What happened to MTV?

The rise and fall of MTV: how television revolutionized the music industry

„Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll”. Those were the words that launched the tv program that would become the biggest influence on pop culture in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. Music Television was launched on August 1st, 1981. It intended to be a music video showcase platform as a way of promoting the newest albums of that time to the masses.

MTV brought a revolutionary format to the table: music in video form – something that was completely unheard of in the age of vinyl records. Naturally, the program was an instant success. For six years straight, MTV consisted of 100% music-related programming. The channel played music videos for 24 hours straight, seven days a week. People went crazy over this new way of enjoying music; commercially, MTV had a perfect start. 

 Madonna in the 80's
The 80’s

Many 80’s bands got famous because MTV featured their singles, but this also had a negative impact on the more alternative bands. MTV created a mainstream that didn’t exist before. Many independent artists lost record deals with money-hungry labels who turned their whole focus on releasing hit singles that would be featured in the main rotation on MTV. Concept albums lost popularity due to their incompatibility with the new format. With 10-minute-long songs tied together under a broader concept, most progressive rock bands had no chance of being featured on the program. Some of them remained true to their style, while others sold out.

The channel’s focus on rock music left many black artists out of regular rotation, with them not fitting into their agenda. Hip-hop and RnB would only be seen a decade later on the program. MTV’s racist attitude was famously criticized by David Bowie in an interview when he started questioning MTV’s decision-making process when it comes to music video rotation. „I’m floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on MTV. Why is that?”, „The only few black artists one does see are on at about 2:30 in the morning until 6:00,” Bowie continued, „Very few are featured prominently during the day.”

The color barrier was finally broken in 1983, when MTV played Michael Jackson’s „Billy Jean” video, marking a huge step forward for the channels diversity.

In the 90‘s, MTV started playing more Hip-Hop and also a few less mainstream rappers at the time, like Snoop Dogg and Tupac, diversifying their music catalog even more.

                    Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit music video
The 90‘s and the „Smells Like Teen Spirit” phenomenon

Nirvana, along with the entire alternative rock space, was launched into the mainstream with the 1991 airing of the music video for „Smells Like Teen Spirit„, the main single of their legendary „Nevermind” album. No one expected that song to blow up, but it brought the Seattle grunge scene into the public eye, opening the doors for many other great bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. This influenced everything from the music itself to fashion and to other forms of art, creating the grunge aesthetic.

MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged, one of the channel‘s most iconic programs, debuted in 1989, with the first episodes featuring some of the biggest bands and artists of that time: Aerosmith, Elton John, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton. The program showcased rock bands playing in an acoustic, stripped-down, unplugged setting, creating some of the most iconic live albums and live renditions of famous songs.

The cover of Eric Clapton's "Unplugged" album

Perhaps the most iconic unplugged performance is that of  Nirvana in 1993. The concert is generally accepted to be a perfect performance, maybe even the band’s greatest concert ever. Nirvana’s grunge sound turned out to be perfect for an acoustic setting, showcasing the bands raw talent and Kurt Cobain‘s fantastic voice. With all that said, the performance was actually set to be a disaster. Kurt was sick and almost unable to perform, the band was struggling with rehearsals and the show’s setlist only featured six of their songs with only one hit single, „Come As You Are”. The rest of the songs were covers of old folk and indie rock songs, the most iconic being David Bowie’s „The Man Who Sold The World”. But, in the end, it all worked out and the world got to see what was one of the most important concerts in rock ‘n’ roll history.

                   Nirvana live on MTV Unplugged in New York, 1993
The 2000’s: MTV’s downfall

By the late 90‘s, rock music started losing popularity with Hip-Hop, RnB, and electronic-influenced music like Daft Punk taking the lead. However, it was pop music that completely took over MTV’s catalog in the early 2000’s with Brittney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls shifting the channel’s genre. 

                      The Spice Girls at the MTV Music Awards

The 2000’s also mark MTV’s unfortunate departure from music videos, turning into an entertainment channel. Comedy shows, talk shows, and cheap soap operas were now in the spotlight; long gone were the days of constant day-and-night music video streaming. MTV was starting to lose popularity, with music streaming services like Napster (an early version of Spotify) and YouTube taking over the digital music industry. This is a big reason why they stopped focusing on music videos, namely their struggle to remain profitable.

„Music” Television?

And how is MTV doing today? Well… it’s disappointing, to say the least. For the past few years, the channel has been exclusively airing its „Ridiculousness” program which streams supposedly funny fail video compilations. The „Music” in Music Television is now long gone. 

MTV is a perfect representation of iconic evil: capitalizing on exploited artists, being discriminatory against certain social groups, and then selling out, turning into a cheap entertainment program. The channel cannot, under any circumstance, be viewed as ethical. However, MTV’s influence on pop culture is undeniable and will forever be considered part of the golden years of music.

„I want my, I want my, I want my MTV”,
Money For Nothing, Dire Straits