As mentioned last week, today marks the start of the Monday Music Video here at Morgan on Media. And while the selected video isn’t subject to any particular rhyme or reason as a rule, there’s really only one video that can be chosen to kick things off. MMV isn’t connected in any way to MTV, except thematically, but it seems only appropriate to begin with the same song they began with. So here are the Buggles, with “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
The video itself is an interesting thing to look at. Created in 1979, it still has something of an early-to-mid-80s feel to it. Vocalist Trevor Horne is shown in high-contrast several times, ghosted over the video. There’s a very experimental feel to the whole thing, which is perhaps appropriate. While it is not the first music video by a long shot, it was still made while music videos were just beginning to catch on, and the idea of treating them as an artform in and of themselves was fairly novel. The retro-futuristic costumes in some scenes plays into the general lament of the future overwriting the past. Also, as a point of interest, note Hans Zimmer making a brief appearance on the keyboards; Zimmer would go on to score many Hollywood films. Thus, for at least one person, video gave the radio star a new career.
The song laments the way technology — video in particular — has had a detrimental effect on radio as an entertainment medium. That the Buggles “put all the blame on VCR” suggests it’s not just music videos they’re talking about, but the way home video made all visual media replayable in a way that, until then, was a feature exclusive to records and audio cassettes. Of course, there’s a huge amount of self-aware irony in the way they’re making this lament in a music video themselves.
Music videos were originally played as promotional items on weekly music television programs — shows such as the British Top of the Pops began cycling them in as supplements to their in-studio performances during the 1970s. Eventually, a few shows started to be dedicated exclusively to videos, such as the 1979 American program, Video Concert Hall. MTV debuted at midnight on August 1, 1981; though the video was roughly two years old at the time, they started with “Video Killed the Radio Star”. The new network was dedicated entirely to music videos; I’d love to know just how large their library was at the time they launched.
Eventually, of course, MTV abandoned music videos in favor of cheap programming such as The Real World (and even trashier examples today). Thus one could say that reality TV killed the video star. But it could be argued that video isn’t exactly blameless itself. Part of the original lament, after all, is that video by its very nature hinders the popularity of the musician. It sounds like old fogeyism, and to a certain extent it is, but not entirely. During the days when radio was king, B-sides were played as often as the single; sometimes more so, if the DJs took a liking to it. Sometimes a track that wasn’t even meant as a single would wind up getting significant airplay. A band and their producers could find themselves looking at a surprise hit, one they had never counted on. This can’t happen with music videos. There’s no such thing as a B-side video, nor a “deep cut” video. Every music video is something that was intended as a single. What’s more, videos aren’t cheap, so the studio has to ensure that song is a hit by focusing on it. A surprise hit is OK when all the songs are technically equal in cost, but if one has an expensive video attached to it, it had better be the one to make it big.
All this has the effect of encouraging viewers to think in terms of singles instead of albums. One-hit wonders, which were always around, became more numerous — or at least more notable. (How many people can name a second song by the Buggles?) Even artists who were successful long term became known more for individual songs than albums. Could the Moody Blues put together a concept album in the days when the single was not just king, but the whole reason for putting out an album? More than one band has noted that they were required to write a song for an album specifically because their label didn’t see a potential single on it (the Warrant song “Cherry Pie” came about because of this, and is far from the only one. Worth noting a lot of times the bands aren’t so fond of these songs.)
Technology advancing on just drove it home even harder. Mix tapes grew in popularity right alongside the growth of music videos. Studios cashed in on the idea with their own compilation albums; no need to buy an artist’s entire album, here’s one of just the hits from several different artists. An entire album only of singles. Then came the internet, and Napster and other file-sharing sites. People could get a single of their choice without an album at all, with the only cost being to their own sense of ethics. The RIAA is still struggling some with the notion, but eventually got in on the act themselves, licensing single MP3 purchases through a number of sites. Nowadays one can, perfectly legitimately, build a music collection entirely out of singles. The album isn’t dead… but the requirement to adhere to one is. You can sometimes see older musicians, such as Alice Cooper and Tom Petty, lament this. Not because they necessarily want people to buy an entire album when they only want a single… but because they miss the days when people always wanted an entire album, when people wanted to see what else an artist did. There are still a lot of fans out there who legitimately do, but when album sales are dropping and MP3 sales are rising, it’s hard not to conclude that there are many music fans who only care about the hit.
Video may not have killed the radio star, but it was part of the mob that put it in the hospital. It wasn’t even the one saying “Hey, let’s get that guy” (payola and the Billboard charts arguably started the problem), but it was in there. And the irony is, as the album sales decline, it becomes harder to fund a video for a single. Singles, after all, don’t cost as much as entire albums, and thus don’t garner as much revenue. The gain in sales from people who would have skipped the album entirely is unlikely to be as much as the loss from people who would have bought the album just for the one song and some curiosity. A video has to be that much more cost-effective, that much more heavily promoted to be effective now. The whole dynamic is changing. And with videos being paid content, it is perhaps unsurprising that MTV and VH1 have decided to largely go with cheaper content. In a way… video killed the video star.