On the same day that Prince was found dead in an elevator at his Paisley Park compound, MTV (formerly an acronym for Music Television) executives announced plans to return to music. They got the chance earlier than expected. After the Prince news hit, the network paid tribute, showing the pop/rock/R&B legend's music videos and Purple Rain film over and over. It was the start of something more.
With new president Sean Atkins on board, the cable network is attempting a comeback, or as Atkins put it in a recent Los Angeles Times article, "a third reinvention." Although the drama-filled days of Jersey Shore and The Hills are gone, reality television like Teen Mom 2 and Catfish continue to eat up most of the network programming schedule, and ratings are stagnant. Executives see returning to music as the only option left, but that doesn't mean showing music videos like they once did.
The new MTV plans to bring back some of the original music programming like Unplugged, but with an updated look, as well as some behind-the-music shows. Producer Mark Burnett, of Survivor fame, comes to the network's rescue, bringing in a hip-hop music competition set in L.A. called Wonderland. A Justin Bieber-produced show will give contestants 24 hours to write a full song. This is reality, plus music.
It's not that MTV never plays videos; you just need to be awake between 1 and 6 am for their Music Feed program, and that's only during weekdays. Sister station CMT only plays music videos from 5 to 10 am. VH1 doesn't even bother. Other Viacom Media Networks channels like VH1 Classic and MTV2, which do play videos, are left out of many cable/satellite packages.
We watch our videos online on YouTube or Vimeo now, points out Michael Waldrop, a jazz history teacher at Eastern Washington University, in an email.
"I don't think the music video will ever completely die out," says Waldrop, who also has taught pop history courses. "Musicians and record labels will do anything they can to promote the product."
Let's recall what MTV once was. When it debuted in 1981, with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," the nation's youth were transfixed. The channel urged teens and young adults to get politically active, and also have safe sex. Parents' groups got pissed off about the amount of scantily clad women and rock 'n' roll-type lifestyles depicted in videos. Many religious families banned the channel from their home entirely. But for all of the trashy videos, there was art as well. Michael Jackson's dance moves inspired a generation and "Thriller" was a short film in itself.
Today, shocking as it may seem, MTV still hands out awards for music videos. The 2015 Video of the Year went to Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood," which has received more than 800 million YouTube plays. Plenty of other videos have gone viral without MTV's help. Adele's "Hello" has more than 1 billion views. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's video "Downtown," filmed in Spokane last July and made with help from local film production company North by Northwest, has more than 110 million views.
But more than just national talent is making music videos these days, and many artists see the medium as a relevant way to self-promote.
"I was jealous of the budgets more than anything," says Sean Finley of watching the Macklemore video.
The local filmmaker has directed music videos for local electronic act Water Monster and some of the Collect Series of live videos, which showcase area indie acts. Most recently he worked on a video for local pop act Lavoy, which had an open video extra call at Riverfront Park.
"When there are so many other options, how do you make something that someone is going to remember?" asks Finley, a founding member of the Spokane Film Project. "That's the challenge of music videos."
His goal is to make videos that don't look like they try too hard, but still stay true to the music he's depicting.
"You don't want to sink a bunch of time into it; music videos are so temporary anyway," Finley says. "How many people are people going to watch it? I don't know."
In "Slow Sea," which he made with Max Harnishfeger of Water Monster, Finley brought in contemporary dancers to help tell the story.
"That's why music video still exists," says Harnishfeger. "They're less of a cultural necessity. It's more of an art form now, and I don't think we need MTV to fuel that."
Other artists, like singer-songwriter Kyle Siegel of local acoustic trio Wake Up Flora, have taken to dropping less professional-looking, one-take videos on social media. The videos show him playing and crooning outside buildings, under train tracks and on top of mountains. It's a way of getting his new music out quickly.
Finley says that nuance is key as well.
"With music videos, you're trying to define a personality for the musician," he says. "There are a ton of other ways of doing that with social media, but it's part of the process. For someone who's just discovering a band for the first time, it's about the message. A music video sharpens the whole picture." ♦