Everyone knows the radio star was officially declared dead in August of 1981, and that the apparent cause of death was murder by video. It’s cliche now. In fact, it was cliche back then – they made a song about it which was turned into the first video showed on MTV. Eulogies were written, and the older generation of moralizers went crazy ranting about American innocence lost, and how an important art form was lost, and how blah blah blah…
I’m only two months older than MTV, so the music station and I grew up together. My parents often had it on if they wanted background noise, and I remember more than enough about the way it changed from the 80’s to the 90’s to the arguable worst network decay known to man. I remember that back then, there seemed to be legitimate reason that music video was the medium of the future and that radio was on life support and possibly terminal. Radio was supposed to die a quick and painless death, but it made a full recovery and fought its way back with a vengeance. Now if anything is in danger, it’s the video that allegedly killed radio.
Yes, that sounds pretty absurd. But think about it: When was the last time music videos were the dominant medium for discovering new music? Yes, they’re still around, and some of them are excellent. But unless you’re willing to pull yourself up from bed at some absurd hour of the day and flip on MTV while you make your morning eggs on toast, you’re not going to see them. Like every other medium, the idea of the music television station has evolved, but music stations have evolved in reverse. Whereas MTV was the trendsetting cultural juggernaut for two generations, it’s now the definition of network decay. VH1 is a glorified tabloid rag. The Box is… Well, god, I don’t even know what happened to The Box. The only stations that seem to play music videos these days are satellite spinoffs that were created to do the very thing their parent stations were first created for.
Yes, yes, there’s Youtube. Youtube is a wonderful resource full of entertaining videos, and it’s one of the most-used search engines on the internet. There’s a score of backlogged music videos on it, and a lot of live recordings of old favorite songs in case you wanted to hear those too. The problem with Youtube, though, is that all of your video hunts have to be done entirely by hand. You have to know what you want to listen to and watch, then type it into the search bar, and when it finishes playing, you’re back to square one. That means you can’t use it as background during spring cleaning unless you want to be surprised by 20 straight live versions of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” with an occasional Rascal Flatts song there to break up the monotony while you wonder how Rascal Flatts ended up on a hair band playlist.
You can see the problem there. Youtube isn’t a place where the new music rushes at you without strict command. You have to know what it is you want to hear, which can be a problem if you know the song only by the way it sounds. If you don’t know the song’s name and the artist, you have to type lyrics into Bing or Google to find those out before heading to Youtube. Basically, there’s nowhere to flip the TV to watch the videos as they get presented so you can see the video to learn the artist and the song.
When radio was forced to evolve to keep up with the times, it gave us Sirius XM. Sirius launched in 2002, and it now provides 69 channels of music and an additional 65 of talk radio about any subject you want to hear about. While the talk radio stations have commercials, the music stations don’t. They go through straight blasts of random music at all hours, and if you hear a song you like but you’ve never heard before, it’s easy to take note of the lyrics and type them into a search engine. Video stations don’t offer anything like that. Music videos can barely be considered a viable part of the mainstream now. No one anticipates new videos anymore, and when one comes out, you have to hear about it by accident.
So no, videos haven’t supplanted music the way older generations once feared they would. There are no theaters showing them, no workplaces have a TV showing random music videos, you don’t drive cars while trying to watch videos… Hell, you can’t really do much of anything while trying to watch music videos except for keeping your eyes glued to the TV set, appreciating the artistry of a well-directed video. And those aren’t coming along quite as often as they used to, either. This isn’t the 90’s anymore, where music videos that cost a million dollars so the artist could make a statement were everywhere. Most of them are just trying to to get a quick story across now. Even artists that play strong videos – Katy Perry is a notable example – aren’t as ostentatious as Madonna or Michael Jackson were.
What’s more, no one talks about the new videos they saw on whatever music video channel they preferred. Everything seems to be about whether or not you’ve heard something. There’s no controversy over music videos these days, and that’s saying something because of the sheer amount of unfiltered content from Tove Lo’s video for “Habits (Stay High),” which features the singer on a drug and sex binge which highlights the alienation she’s feeling as the narrator. The video builds to a lesbian orgy and would have caught flak in any era for that. Now it’s two years old and no one knows it’s there unless they’ve looked for Tove Lo’s video catalogue. In the meantime, artists are getting more attention when their work is played in TV commercials. (I’m looking at you, Passion Pit.)
I’m not saying music videos are done. Far from it. But the speculation that every radio artist is going to need a video presence in order to succeed is something we can now put to rest. Music videos assaulted TV for the 80’s and 90’s, and made the transition to the internet afterward. But radio came into vogue during the 1920’s and has survived everything thrown at it. The radio star is dead? Hell, that dead machine better be playing your work if you want to be a working musician.