MTV Shakes Things Up
MTV didn’t spread that quickly at first. Cable TV spectrum was valuable, and limited with cable systems having about 20-30 channels at the time as typical in my area. That was up from the five channels we got over the air. When MTV went on the air in their Manhattan studios in August of 1981, no cable systems in NYC carried the channel. MTV owner Viacom actually had to build desire for this product that many cable system operators were unconvinced was worth carrying. Middle aged white men were the gatekeepers to the cable industry. It was not an easy sell. The “I Want My MTV” campaign managed to help the fledgling channel weather the storm of its difficult birth to quickly flourish.
My neighborhood was later to get cable TV, due to the underground electrical/phone conduit that made running cable more difficult than piggybacking on above-ground poles. It came in 1982, the same year my dad surprised me by purchasing a refurb ßetamax VCR at the Sears outlet for the then cheap price of $400-500. Trust me, I did not see that one coming! I imagined that VCRs were outside of the family budget and never once broached the subject with my father. Blank tapes were not cheap. $12.99 as we noted in the comments yesterday was still the norm. This was 1982. I would imagine that when the first VCRs went on sale in 1975 those tapes must have been $29.98 each [or more]!
MTV came some months later when I would try to see what channels were showing something interesting, only to discover that one of the blank channels on the unused upper end of the tuner was now playing music, but with no visual signal. I caught promos indicating that this was the MTV I’d read so much about in the pages of Billboard Magazine [the music industry journal that I read religiously while in college]. Then, one day in the fall of 1982, the channel was just there. I had a VCR and this was like being a drug addict with a 24/7 free supply. For the first three months, I had a tape cued in that deck at all times. Maybe even the first six months.
Early MTV was actually amazing. There was not that much to play, so they played a lot of obscure acts of the kind that I enjoyed. Mostly weirdos and arty bands were making them in that time period. Most of the industry was geared to UK bands, since they led the pack with video production, that meant that the great UK pop hits of the New Wave era were plentiful in comparison to…let say The Boss, who would not make a video for another year or so. So that meant that New Wave far outstripped any less interesting Rock Music at the time. It was a fascinating time to be a fan of New Wave music. As here was a new channel starving for something to fill the playlists and my favorite type of music just happened to be the deepest into music video production.
There were so few advertisers in that first six months, that MTV would have unsold commercial blocs one to two minutes long, filled with stock footage placeholders that had instrumental stock music running under it!! By 1983 the channel was popping. MTV had the youth buzz and was the hippest thing going. It was still a great way to experience most new bands coming up through the channels, but as I noted in the pages of Billboard, [which listed each week’s MTV video adds, and more importantly, the frequency with which you could expect to see them] the early desperate days of playing Slow Children clips [because they made one once…and it was there] was beginning to give away to playing a lot of pretty mainstream acts like Hall + Oates, who like many US pop stars and their labels, were responding to this new phenomenon.
As an American, I couldn’t help but to notice the effect on the incredibly conservative US radio industry! I have mentioned before, that labels were signing scads of new acts but that radio was completely conservative in adding new acts to their valuable airwaves. Better to give the people what they want – “Stairway To Heaven” five time a day! And they knew they wanted it by the market research they paid for. So the labels issued a lot of New Wave Samplers, usually at a loss-leader price to convince kids with a little pocket change to take a chance on these acts which were not getting airplay for love or money. Once MTV got its legs and became an industry force, the low-price sampler album went the way of the dodo.
All of a sudden, radio was starting to play some of my favorite bands which were “stars” on MTV. The channel formed a symbiotic relationship with Duran Duran, for example. They could not get enough “Double Duran,” as J.J. Jackson [MTV’s alpha veejay with a radio history as long as my arm] called them. The cult act from 1981 was, in the space of the three months that MTV couldn’t stop playing “Hungry Like The Wolf,” catapulted into the US top ten for at least three years. The interesting to see from a music fan perspective about MTV was that in America, radio broadcasting was a highly Balkanized operation. There were hundreds of individual radio stations. And before Ronald Reagan gutted the FCC’s stewardship of the telecom industries, there were hard limits on how many radio stations that one company could own. Diversity was still baked into the system.
Subsequently, local program directors ruled the roost as gatekeepers to the airwaves. A band that could be popular in one locale might have a 500 mile dead zone until the next market where they were also popular. This is what made “cracking America” so difficult for bands. America was large and the media was all commercially owned. Making for a lot of PDs to conquer if a band wanted to have success. In most other countries around the world, the airwaves were publicly, not privately owned. Media was run by the state and everyone in the UK saw the same bands on Top Of The Pops and thus the UK pop scene was far more dynamic than the bigger, but slower to react US media landscape.
What MTV delivered, via cable television, was the only national radio station America could offer at that time. This meant that bands with visual appeal and MTV cachet, could find themselves becoming huge. In some cases, in a matter of weeks. Then, in a tale wagging the dog scenario, the moribund US radio industry realized it had to get more responsive, which led to even the dull, downmarket FM Rock stations in my city actually playing bands I liked! I had not listened to the likes of WDIZ-FM for over three years, but by the spring of 1983, the writing was on the wall and I’ll never forget the one time I heard my favorite band of the time, Ultravox, played on “Rock 100!” MTV really shook things up.
Next: …Collecting More Than Just Records
Have you read “I Want my MTV” by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum? It’s basically 600 pages of interview fragments conducted by the authors and the VJs, execs, and lots of artists. It forms a sort of patchwork history / memoir of MTV from 1981 to 1992. I wish there was an overall narrative or a structured point of view from the authors, but for what it is, there’s some good insight.
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JT – No, but that sounds interesting. Will pencil that into my [HAH!!] so-called reading list.
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It’s a very good book & we’ll probably never see anything more in depth than this one so if you want to read a good history of the medium this is the one.
In AZ, I remember watching MTV and cable before 1981…Dire Straits Romeo and Juliet seems to be what I remember…later they had then Missing Persons, Flock of Seagulls, Duran, Duran…..etc. It was a great time, for sure…..and those MTV ‘icons’ were definitely cool, too. Some bands took to the video and some didn’t.
Great series you’ve started on the music video…looking forward to the next post.
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Bridget – As we were “Generation MTV” it was most interesting to watch music video reshuffle the playing field for a while there.
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Our family was one of the first to get cable when it expanded past regional little experiments. This was in Atlanta, so … 75-76 ish. We actually had HBO in its nascent form during my first year of “high school” (grade 9, or what is now “middle” school) and I have a vivid memory of seeing Rocky Horror on it one afternoon after school before dad got home.
A year and a half or so later we moved to Miami and I met Kelvin Mead, who had an early Sony Betamax (!) and used it to tape Battlestar Galactica (which we quickly dubbed “Betastar”) and Doctor Who, which was just starting to roll out to US PBS stations. Kelvin’s Betamax was so early it ONLY recorded in Beta I or II, not III! IIRC the machine was around $1100-1200 and the tapes sold for ~$20 for the L-500s (which recorded an hour in Beta I; L-750s didn’t yet exist). The entire notion of being able to watch a TV show a) at any time you wanted and b) over and over again if desired was mind-boggling, and it’s hard to explain that to people now.
There was a show called “PopClips” prior to MTV, and I happened to catch it on Nickelodeon in late 1980/early 81 and enjoyed it. So the concept of MTV wasn’t a shock to me when it came around in late ’81.
My memory is more hazy about where I was when MTV debuted, but I believe I was back in Miami after a year or so in Orlando, and if that’s the case than I would have been at another friend’s house (a fellow named Dominic) for that auspicious occasion. On my return to Orlando, my circle of friends (including of course the Monk) revelled in the halcyon days of MTV and the “music video show” explosion that probably peaked with Night Flight and 120 Minutes, both of which by the point they were on were actually deliberately curating and playing the music that was back to being “obscure” after MTV made it big …
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chasinvictoria – Yeah, you were still in Miami when MTV happened. I don’t recall you discussing it with me but if you had it down there from day one, but it’s been 41 years. So you actually saw Popclips? I never watched Nickelodeon except at Dave’s house. We would have definitely been into that but I never saw it there. Sometimes after school Dave would watch that show that Freed Newman hosted. Can’t recall the name mow. Occasionally you would get UK bands appearing on it! I do recall Nickelodeon showing Brit TV concerts a half hour long occasionally with Duran Duran or Altered Images playing a concert! You came back to Orlando in …’82 possibly, but I definitely recall you being there by early ’83. I have memories of you attending the Murmurfest with Love Tractor. The night Jayne introduced you to Elizabeth.
I had to wait until 1990 [and the 15th anniversary ßetamax from Sony] until I had ßeta I capability, but by then it was ß Is hi-band! A.K.A. the GOD-VCR®! The remote control for that unit was like seeing a iPhone…17 years in advance! Best $1600 [+ tax] I ever spent! I’ll never forget the thrill of walking into the high end A/V store in Altamonte Springs, and special ordering the most expansive VCR in the consumer marketplace…that the salespeople there weren’t even aware of! Like walking into a shark den where I knew up front that there was no possible conceivable upsell they could try to throw at me! Game over.
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Night Flight and 120 Minutes are the reason my mp3 collection is so ridiculously huge these days. ;)
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Definitely an MTV kid here. I think we got it in early 1982 when our small New England town got wired for cable. The channel definitely informed my growing obsession with music. I could (and probably should) write a book about its personal influence on me, how it introduced me not only to different styles and genres but also expanded my knowledge. And most importantly, how it helped me find a social circle where I fit perfectly, surrounded by other music nerds.
I didn’t get around to actually taping any videos until the mid 80s, as our family didn’t have a VCR until probably 1985 or so. But that was right in time for me to start recording episodes of 120 Minutes in the next few years when that became my go-to for all things alternative.
And for the record, I still remember that the first MTV video I remember seeing was 38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely”. Heh.
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Jon Chaisson – You have memories of 38 special as your doorway to MTV??! My condolences…but you scoop me there in that I cannot remember what video I saw first on MTV. I have more intense memories of the proto-MTV syndicated programs that came a year or two before. But 120 Minutes did save me from watching a lot of Loverboy and Night Ranger clips!
I don’t remember the first music video I saw on MTV, but I do remember than when I saw Peter Gabriel’s “Shock The Monkey” for the first time (on MTV) I knew the world was never going to be the same.
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That was a groundbreaking video at the time. Very Bowie-influenced.
Hence, even the ground-breakers were still in the shadow of Bowie?
JT – Bowie was through breaking ground by 1980.
Not sure when i first saw MTV, as I was in college when it debuted in 1981 and had no real access to cable tv. But…I used to hang out at a new wave dance club in Binghamton NY during my college years, and they played videos on screens around the dance floor. The first video I have total recall of was The Vapors Turning Japanese (I guess that’d be 1980?). I probably haven’t watched it in decades, but it can unspool in my brain right now. What a game-changer for me.
“Friday Night Videos” was what my mother and I watched with religious regularity. Watching a band perform on “Midnight Special” or “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert” or “Austin City Limits” was one thing, but MUSIC VIDEOS? That was different!! I didn’t get MTV myself until 1986 (when I was able to get my own cable subscription) but had friends with cable and could watch it when I went over, but every Friday night we would get 90 minutes of our own fix. And referring to Mulcahy as the Orson Welles of music videos? Yeah, that’s accurate. I remember “Wild Boys” was…mind blowing.
HAHA – just reread this and watched the embedded videos – Wall of Voodoo and Mexican Radio – you can *bet* that song was played in AZ and CA….hey, the Mexican border was right next door – I so remember that song….odd, quirky and great! I did not know the history of the “I want my MTV” ad campaign – that looks like a New York centered story – that’s pretty far away from AZ back then, but it worked. As for the MTV icons, the one I remember the most is the one that showed a rocket ship and/or the man on the moon shot. As I ended up working in the space industry soon after, it held a special place in my heart.
Bridget – Ah yes, the MTV top of the hour teaser. Where we waited to see if they might name a band we actually liked! It was always pulse quickening if we heard J.J. Jackson say “Coming up this hour, mumble…mumble… and Simple Minds!” And we hoped that it was not the next thing before we had a tape cued up.