which was also meant to be what MTV once was. Fortunately, it has not yet succumbed to MTV's non-music programming.

MTV's shift away from music videos might explain the rise of new music video channels in the Naughts, the first time a significant number of such channels have emerged since the Eighties. Indeed, it was in 1994 that CHUM Limited., the parent company of Canadian music video channel MuchMusic, expanded into the United States with MuchUSA. MuchUSA was essentially an affiliate of MuchMusic, operated by cable company Rainbow Media. In 2003 CHUM Limited revoked Rainbow Media's license to use the names "MuchMusic" and "MuchUSA," whereupon MuchUSA became Fuse. In August 1999 a music video cable channel named E-Music was launched in the United States. What set E-Music apart from other music video channels is that it is interactive; that is, viewers can choose five videos a day they would like to see by going to E-Music's web site. Other music video channels which emerged after MTV had shifted its format were the International Music Feed (it aired videos from around the globe and existed from 2005 to 2008), NOYZ (which existed from 2006 to 2008), Retro-Jams (specialising in older videos--founded in 2007 and continuing to this day), and The Tube Music Network (which existed from 2003 to 2007). While most of these music video channels failed, one has to wonder that they would have come into existence at all if MTV's programming had continued to be dominated by music videos.

Of course, beyond the creation of new music video channels, the Naughts would also see another development related to music videos. In the Nineties and early Naughts the vast majority of Americans accessed the internet through a dial-up connection. Such connections were two slow to make watching music videos, let alone television shows and movies, practical. Even with a 56 kbit/s modem, the fastest modem of the time, watching even a three minute video meant sitting for several minutes while the video buffered. As the Naughts progressed more and more people in North America and around the world began accessing the internet through broadband connections. With data transfer rates often well above 768 kbit/s, broadband made watching music videos, TV shows, and movies on the internet practical. As a result of the increase in broadband connections, video sharing sites such as YouTube and Metacafe came into being, and the websites of various media outlets (such as MTV) began offering much more in the way of videos. While MTV itself no longer shows much in the way of videos, its website features hundreds of them. For many people the internet would become the primary means by which they watch videos.

Indeed, by the mid-Naughts some music videos would only be released online. What is more, some of these music videos have proven popular enough to insure the success of the songs for which they were made. This was the case for both OKGo's "A Million Ways" in 2005 and "Here It Goes Again" in 2006. Weezer would eventually capitalise on this trend with their video to "Pork and Beans," in which they included twenty people famous only from being in videos on YouTube.

With the emergence of new music video channels and music video on the internet, it would seem that MTV has lost of much of its relevance to the medium of music video. In fact, it seems that in achieving respectable ratings in the Nineties and the early Naughts, MTV may have paid a high price for its shift in programming, one that ultimately was not worth it in the long run. Indeed, in moving away from music video MTV lost much of its influence on pop culture. At MTV's height in the Eighties, its veejays were celebrities recognised by a large number of people and the videos it showed were referenced in television shows and movies. Even when its rating declined in the late Eighties, a time when videos still comprised the majority of MTV's programming, the channel still had a good deal of impact on pop culture. "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer was released in 1986, after MTV's ratings had started to slide, and yet the video was endlessly parodied in a variety of media. This stands in stark contrast to the programming aired on MTV throughout much of the Nineties and into the Naughts. While a large number of people know who Martha Quinn is, one would be hard pressed to find anybody who would recognise any of the people who have appeared on The Real World throughout the years. And while various videos which aired on MTV in the Eighties were endlessly referenced and parodied, only a very few of the channel's reality programmes have been so referenced and parodied (The Real World and The Osbournes being examples).

Although it would take years, ultimately even MTV's ratings have suffered because of the channel's shift in programming. Indeed, in June the channel was struggling in the ratings so much that it laid off a good number of employees. MTV's woes would seem to be rooted in its shift away from music videos. Even as MTV reduced the amount of videos it showed in the Naughts, a cycle towards reality shows would overtake both the broadcast networks and cable channels. Eventually the broadcast networks and cable channels would be glutted with such programming. Once a genre that was the sole province of MTV became common place elsewhere, MTV's ratings began to slide once more. In the end, it seems as if MTV may have been better off remaining a music video channel. Granted, its ratings would not have been quite so high as they were when it first shifted its programming to reality shows and other programmes, but then it would not be suffering decreased ratings now. The worst that would have happened is that MTV would simply be speciality channel, although a profitable one.

Unfortunately, despite its falling ratings, it seems that MTV remains insistent in not showing videos. In June 23 of this year MTV announced a development slate which includes series with continuing characters and sketch comedy shows. Despite the fact that reality shows are most likely what caused the channel's drop in ratings, the channel seems insistent on developing new ones. Sadly, MTV ceased to be "Music Television" long ago. And I have to wonder that if it continues on its current course if it won't cease to be entirely.


When most people think of music videos, they tend to think of the Eighties. As this series of articles demonstrates, however, the form has a history extending back to the very beginnings of sound film. Vitaphone and other studios would make music shorts in the late Thirties. The Forties saw the creation of a visual jukebox, the Panoram, for which over a thousand Soundies were made. The Fifties saw the creation of Snader Telescriptions, short films made to be aired as filler on television. The Sixties saw the reintroduction of visual jukeboxes and the production of films made for them. More importantly, the Sixties saw the creation of music promotional films, the direct ancestors of the modern music video. The Seventies saw record companies begin producing music videos on a regular basis. The Eighties saw the creation of channels devoted entirely to music videos. The Naughts would see the emergence of the internet as a force with regards to music videos.

Music videos have received more than their fair share of bad press. In the Eighties there were those who claimed that music videos devalued the very experience of listening to music. They claimed that videos violated the freedom of the listener to interpret a song as he or she sees fit. Another common criticism was that music videos commodified music, that music videos were essentially nothing more than commercials. Nearly thirty years later such criticisms hardly seem supportable. People still interpret songs however they wish. As to commodifying music, arguably songs have been commodified since the invention of the phonograph in the late 19th century. Indeed, it must be pointed out that while many good songs have benefited from exposure through a particularly good video, it is very, very rare that a bad song has benefited from exposure through a particularly good video. Regardless of what is up on the screen, it is ultimately the song itself that counts.

In the end it would seem that while music videos began as a promotional tool, they evolved very swiftly into an artform all their own. In many respects the very best videos can be regarded as a form of silent film, telling a story set to music and without dialogue. In many respects this makes music video a very challenging medium, for directors must rely almost entirely upon the visual to move the story along. It should be no surprise that music video directors ranging from Michael Lindsay-Hogg to David Fincher would move onto directing feature films. It would seem that the music video is an excellent training ground.

It is difficult to determine the future of music video, but it is certain that they have one. Even as MTV insistently refuses to play music videos, new music video channels have arisen and the internet has become another venue for music video. There can be little doubt that the music video will continue to grow and perhaps even to thrive as an artform.

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