Saturday, 26 March 2011

I said, what are ya tryin' a do to my head? Said, whatcha' tryin' a do to my head?

MTV and the Decline of Music, Part II

“You Better Run”, Pat Benatar, 1981

The second song ever aired on MTV was “You Better Run”. Pat Benatar had already established herself as a powerhouse. She had released the albums In “The Heat of the Night”, and “Crimes of Passion” that had sold millions of copies and had been awarded a number of Grammy’s and the American Music Awards. Pretty safe choice for song number 2 really...

A Toronto based company called CHUM Ltd. launched the Canadian equivalent to MTV, ‘ Much Music’  in 1984, noting the success of MTV in the United States, and wanting a piece of the action. The CRTC, which is the governing legal body in Canada, prevented MTV from either bringing its U.S. channel directly into Canada or setting up a home-grown competitor. As a result, MTV was initially content to sell Canadian rights to its programming for rebroadcast on Much Music. Before this happened we had really only seen MTV in bars on satellite. Not really thinking about whether it was legal or not.

The radical reshaping of music marketing was seriously underway.  This was the time when big network cable was just getting its first legs and MTV was one of the great, early successes of this new media revolution that was happening. By 1982, about 98% of Canadians had at least one TV, and about 56% had cable - more than double the cable from ten years earlier.

Initially owned by Warner-American Express, MTV had a monopoly. The other record companies became wise to this very quickly.  The industry has been criticised for devaluing the importance of music, specifically putting on only ‘pretty’ groups and not showing any individual musicians. Really though the other record companies were at a disadvantage as well initially.

Ultimately in 1986 we saw MTV's ratings decline - as a direct result of  too narrow of a musical selection and the underlying cultural change that was occurring, namely in the form of rap and hip hop, to be follow quickly by alternative and a new form of heavy metal. There was also a move to more and more discrete programs and not just sort of a top 40 rotation.

It was now time for Viacom to swoop in and buy MTV, Nickelodeon, the new VH1 and The Movie Channel from Warner-American Express. The price was now right.

So just to recap:

Upside of MTV:
  • It gave the artists another way to express what they were singing about through a new medium, when done well.
  • It helped many women’s careers, such as Madonna, Pat Benatar, Deborah Harry, Cyndi Lauper, etc.
  • It helped to break the black-white cultural barriers starting with acts like Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Rick James and The Specials, and later hip-hop, and rap.
  • It may have introduced us to some alternative, grunge, hip-hop, and rap that may have not had a chance otherwise.
  • The flagging career of Michael Jackson was arguably saved by MTV (which some may view as downside).
Downside of MTV:
  • It took advantage of people by being a blatant marketing tool – it tried to tell us what to like.
  • It showed us only ‘pretty musicians'.
  • It killed the singer-song writer.
  • It marginalized many songs with political or radical messages.
  • Lip-syncing became more of the norm than the exception.
  • It made shorter songs the norm – 3-5 minutes max.(not like the 70’s FM-friendly  tunes).
 There are a couple of things that even music cannot stop: The advancement of technology and the social and political change occurring at any time. Often it is the first to be effected by technology and it is most assuredly woven in with the social and political changes influenced by, and yet very much influencing, social/political change itself.

The conditions were right from a marketing point of view – the Baby Boomers were in the right age group to be receptive.  With the coming proliferation of cable television, the growing interest in what groups looked like and just the sheer volume of video being created, someone would have inevitably created a music TV station. MTV just happened to be the first. It was like a train coming in the distance – very hard to stop. At one time MTV had a profound effect on Music – it introduced a new element to the cultural fabric of North America and the world. This faded over the years as it was woven into the culture itself. Things settled down a little bit till the next big change came – the internet!

The radio star is alive and well on FM, internet and satellite radio. People listened to the radio before MTV and they still listen to the radio today. The radio star may have had to adapt over the years, sometimes becoming a VJ or whatever was necessary, MTV had a significant impact on music,  but video certainly did not kill the radio star!

What do you think?

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