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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who shot the music video?

In 1982, I think it was, some friends invited me to dinner at their house. In those days cable TV systems carried only about 30 channels, but advances in technology were enabling them to expand. On my friends’ TV was something I had not seen before – Music Television, or MTV.

Within only two years, MTV and music videos had become prominent in American culture. Every cable system carried MTV. The super-stardom of Madonna and Michael Jackson sprang from music videos. People didn’t merely turn on MTV as background noise in their homes; they would actually watch it, hour after hour. Music videos offered something to everyone: dancing, fashion, beautiful bodies, humor, scenery, eroticism, film art, etc.

Meanwhile the “suits” noticed that music videos drove retail sales of CDs, which were just then entering the mainstream. Every new album had a video budget for the songs that were expected to chart. Tours mimicked the themes of videos.

And then, rather quickly, it was over.

MTV is still on cable, but neither it nor its offspring VH1 play videos much anymore. The entire music business has changed. Internet-enabled piracy destroyed – perhaps deservedly so – the retail sales of $14 CDs that cost 50 cents to produce. As the empires of music labels collapsed from the loss of easy profits, so did their production budgets for videos. Indie music and viral marketing became common.

Offhand I can’t think of another cultural and economic phenomenon that came so suddenly, took hold so strongly, and then vanished so quietly. I wonder what all the unemployed dancers, costume and set designers, cinematographers, stage hands, and film directors moved on to.

What were your favorite videos? Here are some of mine (not necessarily the best songs, but the best videos):
  • Madonna, Material Girl.
  • Madonna, Vogue.
  • Michael Jackson, The Way You Make Me Feel.
  • Michael Jackson, Thriller.
  • A-ha, Take on Me.
  • B-52s, Love Shack.
  • Dire Straits, Money for Nothing.
  • Chris Isaak, Wicked Game.
  • Robert Palmer, Addicted to Love.
  • Fiona Apple, Criminal.