Soon after MTV went on the air in the summer of 1981, the word was that videos were going to revolutionize the record business.
The new, three-to-five-minute promotional clips would not only cause television to replace radio as the dominant medium for selling records, but an artist's look might become as important as the music.
For a while, videos seemed well on the way to fulfilling that promise. The success in the early and mid-'80s of such colorful, video-conscious acts as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Duran Duran did indeed suggest the important thing in pop was as much what you heard as what you saw.
But what now?
Have videos, as some rapturously predicted, replaced radio as the chief means of selling acts? And has appearance become as important as music as a basis for signing acts?
Based on interviews with a variety of music-industry executives on the eve of Wednesday's sixth annual MTV Video Awards ceremony at the Universal Amphitheatre, the answer is that, yes, video is continuing to gain strength as a marketing tool, but, no, video hasn't replaced radio as the chief means of selling records.
The negative aspect of the expanded music video market is the waste factor. More are being made but, conversely, more aren't being played.
"Every record company has a shelf full of videos that have never seen the light of day and never will," pointed out Jo Bergman, vice president of Warner Bros. video department. "The problem is that many of them should never have been made--for whatever reason. Some are made too late or too early (in terms of drawing attention to the single). Some aren't very good and don't get played for that reason. Some are made just because the artist's contract calls for a video."
Added Jeff Gold, A&M; Records' vice president of marketing and creative services: "In the early days of music video, things were different. The channels were starved for programming. It was easier to get videos played. Not as many music videos were made and the ones that were made were played somewhere. If a label made 50 music videos in a year in those days, all of them would be shown somewhere. Now if you make 50, maybe 15 might get aired."
Often a record company can justify making music videos for another reason: They can be vital marketing tools in foreign markets, creating an image for artists who've never appeared there. "These days companies sign artists with worldwide potential," Bill Berger, executive vice president of Arista Records, said. "They need videos to market artists in places like Europe and the Orient. Even if the video doesn't get played in the United States, it might get played in some foreign country and help sales over there."
All of the more than a dozen industry executives interviewed agreed that music video is continuing to gain importance, thanks to the increased penetration by cable TV into American homes and the rise in recent years of two additional all-music cable channels, VH-1, which aims at an older pop-rock crowd than MTV, and Black Entertainment Television, which specializes in soul and rap styles.
But, executives were quick to point out, music videos alone still cannot create a hit record.
"Radio airplay is still the most important (device) for selling records," said Bob Willcox, vice president of marketing for Columbia Records. "That's because it still offers us the biggest audience."
Videos have encouraged record companies to think more visually--though, they insist, not at the expense of the music.
"Since music videos came along, the look of an act has become much more important than it ever was," said Ron McCarrell, Capitol Records' vice president of marketing. "But make no mistake--music is still the most important thing. An act can have the right look and come across great in the videos, but if the music isn't good, the act won't get very far. You still have to consider radio and having the right look doesn't do you any good on radio."
Video, in the early days of MTV, brought new excitement to the record industry. After passing the $4-billion-a-year mark in sales in the late '70s, the industry had been in a serious slump, with sales falling about $500,000,000 between 1978 and 1979.
The drop-off, industry observers now believe, was due to more than just general problems with the economy. Teen-agers, long the most active buying group, seemed alienated. They had burned out on disco and were having trouble finding new heroes as radio stations tended to stay with veteran rockers that the kids found tame and boring.
But video provided these teens with a new wave of heroes. MTV was their own private world. Parents grumbled about videos, dismissing them as silly gimmicks to sell records. They couldn't believe that anyone could sit in their rooms watching those videos all day and night on MTV--as their kids were doing.
Eventually, however, many adults became converts. The audience for videos expanded, encouraging record companies to begin making them for artists in other genres--not just for teen-oriented music. This adult interest also led to the formation of the additional cable music channels.
In July, according to Nielsen Media Research figures, 56.4% of the nation's TV households were connected to cable, as opposed to 39.3% in 1983. MTV is still the cable-music-channel champ, reaching 47 million homes--up from just 20 million homes five years ago.
VH-1--owned by MTV Networks, also the parent company of MTV--claims it can be seen in 34 million cable homes, up from just 14 million homes three years ago. BET, which has steadily increased in stature and prominence in the last few years, is in 23 million homes.
While MTV is stronger than ever, it's not what it used to be. Instead of simply playing videos all day and night, MTV now sees itself as an entertainment network, devoting much of its time to a variety of programming, including the "Remote Control" game show, a comedy show and programs like "Yo! MTV Raps" and "Headbangers Ball," which spotlight certain genres.
Still, MTV continues to be the most powerful cable music channel, especially for the rock audience. The competition--VH-1 and BET--pick up where MTV leaves off.
Explained Jeff Rowe, VH-1's vice president of programming: "We program what's hip for the (over 25) group, the best of Top 40, the best of AOR (album-oriented rock). This audience grew up on rock 'n' roll but is too old for what's being played on MTV. Their tastes have changed somewhat but they're used to watching music clips--so they tune in VH-1."
Black artists too have benefited from the changes in the music-video scene.
"Three years ago there was no place for black artists on video," said Capitol's McCarrell. "It was tougher to justify a video for a black artist. But now more black videos are being made since there's an outlet for them--an outlet that gets results."
These added forums have encouraged record companies to make videos for more artists than in the past.
MTV's statistics show the significant increase in the number of music clips since the early '80s. In May, 1982, music videos were made to promote 28 of the singles in the Top 100 songs on the Billboard sales chart in 1982. During a recent week, all but three of the Top 100 singles had accompanying videos.
Another indication of the rise in clip productivity--the number of music videos made--is how many are submitted to MTV. "The difference between now and years ago is staggering," said Lee Masters, MTV's executive vice president and general manager. "In the early '80s we used to screen five or six a week. Now we're getting 30 to 40 a week, sometimes more."
For the record companies, there's a downside to all this--the costs of making videos are way up. It's an expense the companies share with the artists.
McCarrell explained how the system works: "The companies front the costs of the videos in nearly all cases. If the artist winds up selling enough records to make a profit, the record company can recoup some of that expense--maybe as much as half. But the deals vary with the artists."
Arista's Berger pointed out that most videos now cost between $50,000 and $125,000, while the average cost of a video in the early '80s was about $25,000.
Lamented McCarrell: "There was a time when you might do two videos for $18,000. That's out of the question now. Those bargain days are long gone."
Music videos, the executives pointed out, can create an excitement and a mystique about an artist like nothing else can. Look at what they did for Michael Jackson, enhancing his stardom by magnifying his image and blanketing the country with it.
Music videos can also expand an artist's audience by reaching fans who don't go to concerts or kids in out of the way places who don't have easy access to major concerts.
Alan Niven, manager of Guns N' Roses, the hottest new hard-rock band in years, noted:
"When you talk to kids out there in certain parts of the country, they'll tell you their total exposure to music is watching MTV. For a band like Guns N' Roses, that MTV audience is the core audience. Music videos expose kids to a band and inspire them to buy records by creating visual excitement. Without music videos, there's a lot of fans who might not be turned on to Guns N' Roses."
While music videos can be influential in all areas of pop, they seem to have the most impact in the areas of hard rock/heavy metal and rap.
Columbia's Willcox said videos are important in both of these areas because MTV often leads the way by playing videos of singles even before the records are played on radio. That early TV video exposure, in fact, can in some cases influence what's eventually played on the radio.
In the last year, MTV has helped break Living Colour--a black rock band whose album, "Vivid," started very slowly until it began getting the TV exposure, and Winger, the hot new metal band. Poison and Great White, two other metal bands, also got massive boosts from music videos.
Once an underground phenomenon, rap has become increasingly mainstream, partly thanks to video exposure on MTV and BET. Tone Loc and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince are among the rappers who have benefited from video airplay. In addition to black youngsters, rap appeals to white hard-rock and metal fans who are attracted to its raunchy, rebellious qualities.
"Music videos are now indispensable to rap," Arista's Berger explained. "That MTV show ('Yo! MTV Raps') has really helped. About 10 or 12 months ago, you might not have made a rap video because it didn't seem necessary. Now, we've seen the impact a rap video can have on both sales and image. If you have the budget, you make the rap video. It can have a big effect on that young target audience--both black and white--that's into rap."
What's next for music videos?
Possibly the emergence of another music channel or two to expand the market even further. Also, record companies are so desperate for alternatives to the main music channels that they'll probably develop some new outlets of their own. But the music video, some executives speculate, may not be invincible.
"Maybe something that hasn't been developed yet will replace music videos in the next decade," Warner Brothers' Bergman speculated. "Technology is changing things so fast. VCRs and CDs and music videos came about in this decade. The way things have been changing, if something came along and replaced music videos I don't think many people would be surprised."