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How Goes the Music Video Revolution? : They haven't replaced radio as a marketing tool, but they're still gaining momentum

September 03, 1989|DENNIS HUNT

Soon after MTV went on the air in the summer of 1981, the word was that videos were going to revolutionize the record business.

The new, three-to-five-minute promotional clips would not only cause television to replace radio as the dominant medium for selling records, but an artist's look might become as important as the music.

For a while, videos seemed well on the way to fulfilling that promise. The success in the early and mid-'80s of such colorful, video-conscious acts as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Duran Duran did indeed suggest the important thing in pop was as much what you heard as what you saw.

But what now?

Have videos, as some rapturously predicted, replaced radio as the chief means of selling acts? And has appearance become as important as music as a basis for signing acts?

Based on interviews with a variety of music-industry executives on the eve of Wednesday's sixth annual MTV Video Awards ceremony at the Universal Amphitheatre, the answer is that, yes, video is continuing to gain strength as a marketing tool, but, no, video hasn't replaced radio as the chief means of selling records.

The negative aspect of the expanded music video market is the waste factor. More are being made but, conversely, more aren't being played.

"Every record company has a shelf full of videos that have never seen the light of day and never will," pointed out Jo Bergman, vice president of Warner Bros. video department. "The problem is that many of them should never have been made--for whatever reason. Some are made too late or too early (in terms of drawing attention to the single). Some aren't very good and don't get played for that reason. Some are made just because the artist's contract calls for a video."

Added Jeff Gold, A&M Records' vice president of marketing and creative services: "In the early days of music video, things were different. The channels were starved for programming. It was easier to get videos played. Not as many music videos were made and the ones that were made were played somewhere. If a label made 50 music videos in a year in those days, all of them would be shown somewhere. Now if you make 50, maybe 15 might get aired."

Often a record company can justify making music videos for another reason: They can be vital marketing tools in foreign markets, creating an image for artists who've never appeared there. "These days companies sign artists with worldwide potential," Bill Berger, executive vice president of Arista Records, said. "They need videos to market artists in places like Europe and the Orient. Even if the video doesn't get played in the United States, it might get played in some foreign country and help sales over there."

All of the more than a dozen industry executives interviewed agreed that music video is continuing to gain importance, thanks to the increased penetration by cable TV into American homes and the rise in recent years of two additional all-music cable channels, VH-1, which aims at an older pop-rock crowd than MTV, and Black Entertainment Television, which specializes in soul and rap styles.

But, executives were quick to point out, music videos alone still cannot create a hit record.

"Radio airplay is still the most important (device) for selling records," said Bob Willcox, vice president of marketing for Columbia Records. "That's because it still offers us the biggest audience."

Videos have encouraged record companies to think more visually--though, they insist, not at the expense of the music.

"Since music videos came along, the look of an act has become much more important than it ever was," said Ron McCarrell, Capitol Records' vice president of marketing. "But make no mistake--music is still the most important thing. An act can have the right look and come across great in the videos, but if the music isn't good, the act won't get very far. You still have to consider radio and having the right look doesn't do you any good on radio."

Video, in the early days of MTV, brought new excitement to the record industry. After passing the $4-billion-a-year mark in sales in the late '70s, the industry had been in a serious slump, with sales falling about $500,000,000 between 1978 and 1979.

The drop-off, industry observers now believe, was due to more than just general problems with the economy. Teen-agers, long the most active buying group, seemed alienated. They had burned out on disco and were having trouble finding new heroes as radio stations tended to stay with veteran rockers that the kids found tame and boring.

But video provided these teens with a new wave of heroes. MTV was their own private world. Parents grumbled about videos, dismissing them as silly gimmicks to sell records. They couldn't believe that anyone could sit in their rooms watching those videos all day and night on MTV--as their kids were doing.

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