3.3 MTV: music in the wires
When cable television became a reality in the US in the sixties it created an entirely new approach to both programming and viewing patterns. Cable's ability to broadcast on a small scale to a clearly defined target audience gave rise to the term 'narrowcasting'. Television no longer had to please everyone, only its subscribers. The much reduced running costs of a cable station as opposed to a network broadcaster meant that it could operate to minority, interest groups, like a radio station. Given this it is perhaps surprising that despite the growing power and influence of the 'baby boomer' rock-bred generation, the first large scale, national cable channel devoted to music programming did not arrive until August 1981 when MTV began its first broadcast.
The growing numbers of cable companies had encouraged increasing specialisation and tighter narrowcasting. (Schwichtenberg) but apparently no one was willing to take the risk of such a minority interest phenomenon, particularly one that was previously untried and went against one of the basic principles of programming - rock doesn’t work on TV.
The massive deregulation of the entertainment industry that occurred during Reagan's term in office provided the only workable solution. Deregulation allowed joint ventures between different sectors of the industry such as radio and television. Under this new system, record companies like RCA, MCA, CBS and Geffen, were able to get together with the satellite communications, print media, entertainment, finance conglomerate Time Warner Amex, to form a cable TV station that wouldn’t have to make money directly through advertising sponsorship or subscription, because any losses could be seen as a promotional cost of selling the music.
When MTV finally arrived in the US it had a major effect on popular music. Despite being so far behind the rest of the West in its experience with visual music, America was and is such a dominant player in the rock industry that it could not help altering the global face of rock even when entering for the first time, an already established genre. The Americans brought something all of their own to music video, and very quickly the rest of the world found it had to follow suit or lose the American market. After what had been quite a slump for the record industry during the oil shock induced price rises of the seventies, sales were beginning to pick up again. The consumer driven eighties had arrived and MTV was its musical messenger.
In the beginning
Music was at last becoming a product that could be marketed, hyped, and sold in vast quantities for vast profits. The emergence of MTV was an inevitable response to the industries need for a way to market its product in a way that its target audience would not perceive as 'corporate' or 'establishment', or as being marketed at all in fact. Casting about it lit on the music video.
The rest of the West had been using it for years, often more out of public demand than a commercial interest. To discover a form of entertainment programming that directly promoted a product without ever appearing to do so, programming that could in addition be interspersed with conventional advertising and still rate well amongst a clearly defined audience group; it must have seemed too good to be true.
Money for jamming
Indeed one of the most curious things about MTV and music video programming in general is that the audience is essentially watching music ads broken up by product ads and TV station ads. It’s non-stop ads.
Making this process watchable relies heavily, even exclusively on the attractiveness of the music product and their videos. Early MTV perhaps inevitably, failed to pick up on this fact, and acting out of commercial nervousness, made a number of formatting blunders that would have put any self-supporting channel out of business.
One of the lessons learned both at home and abroad during the sixties and seventies, was that broadcast music TV simply no longer worked in the fractionated music cultures of the youth audience. MTV apparently hoped that being a music only channel was narrowcasting enough and went on from that point with the same marketing strategies as before. It showed white mainstream pop 24 hours a day, targeting the biggest most lucrative audience sector. What it failed to realise was that even if quite large numbers of people enjoyed the music they played (in the same way as anyone can hum along to easy listening radio), it simply wasn’t cool or hip. It didn’t say ‘youth’, it said ‘safe’ which translates as both boring and establishment. For the young adult, college market there was simply no reason to watch MTV as it didn’t speak their language, it was still stuck in the cars and girls ethic that had been the exclusive preserve of the early teens since the fifties[^1].
A further error came with the attempt to host the show. On radio there is a lot more scope for creating illusion, on TV the reality of what you see is much more apparent, especially to the media-savvy generation that was MTV’s target audience. The ‘cool’ young hosts lounged about in a set made to look thrown together, and acted like they were just hanging out, watching videos. Viewers spotted the feeble manipulation starkly apparent in the attempt and turned off.[^2]
MTV is not the first music program to strike problems with hosting a show in which the videos show the stars through distinctly rose-tinted manipulations that are simply not available to the host. It is almost inevitable in these situations that the host will lack coolness compared to the musicians and that the host’s set will look tacky, boring and cheap (and quite possibly contrived) compared to those in the videos. Stuck in radio emulation mode, MTV failed to come up with any interesting alternatives to veejays until Beavis and Butthead, the cartoon commentators.
The enemy strikes black
In 1984 a number of artists, most prominently David Bowie, refused to allow MTV to play their videos unless they expanded their playlists to include black artists on a more regular basis than the odd Michael Jackson or Prince hit. MTV relented and over the years has increasingly widened the range of music it covers, becoming increasingly popular as it does so.
When Billboard finally decided to do national sales charts for music based on all music rather than obscure categories like R&B, Rock, Pop, Dance etc, the music industry suddenly found out what the musicians had suspected all along. In the first week on the new chart, Ice Cube’s hard-core rap album The Predator, went to number one. This album, which contained almost non-stop swearing and the justification for acts of aggression against oppressive white authority[^3], was a far cry from what the record industry had previously seen as the top of the pops. Country and hard-core rap were revealed as the nation’s number one sellers and the music industry began to wonder why young people weren’t buying Whitney Houston like they thought they ought to.
With the mega-success of Nirvana and the grunge phenomenon, the record industry, and MTV along with it, finally got the message. Or thought they got the message. They quickly signed up every group in Seattle, started wearing flannel shirts, and tried desperately to pin the label Generation X on the generation that defined itself as anti-label.
MTV now screens a wide variety of specialist shows that cover a range of different musical styles and forms. They instituted the Unplugged series of semi-acoustic live concerts that although it has produced some direly Generation V material like Eric Clapton it has also covered Nirvana, Neil Young, and Tony Bennet in some of their best moments. MTV also hosts an annual Music Video Awards ceremony which by concentrating more on the musicians than on the video makers has tended to maintain the illusion of music video as being an un-’created’ object, that is reinforced by the lack of accreditation in the clips. It has promoted music video as a successful form of programming. It has failed to make explicit by what means this has occurred. The emphasis MTV has placed on the importance of image has to some extent closed off success in music to ‘ugly’ people. At the same time, when an ‘ugly’ musician like Seal or Lyle Lovett is good enough to become famous anyway, MTV will, without qualms, screen their ugliness to millions of viewers. Where MTV goes from here, is hard to say. As the power of ‘Gen X’ grows, and the ‘Generation Y’, the Nintendo generation begins to make its presence felt, it is completely impossible to guess in which particular half-arsed direction corporate America will attempt to jump.
MTV’s contribution to music video has been enormous in terms of making it a much more acceptable, more everyday part of television culture. The side effects, of its influence on the increasingly commercially orientated nature of modern clips, are perhaps equally enormous. The future of music video on the grand scale depends to a very large extent on what conclusions MTV comes to as to what the youth of America really want and how to give it to them in a way that makes money.
- [^1]From an interview with Mark Olson who had been at college in Illinois during the early eighties and knew of MTV but only started watching it, along with his friends, when the specialist, ‘alternative’ shows began to appear around 1989.
- [^2](Kaplan 1987)
- [^3]We Had to Tear This Mutherfucker [L.A.] Up, written in response to the Rodney King not-guilty verdict and the subsequent riot.