On Aug. 1, 1981 the words “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rock ‘n’ Roll!” launched the brave new world of music videos, and MTV was officially born.

The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” inaugurated the upstart network, eerily foreshadowing what would become the most powerful pop culture and music medium in the world for the next quarter century. MTV created the video star, providing an entire sector of creatives the outlet to translate and merge the emotional messaging of music to visual storytelling, often catapulting faceless musicians into international superstardom. There were myriads of creative individuals who had MTV to thank for their careers, and not just artists—the network offered their platform for a range of directors, cinematographers and executives alike to launch and showcase their unique vision in rapid-fire 3:30 clips. At times dangerous and often risqué, MTV forcefully broadcast the spirit of artistic freedom with no apologies. And for many fans the world over, it became impossible to hear songs without conjuring up the memorable moving images that accompanied their release—MTV had succeeded in altering the way the world experienced music forever.

In short time, MTV airplay became the crucial endorsement to credibility and a key factor in commercial success for record releases, often championing little-known
bands and introducing independent artists to the masses. But soon, bigger artists and major labels shrewdly used the artform to manipulate their fans and the media alike, often employing massive production budgets, celebrity actors and big time directors to create a “story” around their story. Early videos exemplified the premeditated use of shock and lavish spending indulgences to get the message across.

Through the '90s, it became commonplace for record labels to spend upwards of $300,000 on a single video for relatively unknown artists and north of $1 million a clip for superstars, effectively locking out those independents with smaller pockets. MTV, in turn, leveraged their iron-clad hold on the audience to feed their machine via “world premiere” exclusivity on videos to block burgeoning competition while promising coveted airtime and promotion in exchange for loyalty. This was the only game in town, for labels never knew with any certainty whether their sizable investment into videos would end up on the air or in the trashcan. MTV ratings skyrocketed, and the brand became ubiquitous worldwide.

But the perfect storm took shape in the form of increased competition of the Internet, a rapid cultural addiction to reality TV, and the plummeting cost of high- quality, digital media equipment. So when MTV bet on half-hour programming and their wholly owned MTV Productions rather than continuing to commit to high- volume, bandwidth-eating (and non-asset building) content supplied by labels, the playing field changed dramatically. While shows like “The Real World”, “Laguna Beach” and “The Jersey Shore” grabbed precious airtime, video budgets shrank and many artists took to handheld cameras, MySpace, and ultimately YouTube in 2005 as a means of reaching fans directly, all while maintaining creative control over their message. “Viral videos” became the catch phrase, and artists like Ok Go! reached a massive international audience using high-concept, low-dollar films that entertained, thereby galvanizing an audience that shared their work for them via the Internet rather than the confined space of television.

The healthy marriage of video and song is more powerful and effective than ever, even with MTV’s relevance and importance no longer a factor. So while the platform and vehicle for delivering the message evolves, the impact and consumption only grows in strength and voraciousness. Today, a fifth-grader can shoot and edit a video on an iPhone, visual effects software is accessible to all, and apps like flipagram make mini-movies in a flash. The Internet has beem, and will always be, the great equalizer where ingenuity and creativity sets the bar on quality, not the size of the budget. Artists are not limited in the scope of their offerings, utilizing live footage, lyric videos and their own channels to feed their fans for pennies on the dollar. YouTube has become the No. 1 outlet worldwide for consumers to hear music, solidifying the bond between the two artforms for the foreseeable future.

So the catchphrase “I Want My MTV!” may be dead, but imagination has thrived because of it. YouTube has yet to establish their own battlecry phrase, but perhaps they just prefer to let the videos do the talking.



Jeff Rabhan

Jeff Rabhan has worked in virtually all areas of the music industry and has helped guide the careers of international superstars across all genres of popular music. His clients have garnered more than a dozen Grammy Awards, sold more than 100 million records, and generated more than $1 billion in global receipts. He started his career as a music journalist at Rolling Stone and SPIN, then held executive positions at Atlantic Records and Elektra Records before transitioning into artist management. He currently chairs the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.