the way the music died [home]

homewatch onlineartistsperfect stormdiscussion

the mtv effect
What is the power of MTV? And has it solidified a mindset within the industry that values marketing over substance? Here are the views of Leonard J. Beer, editor of Hits Magazine; Michael Guido, a music industry attorney; Danny Goldberg, chairman and CEO of Artemis Records; Jeff Leeds, reporter for the Los Angeles Times; and Touré, contributing editor for Rolling Stone.

photo of beer

Leonard J. beer
Editor-in-Chief, Hits Magazine

read the full interview

MTV is the most powerful force that's probably ever happened in the music business. You know, you can make a star overnight if they make the right video, and if the right magic happens, you know.

It also burns them out quicker. You know, you saw somebody like Pearl Jam who had the biggest videos on MTV for years, and then all of a sudden they decided they didn't want to be on MTV anymore because they felt it was hurting their long-term career. And whether it did or didn't was a very big issue at the time. They're the first group that I can remember that took a stand like that and it was very controversial when it happened.

And what happened to them?

They had a career for awhile. They still sell concert tickets. But they diminished, you know. I think they did need the MTV force behind them because they were one of the great MTV icons. …

And when somebody says, "Yes but it killed the album. Albums used to be all of side A, and then a song that would kick you over to side B and we're all about messages, and what MTV did--"

Well it does make them and break them quicker, but if it gets your attention to something, and you buy it, it's better than if you don't and it gives the artist that much more a chance if their album really has something to say and touches people. If it is just one good song and a bunch of filler, well, people find that out quick too and tell their friends. Again, it's a double-edged sword. …

photo of guido

Michael guido
Attorney, Carroll Guido & Groffman, LLP

read the full interview

I think now having the benefit of 20 years to look back on the impact of MTV, retrospective scrutiny of the impact of that -- and certainly I wouldn't say that we thought that at the time -- I think MTV was the beginning of the end for the recorded music business, in that it solidified a mindset that exalted marketing over substance.

It made the record industry a one-trick pony. It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn't have the three minutes you were over. The corner was turned at that point, I think, away from believing in the power of the music, and [to] believing in the power of the market. Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.

They're treating music as disposable because in fact they are getting disposable music. And it also brought about the end of the album artists. People are talking about right now, is the Internet the end of the album artist? Because now anybody can buy any track on the Internet.

But to me, what started with MTV and became about trying to sell a $16 CD based on three minutes of music, is what killed the album. …

Here's the deal. Some other people we speak to say, "No, no, no, MTV is good, wonderful, opened the doors to lots of music that otherwise would never have gotten played." …

… [I]n the beginning of MTV, when it was all music videos and a lot of the new bands were open to using this new medium, it probably did do those things. It's now with the ability to look back, not necessarily through the mist of time, but with some retrospective scrutiny, and say, "What happened? How did we get in the business of marketing, more than we're in the business of great music? How do we have an era where we go through manufactured artists, and only manufactured artists?"

Now, there have always been manufactured artists. There have always been artists that have been fronting a project for songwriters. But how did we get to the Milli Vanillis? How did we get to the boy band era? At the expense of other types of music. And to me that's a result of a continuum that began with MTV. It began about image over substance, marketing over substance. And I would maintain that position. ...

photo of goldberg

Danny goldberg
Chairman and CEO, Artemis Records

read the full interview

I think middle-aged people who are grumpy about the music business need to hang around with teenagers and see the way they react to MTV, the way they react to the iPod, the way they react to artists like OutKast and Pink… I don't think there's any emotional difference between the way teenagers process music today and the way they did when I was a teenager. I think it speaks to their inner emotions in a way that music uniquely can. Videos can be boring or exciting, and when they're exciting it's an art form, and when they're boring the music still can be exciting.

And I thank God for the music video channels because they're another way of getting people to hear music. And that they have enough of an audience that when they do hear music, if they like it, they respond and become fans and buy concert tickets and albums. I think that the emergence of the music video has just expanded the palette of tools available to artists to connect with an audience.

I know when I worked with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain cared as much about the videos as he did about the records. He wrote the scripts for them, he was in the editing room, and they were part of his art. And I think they stand up as part of his art, and I think that's true of the great artists today. Not every artist is a great artist and not every video is a good video, but in general having it available as a tool, to me, adds to the business. And I wish there had been music videos in the heyday of the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. I think they would've added to their creative contribution, not subtracted from it.

And the idea that it has taken us to this sort of three minutes and thirty seconds, or 2:19 second universe, that we walked away from in the `70s?

No, I don't believe that's true. I think that there's always been two different kinds -- at least two different kinds of music fans. There are people that just are into songs, and there are people that are into artists. You know, I don't think there was any more downloaded song than 50 Cent's last year, and yet it sold 9 million albums. So there were 9 million households that felt despite the fact that they had seen the video, despite the fact that they could get it online, that they wanted to hear the full statement that 50 Cent was making.

I don't think that MTV is a negative. I think the availability of illegal copying of music is subtracting from sales, but up until that phenomenon came along you had more than a decade of tremendous, explosive growth of album sales, during the time when MTV was maximizing the careers of people like Madonna and Prince and Duran Duran and all these other audio/visual stars.

So it's just objectively not true that MTV hurt the bond between people and artists, and their assessment of albums. They were associated with Thriller, greatest album seller in history, was also filled with very powerful videos. Michael Jackson's dancing and theatrics made him bigger, and made more people hear his album, not less people. I just think people who grumble about the media sometimes are more grumbling about their own relationship to music and not being objective about what's happening. …

photo of leeds

Jeff leeds
Reporter, Los Angeles Times

read the full interview

The very first couple of years, MTV came out -- I think there are two things that are sort of important to think about and remember. If you remember back in the time there were different radio formats than there are now. And there were still radio stations that played more into rock, and MTV was primarily kind of seen almost like a rock radio station. And was pretty white, and was pretty straightforward about that.

The other thing that's important to remember from a corporate standpoint is that it was such a small venture at the time that they had to beg the record companies for these videos. These very sort of cheap visual materials to send overseas to markets where they couldn't get the artist or what have you. And they, obviously, had all the clout, all the power at the time. So they would say to MTV, "Run this, we'll throw you a bone" or what have you.

And then a couple of things happened. One is that over time, actually very quickly, it was clear that there was a whole range of artists that MTV wasn't showing. The whole hip-hop movement was essentially about to explode and MTV was ultimately forced to start looking, start broadening out and start kind of incorporating hip-hop into their playlist. It's ironic, to when you think way back to 1981, because you know, now hip-hop is probably the most dominant force in music, and it takes up a pretty big chunk of their playlist, and has pretty much ever since then. So, I think it's sort of strange that they resisted that.

The other significant change is that MTV, and its parent company Viacom, have become so much more powerful as a cultural force, and as businesses. And for years now, the relationship has changed. It's not just a question of the record company saying, "Do this," you know, directing them. I think for awhile, the record companies saw MTV as an extension of their own marketing departments. It was just "We'll make a video, they'll air it. It's that simple."

But there was a point when that relationship started changing. As MTV became more powerful, really MTV was able to kind of make their own demands. To say, "Well, we're not going to play every video that you give us. We're going to make the decisions about that. We're going to say we really want this artist to appear at this time and so forth."

There's no question it's been a symbiotic sort of a thing. MTV has benefited from its relationship with the record companies and the record companies have benefited too. MTV has helped feed the success of artists that might not have made it otherwise. I think for the most part everyone's gotten something out of it.

But these days, the complaint I guess is that MTV has moved so far away from the mission of marketing and music, that the record companies don't really see that as a particularly powerful outlet for them anymore. They're still spending plenty of money on videos, and still doing whatever they can to get exposure on MTV. But it's just different from when they started.

Yes, exactly. And here's the thing about MTV that a lot of these guys tell us, that in the beginning the artists [felt], "Hey, this is cool. This is a chance to strut my stuff," [via] another avenue. Then they started to say, "Hey wait a minute, my audience, when they listen to my song on the radio, they imagine what Penny Lane looks like. Now, I've got to show them what Penny Lane looks like in my video," part one. So the kind of fun of it is going away. Second impact: "It's all about singles; it's not about albums and deep cuts in a business that was going to go that way anyway. It's about three minutes; it's not about 40 minutes, so we're not making big album stories anymore." ...

There are plenty of criticisms you can make of MTV. And I know many of them, record companies believe, are valid. But I'm not sure that it's fair to say that it's ruined the business. There are numerous examples of artists who really didn't have a lot of success on the radio or through other sort of market [venues] before MTV ultimately embraced them.

Eminem is probably the biggest star in the world right now. If you talk to his record label, I think they might tell you that the very first single off the very first Eminem album was very difficult to break at radio. Hip-hop-oriented radio stations weren't initially that favorable toward the single and so forth. MTV played a very big role in breaking Eminem. And there's a ton of other examples.

I just don't know that you could say that it's been entirely bad. I think that's kind of a generalization that probably doesn't quite capture the significance of it. I think it has become a burden for a certain type of artist that just is not flashy, and is not visually oriented. I think that's probably true. But there's a whole other scene that's happened that wouldn't be what it is without MTV. …

photo of toure

Michael toure
Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone

read the full interview

What was the importance, in the beginning, of the rise of MTV to music?

It's difficult to look back on the beginning of MTV, because now it's so damn inevitable. Just the same way I'm like, "Mom when you guys went out and you didn't have ATMs, what did you do?" Like when there was no MTV, like what did we do? I mean it's so obvious. Music, videos, kids love it.

When Michael Jackson came out with this amazing video, "Thriller," that changed the nature of videos. Everybody wanted to see it. And that was the first time that there was a sort of appointment moment with MTV. And I remember calling my friend and saying, "I'm going over at 12 o'clock, and we're going to sit in front of the TV until 'Thriller' comes on because I've got to see this thing."

I think lots of teenagers were doing that across the country with "Thriller." And that was the first moment that MTV really sucked us in and we started to say, "Whoa." I mean you could just put it on at a party -- you know, a real party where there's hundreds of people, or you know a little party where there's eight or nine of you just sitting around -- just put on MTV and just let it roll. And you've got a party.

As the power of MTV grew, as they grew, as they became more popular and therefore more powerful, tell me historically what took place. … What happened with that power shift, if you know?

I don't exactly know. I mean I think you can look at MTV as the most powerful radio station in America. You know, so, you can get 30 or 40 spins a week on MTV, it's just as good as getting it on a hundred radio stations in America. So once you had that sort of a shift, you know, then MTV is more powerful. Like the record labels have to do what MTV wants.

So if you can expand, what's that power mean? In the world of music, what does power mean?

In an era where MTV is dominant, as opposed to radio, you get of course artists who are visually appealing. So somebody like Britney Spears would probably have a much more difficult time in the pre-video era. I mean generally, "video artist" is seen as a pejorative. But, you know, Michael Jackson is very much a video artist. Madonna is very much a video artist.

But, you know, many artists would just not be able to survive. Certain artists who demand, you know, a five-minute solo to make their music matter, would not be able to survive. You know, people who weren't that good looking would not be able to survive.

So much more is put on how you look versus just how you sound. Which in the music industry does not spell good music. …

But even as they grew and expanded, and became more powerful, MTV was sort of a clearinghouse in a lot of ways, of music. Do you have any point of view on that? … Is that good or bad?

In the pre-download era, MTV is the prime portal for most people to discover new music. Perhaps you get it from a friend here and there, but for the most part MTV is the big stage, almost like the New York Times, the paper of record, you know, the sort of music portal of record. When it starts getting spins on MTV, then it matters. …

related links


home · introduction · artists' stories · interviews · perfect storm · inside the music business
poll: how do you get your music? · discussion · producer's chat · press reaction · tapes & transcripts
credits · privacy policy · FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted may 27, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
headphone photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation