How MTV changed the face of music videos

Maria Vole 21 January 2022

40 years ago MTV burst onto television screens and introduced music videos as genuine artistic mediums. Things haven't been the same since

2021 marked the 40-year anniversary of the launch of MTV. When the music channel first debuted, it changed the music industry and was a main contributor to the culture and identity of an entire generation.

But a lot has changed over the last few decades—and so, it’s time for a retrospective look at the history of music videos, how they’ve evolved over time, and what might be next for the medium. 

First, let’s go back to where it all started. Back in 1981, the idea of starting a new television channel devoted only to music videos and content related to music was revolutionary, and MTV came on the scene with a bang.

A new concept was born, and following its launch at midnight on August 1, 1981, MTV quickly grew in popularity due to its young and fresh vibe, cool and camera-friendly VJs and dedication to showing the best and most popular music videos of the day. 

It seems appropriate that the first music video of MTV’s debut broadcast was “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles. Though music videos had been around for many years, the launch of MTV revolutionised the medium.

The concept behind MTV was simple—show music videos and content related to music all day long, every day—and it worked phenomenally. The golden age of MTV lasted from the early 1980s to around 1992, and in its heyday it had a massive impact on the music landscape.

The exterior of the MTV TRL studios in Manhattan, New York

MTV quickly became the main platform for artists to promote new music, and the increasing cultural significance of the channel led to bigger budgets and more interesting and creative music videos being produced. Inventive artists like Michael Jackson and the brands behind them began to re-imagine what a music video could be, and the visual medium began to play a more central part of music marketing. 

For many, the 1980s and ‘90s represents the most interesting stage in music video history. With budgets to spend, a number of revolutionary music videos were released. Produced in the 1980s, Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” and a-ha’s creative “Take On Me” represents music videos that were hugely influential at the time and which cemented MTV as a cultural force. There’s something powerful about visuals and imagery being combined with music, and visual storytelling quickly became an integral part of music creation. 

"For many, the 1980s and ‘90s represents the most interesting stage in music video history"

The music landscape of the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s was deeply intertwined with MTV and other TV channels dedicated to showing music videos, interviews with bands and artists, and other content related to music. Artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Nirvana, David Bowie and many more owe a lot of their success to their popular and far-reaching music videos, the launch of which were huge events for music fans—millions of people would tune into MTV at the same time to catch the premiere of new videos by big stars.

However, MTV didn’t make much money from showing music videos 24/7, and people began to lose interest in this type of content amid the rise of the internet and online music streaming services in the early 2000s. Sensing change in the air, MTV gradually shifted their main programming away from music-related content, capitalising on the growing popularity of reality TV. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by MTV (@mtv)

As music industry revenues began to decrease over the years, the budgets for music videos were cut, and many videos produced were quite basic and boring. Despite music videos seemingly losing their magic, many bands and artists maintained their interest in visuals as a powerful tool for adding meaning, purpose or fun to a piece of music.

Some bands took matters into their own hands, with a notable example being OK Go’s “Here it Goes Again”, a creative low-budget video featuring a tightly choreographed treadmill dance routine. Self-produced and released on YouTube in 2006, which was then a new, up-and-coming site, the homemade music video became a pop phenomenon and one of the first viral videos. 

"The enduring power of music videos is such that most of us can name several videos that are etched into our brain"

Across the music industry, the use of videos and visual components has in recent years been influenced by marketing budgets as well as the individual creativity of artists themselves. The enduring power of music videos is such that most of us can name several videos that are etched into our brain—from early music videos like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to modern, high-budget hits like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”.  

These days, the future of music videos is uncertain. Music videos continue to innovate, and many artists use the medium in creative ways, pushing boundaries and changing the format and purpose of videos accompanying their songs.

In 2021, plenty of contemporary music videos were released that bring something new to the genre, like Taylor Swift’s short film for “All Too Well” and Post Malone’s innovative dual-phone video for his song “Circles”. With a huge amount of technological advancement in the music industry, it’s difficult to say what could be next for the medium of music videos—but one thing that’s certain is that music videos give artists a chance to explore their visual creativity, and visual storytelling remains a powerful tool within the music industry. 

Read more: 100 years of Reader's Digest: A timeline

Read more: What not to say to a parent of an autistic child

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter