Let's say the record industry is suffering from its worst recession in 30 years. The fluffy pop bubble has burst, and now customers are opting to save money by not buying overpadded, underwhelming albums, and instead simply pirating their favorite songs. The effect on the bottom line is devastating, with record companies seeing double-digit drops in sales in a single year. The future is bleak.
How the heck are decent, hard-working, record-selling folk supposed to survive such a predicament? If this were 1981—the concluding year of a three-year sales slump blamed on home taping—the industry could rely on an unlikely savior: MTV. Upon its August '81 première, MTV was widely credited with giving the music biz a shot of adrenaline during one of its most desperate periods. A year later, Michael Jackson released Thriller, MTV decided that black people were okay after all, and the rest is history. By 1984, MTV was at the forefront of one of the greatest periods in pop-music history, with Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Duran Duran creating the defining music of the music channel's defining years, and selling boatloads of records in the process. Unfortunately, it isn't 1981, it's 2007. The problems that set the table for MTV's entrance are back with a vengeance, only instead of coming to the music industry's rescue, MTV is off finding the world's sexiest 20something alcoholics and staging catfights in hot tubs. Of all the sins MTV stands accused of committing in the past 26 years, maybe the greatest is that it created a fine mold for music promotion, then smashed it into a million little pieces just when it was needed most.
It's a cliché to complain about MTV not playing music videos anymore. (It's such a cliché that pointing out that it's a cliché is itself a cliché.) But still, the ramifications of MTV turning its back on music aren't discussed enough. True, it doesn't compare to the onslaught of illegal downloading and the collapse of the retail market—not to mention the industry's myriad of self-inflicted wounds, like price gouging and signing terrible, terrible artists—but losing MTV as an ally has left a gaping void. For about 20 years, MTV was the engine that moved nearly every important commercial trend in pop music, including British electro-pop, hair metal, hip-hop, grunge, rap-metal, and boy bands. Granted, a lot of that music was bad, but much of it was good, and some of it was even great. And people bought it. In spite of what Skunk Baxter or disgruntled Christopher Cross fans might claim, MTV didn't make image more important than the music. Image has always been more important than the music, at least when it comes to convincing people to buy records. (This is especially true for "serious" bands that appeal to "serious" fans who prefer "no image, just the music, man," the most contrived image of all.) MTV simply provided an avenue that clever artists used to create unapologetically artificial, visually seductive worlds around their music. And it played those artists over and over again until customers' wallets were beaten into submission.
Record sales have been on the decline since 1999, the same year MTV's TRL peaked in the ratings and Napster became the most important music-related phenomenon since, well, MTV. Since then, MTV has all but completely cut music out of its schedule—as bad as you remember it being back then, it's even worse now—and Napster is a shadow of its former self, though its legacy lives on with a billion illegally downloaded songs every month (vs. 100 million legal downloads), according to a recent report by business advisory firm FTI Consulting. While MTV made music seem a lot cooler than it probably was, the Internet has made it more accessible than it probably should be, and there lies the rub: The Web didn't fill the MTV void, it exploded it. Back in the mid-'80s, MTV made every kid beg their parents to drive them to the mall and buy Purple Rain. Today, that same kid can go online and, within about 15 minutes, download a .zip file of every Prince song ever made. It takes no effort, and what's really gained? A bunch of songs that kid will probably never listen to? Who said this music stuff was cool, anyway?
I'm no Luddite. I've embraced the digital revolution like everybody else, and I don't think the world's problems would be solved if MTV canceled The Real World and started playing the video for Pearl Jam's "Evenflow" 25 times a day. And I get the economics of selling half-hour reality shows to advertisers, rather than a bunch of Fergie and Pussycat Dolls videos. I don't have a solution to any of this, just a long, wistful lament. For all its ugly baggage, MTV in its prime was very good at making music seem like the center of the universe, and drawing people into the warm glow. Music was still a niche product back then, but at least it seemed like a bigger niche. And this cultural currency made more people want to invest in the artists they loved. Taping Thriller from a friend was always an option—it sold 27 million copies in the U.S., so somebody close was bound to have a copy—but it was the videos that made (or at least cemented) a personal connection with the public, and made people want to buy the record, and by extension, a piece of Michael Jackson. Piracy has been a constant for decades, but that need for investment (financial and otherwise) in artists has eroded for the casual music fan, and MySpace isn't changing that.
Am I saying MTV was simply an effective way to sell records? Absolutely, though there's nothing "simple" about it, especially today. And keep your hippie and punk ethos out of it—artists need to sell records in order to live, even the really cool ones who never got played on MTV, but benefited indirectly from those who did. (See every crappy punk band that starting selling records because Kurt Cobain mentioned them in an interview with Kurt Loder.) That's why Justin Timberlake said "We want more videos" earlier this week at the VMAs. No, brother, you need more videos.