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With MTV’s airing of “Video Killed the Radio Star” 34 years ago this month, music lovers would never look at music the same again. Combining the “best of TV and best of radio,” MTV introduced a new and novel way for music fans to enjoy their favorite radio hits. Pioneering the broad distribution of music videos, MTV brought big-budget music videos to the masses, allowing viewers to experience music and see their singing icons in a whole new light.
But MTV didn’t mark the advent of music videos. In fact, decades before, chart-topping musicians were already experimenting with the concept of videos to promote their singles. Take a look back at how the distribution of music videos has changed over time and see how they got to be where they are today.
Early promotional clips
Throughout the '60s, a variety of musical groups recorded promotional clips, or “illustrated songs,” for their hit songs, though they were not widely shared and only aired occasionally on pop TV stations. These short videos helped artists promote their new music releases and reach a broader audience both domestically and internationally, reducing the need for in-person appearances.
The Beatles were one of the first mainstream bands to elevate these films to a broader stage with the largely popular success of their "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" promotional videos in 1967. The promos for these singles incorporated innovative cinematic filming and editing techniques, including slow motion, dramatic lighting and reversed film. Other bands from this era that successfully produced, publicized and distributed short promo clips for their hits included The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Bob Dylan.
First video music channel
Fast forward to 1981. MTV Music Television stated it “would do for TV what FM did for radio,” and so it did. MTV was the first U.S. video channel of its kind to be completely dedicated to playing music videos, bringing viewers coast-to-coast music news and interviews with popular musicians. Viewers tuned in to watch station hosts, or video jockeys (VJs), introduce music videos by some of their favorite artists, including The Who, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Phil Collins and Iron Maiden. The first music video aired on MTV was ironically “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, followed by Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” and Rod Stewart’s "She Won't Dance With Me."
As music videos began to rise in popularity amongst fans and on TV, musicians and record labels started to recognize the added value that investing in music videos could have in driving album sales and band notoriety. While many British bands, like Human League and Duran Duran, were among the first to dominate MTV’s broadcasts, other popular American musicians shortly followed with their own music videos that experimented with bigger production budgets and complex storylines.
Some of the most popular music videos to reign supreme during the '80s included Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf,” a-ha’s “Take On Me” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Standout videos from the '90s included Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” and Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time.”
A new meaning to after-school TV
In 1998, MTV launched “Total Request Live” (TRL), a fan-controlled, live TV show that counted down the 10 most-requested music videos of the day. Throughout the day, fans would call into a request line—and in later years vote online, via text or email—to vote for their favorite videos. The show also featured live musical performances, daily guest appearances and even celebrities filling in as guest VJs on occasion. Some of the earliest standout musicians whose videos regularly topped the charts included Christina Aguilera, Eminem, ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Korn and Blink 182.
The show was filmed live in front of an in-studio audience in a room overlooking Times Square. Legions of onlookers on the street were often invited up to join the studio audience, adding to the fandamonium. In fact, the shows crowds often forced Times Square’s streets to close down.
Airing mid-afternoon on weekdays, TRL became a popular after-school ritual for thousands of young viewers across the country. It went on to become one of MTV’s most popular TV shows of all time, drawing in more than 750,000 viewers during the height of its popularity. The fan-driven format was hugely successful and the show remained on air until November 2008, when the last episode aired.
YouTube brings videos into the 21st century
Jump to 2005. It’s no coincidence that just as TRL was winding down, a new distribution channel was on the rise that gave viewers instant access to the music videos they craved.
Just like MTV is recognized for greatly advancing the mainstream distribution of music videos, YouTube also can be credited with accomplishing a similar feat. YouTube creator Jawed Karim posts an eight-second video, titled "Me at the Zoo," to YouTube.com, forever revolutionizing how videos would be shared online by users around the world.
Today, viewers can access a treasure trove of music videos on demand (plus a host of other videos spanning endless subjects) from anywhere in the world and from multiple devices, including smartphones, tablets and televisions. Music fans can receive instant gratification by searching for almost any past or present music video, making channels like MTV more and more archaic.
Check back next month for an in-depth look at music videos and how their style, budgets and technical flair have evolved in response to the growing availability of distribution channels.
Do you remember the first music video you ever saw or rushing home to catch your favorite band on MTV’s TRL? What do you think the future holds for music videos and how they’re shared? Leave a comment below and please check out some previous tech throwback articles here:
As a member of the TEKsystems’ marketing communications team, Susan Hering helps develop and write strategic marketing collateral, including brochures, case studies and presentations. When she’s not in the office, she enjoys traveling, cooking and spending time outdoors.