I Want My Vevo TV
Christopher Montes / University of Texas, Austin
I want my MTV.
The extended intro to British rock band Dire Straits 1985 hit “Money For Nothing” ethereally beckons the music television channel, which at the time had only existed for a little less than four years. Being the forefront of music video distribution in the United States and soon to be global commodity, the MTV network, which at the time was owned by Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment and soon to be folded into Viacom, became the forefront of a new era in Western popular music history. Songwriter and singer Mark Knopfler’s lyrics in “Money For Nothing” were quite damning of visual culture’s then and still ubiquitous connection to Western popular music:
Now look at them yo-yo’s that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
Despite the snarky description of capitalistic all-show no-substance rock and roll stars relying on glitz and glam1 , “Money For Nothing’s” very own music video was an early example of computer-generated imagery on television. Even if it is not a (usually) male musician “bangin’ on the bongos like a chimpanzee,” technology itself can be the means in which to engage a now global audience. Though MTV as a global brand was still a few years away from its premiere in 1981, its model of distribution and content curation became the template for music video distribution channels that would arise over the next three decades.
We should think of technology as being pivotal in our personal relationship to music videos in our lives. When you define them objectively, music videos are “short films,” ones that could be narrative, performance-based, or both, but we rarely think of them as films – an art form in its own terms. What is notable about our relation music videos is that they are significantly influenced by how we watch them, or rather how they are shown to us. Whether it be at home with your family watching a network broadcast national premiere, after school watching a curated daily countdown, or subversively searching YouTube at your work desk dreaming of the weekend, the history of music video form becomes deeply entwined in the times in which they were first “broadcast.” PSY’s Gangnam Style, which as of this writing remains the most watched YouTube video of all time at over 2 Billion views, may not have had its quick and massive success without a digital platform that could enable that success. Labeling music videos as “short films” seems wrong because they have always been more than that. A media framework surrounds these visual pleasures and presents them to a ready-to-jam fan base that is more than happy to spend three minutes listening to their favorite tunes and watching their favorite artists. The unfortunate thing about these media frameworks, at least according to Knopfler’s lyrics in “Money For Nothing,” is that they reek of a capitalistic system eager for new consumers. For the music industry, the Internet has been a hindrance on a system ready for big gains, but for the content hungry music fan, digital platforms are a goldmine for music videos and displaying their history.
Yet there seems to be nostalgia for the music-video platforms of old. Many mourn the loss of the “real” MTV that left the music video broadcasting to its younger siblings MTV2 and mtvU so it itself could join in on the success of reality TV. MTV’s new direction has left a big hole in the broadcast market for music videos on television. While MTV2, mtvU, and Fuse have accounted for some of this slack, none provide the audience of billions that PSY successfully found. With the great number of websites devoted to popular music and the many more that focus on popular culture in general, platforms for music video streaming have diversified greatly online within the past decade. But with streaming services like Youtube holding both a quantitative and cultural lead in online video streaming, this “diversity” quickly shallows when one realizes that the biggest musical artist seek the biggest audience. Simply put, the artists are going to go where the people go.
For a large amount of people in the US, whether they know it or not, they are going to Vevo. Launched in 2009 with much fanfare (and a Lady Gaga live performance) by two media conglomerates, Universal Music Group and Google, Vevo stood as means to become a central location for music videos online and even more important, to help advertisers and content-owners a way to capitalize on a then dwindling market. Vevo provides an online clearinghouse for label-approved music videos. These are not the videos produced by individuals using their own personal equipment from home, but rather the multi-million dollar “blockbusters” that have been the staple of broadcast music video channels like MTV for almost 30 years. Vevo is the exclusive distributor of videos, handling all the licensing and ad sales with Google handling the video hosting and streaming. To have a video on Vevo means that an artist can broker deals with Vevo alone, insuring that their videos do not appear on multiple platforms online. With Vevo having signed agreements with EMI and Sony Music Entertainment, their reach has grown even further. The artist themselves benefit the most from this system, as ad sales can increase with the assurance of a centralized and powerful system that can lead the viewer through content. Advertisers are willing to pay between $25 to $40 per thousand views to the artist, leaving established stars like Bono and Mariah Carey very happy to use the service.
The video database that is Youtube or even Vevo.com itself are but just one way to gain to your favorite stars and their videos2 . Vevo.com also launched VevoTV, a 24 hour music video streaming service that provides a pre-planned flow for an audience that still yearns for the broadcasting platform that MTV once heralded. The service features three stations: Top 40 station Hits, R&B/Hip-hop station Flow, and country station Nashville. Depending on whether your reading this article during lunch hour, after work, or before bed, the programs on VevoTV vary from a top ten countdown called Top10Now on Hits or a throwback music block called #TBT (Throwback Thursday) on Flow. The call back to the age of pre-meditated televised flow is an obvious attempt to provide watching practices associated with cable television to the new age of digital streaming. Artist like Justin Bieber, who by the way holds the #2 spot behind PSY for the most streamed music video with “Baby,” can be showcased in special artist hours presented by VevoTV. This specialized artist-specific programing provides more than music videos with behind-the-scenes documentaries and exclusive interviews. The hype-building days of TRL are still occurring, with clicks dominating the market instead of ratings. And it is these clicks that fuel a commercial entity such as Youtube and Vevo. In an Internet age where page views add up to dollars, content providers heavily encourage content exploring. It is no oversight that Vevo does not have an all-encompassing catalog page that lists all of their content. Like to relive Justin Beiber’s more innocent days in the “Baby” music video? Want to know how it was made? Why don’t you check out all of his other videos too? And while you are there, why don’t you watch an OneRepublic “documentary” about their most recent tour? The content will be provided and the money will keep flowing.
The new form of music video distribution does mean that old tried-and-true methods are not a set standard. Weird Al Yankovic, who recently released a video a day on various non-Youtube sites such as Nerdist.com or CollegeHumor.com, acknowledges that the distribution methods in which he has engaged his loyal fans are no longer as viable in a digital age. His label gave him “zero money” for distribution of the new set of music videos for his new album “Mandatory Fun,” so he utilized sites such as FunnyorDie and College Humor to be a platform for his famously snarky music videos. Of course, this is an example of an independent streak that still pervades the digital stream, where both established artist and hopeful future rock stars can hope to circumvent the conglomerations that control the business, or at least find a way to be integrated into them. However, the game must still be played and even Weird Al acknowledges that. “Again, it is all just a part of technology,” stated Yankovic in a recent interview, “and dealing with and making that part of my consistent way of doing things becomes more of a challenge, but you have to acknowledge that that is reality now.”
Ultimately, I do not agree with Mark Knopfler’s comments on the shallowness of visual cultures of popular music and the commercial aspects they bring. The music business, even before the MTV, has relied heavily on showing an artist to the people just as much as much as an artist’s musicianship.3 . Even the “Money for Nothing” video itself indicates Dire Straits’ acknowledgement on how music video buzz can fuel an artist’s reach. Personally, shows like VH1’s Pop-up Video and MTV’s TRL greatly influenced my own taste and interest in popular-medias. The mixture of content viewing with the pleasures of music listening provides, in a way, an emotional engagement with our media world and fuels our interest in what communities, both local and global, are listening to and watching. However, we can at least be aware of the effects of such commercial practice, and how systems enable the ever-powerful dollar to still reign supreme despite the “democracy” of streaming services. Yet with this new-look of music industry commerce, comes the realization that old tried-and-true methods must change.
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- Unfortunately, Knopfler’s lyrics also included homophobic slurs, greatly diminishing the song’s presence on radio and television. [↩]
- Vevo’s biggest competitor is MTV.com, which spars with Vevo for holding the position as the highest used music video service. This again goes to show that MTV as a music provider as far from being over. [↩]
- Elvis’s Hollywood feature films, such as Viva Las Vegas are an example of the visual added to the appeal of music. [↩]