Aaaah, good ol’ Music Television. For many readers, MTV made an indelible mark on their formative years, and a good deal of nostalgia is stirred up by its name. Started in the early 1980s, it made a huge impact on the direction of pop music.
However, despite its impact, MTV was only a force to be reckoned with for about twenty years. Even before that, they were always wrestling with the market they had created.
While MTV is still around and still airing music videos (it’s true!), they lost a lot of their luster around 2004. How did this happen? The answers can be summed up with several explanations.
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This is perhaps the most obvious reason, and given our fast-paced world, the internet’s influence is changing every day.
Rather than treat the internet as a distinct cause, I’m mentioning it as an overarching reason. As I list the other reasons, it’s important to think about how the internet influenced everything.
Okay, I admit I lied about the internet just now – but only slightly! The internet was, and remains, the biggest reason for MTV’s downfall.
However, the rise of reality TV in the 90s predated the mainstream internet by a few years. While it didn’t drastically change things as the internet would, it signaled the beginning of MTV’s troubles.
During the 80s and 90s, you heard new music in three ways; radio, physical media, or MTV. Radio was first on the scene back in the 20s. Physical media varied, but had been around for nearly as long.
But MTV was the hottest new thing. If you already had TV, you just flipped to the channel. You could see the musicians and didn’t have to buy anything. Plus, you could see “bonus features” like interviews and concerts.
However, MTV simply couldn’t keep a monopoly in our fast-paced world – even in the 90s. Rival music channels VH1 and BET got started, competing for MTV’s original audience. As a niche market already, the numbers dwindled to a precarious level.
To get an edge on competition, MTV started replacing music videos with reality TV shows. In fact, many people say the first reality show, “The Real World,” got started on MTV in 1992.
They kept the music videos that gave them their title, but they became a reality TV channel that “happened to have music videos.”
Unfortunately, there were more problems than the obvious. MTV started to sell out and lose its focus. Beforehand, they had plenty of talk shows. But they served the music, as viewers heard about the inspirations behind their favorite bands.
While music videos were always simple entertainment, other programs encouraged appreciation and thinking. I remember finding a 1986 interview of Joe Strummer from the Clash. All they did was ask him about stuff while floating on a boat.
He was a quiet, meditative guy. Not very entertaining, but definitely thought-provoking.
Sadly, even before the internet, MTV was shortening attention spans and lowering quality.
When YouTube launched in 2004, sharing home videos on “the web” was mind-boggling. It was around before Facebook and Google’s search engine!
As if MTV wasn’t already having trouble with competition and reality TV, YouTube rang the death knells. In the previous decades, you had to watch MTV to see videos. Now literally anyone could legally upload their own videos for free!
Now MTV wasn’t convenient or economical anymore.
Of course, YouTube quickly set up laws and parameters to curb illegal content. However, as soon as those laws had been created, VEVO was creating a whole new music video empire built entirely around YouTube – legally.
MTV wasn’t gone for good, but it was no longer “hip.” Rather, it was novelty and nostalgic. While that works as a trend and with small audiences, it’s simply not enough to make a profit.
Around 2010, MTV’s centerstage videos were now backstage.
This section is a mish-mash of more reasons why MTV’s popularity went down. Yet each example shows how advancing technology and the internet followed in the steps of YouTube, like a giant snowball.
File sharing tools like Napster and LimeWire allowed users to share digital files freely around the world. While legality was dubious at best, these websites undermined legitimate music markets.
Soon Apple iPods let people carry entire music collections around in their pockets. Instead of sitting in front of a stationary television, people could download free files and carry them around wherever they wanted.
Of course, social media remains the biggest reason why MTV is no longer in fashion. iPods may seem boring now and pirating is easier to catch. However, social media allows people all over the world to legally access millions of songs in a matter of seconds.
“Short-form content” refers to any media that lasts a short amount of time, often less than five minutes. There’s nothing wrong with it. However, due to its nature, it becomes very old very fast.
What does this mean? Two things: companies profiting from it have to keep up, and content has to be made at breakneck speed.
This is, sadly, another way MTV could not keep up. Hundreds of music videos get redundant after a while. And while MTV was scrounging to get new stuff, free social media accounts had posted thousands of new trends overnight.
MTV’s descent is a sad case study of a business drowned by technological changes. Fortunately, many of us can still look back and appreciate its role in both the music industry and our lives.
However, some facts can keep this article from a downbeat ending. MTV is still around and is still airing videos. They play them during the wee hours when viewership is down, but at least they still do it.
Secondly, for those wanting a stroll down memory lane, they have another channel called MTV Classic. You can hop onto that channel for a small dose of classic videos and tunes.
Plus, one of my students comes to school every day in a vintage MTV jacket. He thinks it makes him cool — and who am I to judge? Maybe someday the next generation will appreciate it enough to bring it back!