A brief history of music videos

In 1981, MTV was the original startup: a company whose product didn’t quite exist yet. Despite launching as a 24/7 music television channel, in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum describe how initially the network had only “about a hundred” promotional clips, as the music videos “in inventory, [were] mostly by marginal or unpopular British or Australian bands.” MTV was forced to go to record labels and ask them to make these videos for free, which they would then go on to screen.

Fast forward to the present day. TV is in decline and it’s taking MTV along with it – in 2015, Nielsen Data suggested the channel had lost 40% of their 12-34 year old audience in the previous five years. But let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean young people’s appetite for videos has waned – a report from 2015 found that millennials spend most time online watching videos (admittedly this is tied with their other #1 favorite activity – spending time on social media). Meanwhile a lot has changed since the 1980s, including the prestige factor of music videos – heavyweight directors are more and more eager to get involved in the industry, while the technological advances offered by the internet means music videos are increasingly experimental.


One of the earliest examples of music videos that we are farmiliar with today. Bessie Smith’s music video for ‘St. Louis Blues’ was shown in theatres in 1932.

Tony Bennett’s song “Stranger in paradise” was filmed in Hyde Park, London and was played across UK and US television stations in 1956. Bennett later claimed that his music video was the very first example of using music videos on TV, this would lead on to create channels like MTV and Top of the pops.

The Beatles were eager to give their fans the fullest audiovisual experience possible, recording promotional clips that could be shown abroad. They also starred in two full-length films, Help! and A Hard Day’s Night (the songs of which appeared on side one of their album of the same name). Other bands would follow their lead and also make promotional clips in the ’60s and ’70s. David Bowie was also an early-adopter, releasing the video for “Space Oddity” in 1969.

Probably the most significant music video of this era was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which debuted in 1975. When “Bohemian Rhapsody” rocketed to the top of the charts in Britain, the band were on tour and couldn’t perform on the British music show, Top of the Pops. They recorded this, for the time, special-effects-packed video to play in their absence. On the video’s 40th anniversary, Rolling Stone noted “Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.”

MTV Launches (1981)
The music video giant launched at 12.01AM Eastern Time on 1 August 1981 with The Buggles’ video, which had first aired two years previously on Top of the Pops in lieu of a live performance. The message of The Buggles’ hit — that advances in technology could pre-empt a cultural shift — proved prescient when the pop artists who created the most talked-about videos (Madonna, Michael Jackson) began to dominate the musical landscape. This climate of publicity in exchange for great visuals was established by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1983.

“Thriller” isn’t just a seriously great video. It acts as the origin story for what we recognize as music videos for major artists today: high production values (by the standards of the time), Hollywood directors (“Thriller”’s director John Landis was also behind movies like An American Werewolf In London and the Eddie Murphy vehicle Trading Places) and a clear narrative. It was also ludicrously expensive to make in comparison to the other videos of the time — it cost over $500,000 to make at a time when most videos cost in the tens of thousands to produce.

The full 13-minute video debuted on MTV as part of an exclusive deal MTV struck with MJ’s team and was played 3-5 times a day, something which increased MTV’s audience tenfold. In 2009, the video was inducted into the National Film Registry of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. Despite this coming over 20 years after the video’s initial release, it marked the first time a music video had received this honor.

Just three years later a video dropped that while less-beloved these days, still made history. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 video for “Sledgehammer” won nine awards at the MTV Music Awards in 1987 — a total that remains, as yet, unsurpassed — and it’s also the most played clip in the history of the channel. The video’s use of claymation, pixilation and stop motion animation was considered avant-garde at the time.

Decline of MTV’s Music Programming (1992–)
After The Real World launched to insane viewing figures, MTV decided to take a chance on reality TV. They introduced growing numbers of reality TV shows and started phasing out music shows. As I Want My MTV’s Rob Tannenbaum told NPR “It’s very easy to trace the line from The Real World to Snooki…It’s an alcoholic, crooked line all the way there, but MTV quickly realized and learned that narrative television, even reality TV, rated better than music videos.”

Resurgence Of Music Videos (2005–)

In 2005, former PayPal co-workers Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim created YouTube, which they initially intended to be a way people could share their home videos with each other. In October 2006, YouTube was acquired by Google and in 2009, Vevo was born. It was the product of debate between Universal Music Group (UMG) and Google over content licensing for YouTube. Vevo meant record labels could actually make money on their videos being streamed — small ads often appear on the bottom of the video as well as links to buy the music you’re listening to.

The Vevo deal (along with the other deals YouTube has made with content providers) means that it’s easy to find music videos for your favorite acts while YouTube still seems to be growing in popularity — in December 2015 it overtook Google for the first time to take the world’s second most visited website ranking (Facebook is at the #1 spot). Arguably this could be the reason for the rise in exciting, innovative and experimental music videos in the past few years: if YouTube remains at the top of the pile in terms of visits, it makes sense for record companies to focus on videos since it becomes one of the most valuable promotional tools an artist has at their disposal.

Interactive Music Videos Go Mainstream (2010-2015)
How do you hold a generation whose brains are being eroded by the Internet’s attention? Coax them into participating. Between 2010 and 2015, any number of high-profile music acts made the most of the internet by making interactive videos (often which had to be accessed via their own website). Arcade Fire, The Streets, Bob Dylan, Etienne De Crecy, Death Grips, Bombay Bicycle Club and Tanlines all made music videos that demanded audience engagement. Thanks to the trend, we also got the world’s first shoppable music video, courtesy of FKi, Iggy Azalea and Diplo’s “I Think She Ready”.

However, arguably the most powerful use of the interactive music video came in 2016 with Usher, Nas and Bibi Bourelly’s “Chains” video. It opens on the statement “While racial injustice keeps killing, society keeps looking away.” The Tidal video uses facial recognition technology to gauge when you’re looking at the screen, meaning you’re prompted to keep your gaze on the victims of police violence that appear in the video, with the message “Don’t look away” appearing and the music stopping when you look elsewhere.

Virtual-Reality Music Videos Become Big (2015)
In 2015, The Weeknd, Björk and U2 all gave us music videos that harnessed elements of virtual reality, with Björk holding her video release in an art gallery and handing out Oculus Rift headsets to watch the 360-degree YouTube video on.

The internet has made shorter, punchier visuals even more important than they were circa MTV’s heyday as a music channel; with YouTube, musicians aren’t just up against TV shows, but are pitted against a seriously diverse range of content, from cat videos to comedy to movie trailers. Technology like the iPhone means that one doesn’t need to have funding and a camera crew to make a legitimate video. It also means that big name artists are up against hordes of garage bands armed with little more than a great idea, a smartphone and a few filming accessories. This could be why bigger artists are going for more and more out-there ideas when it comes to their videos — it’s increasingly harder to stand out in a sea of content.

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