Sing a Song of Seeing

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Video is manna on magnetic tape to rock performers and, even more, to the companies that make money from their music. The whole business had topped off in 1978, when 726 million records and tapes were shipped to a rock-sotted world. The next year, the bottom fell out. Revenues plunged 10.2%. Not only was music caught in the general economic clinch; there was a feeling that everything had peaked, maybe even played itself out. Punk and new wave had created much press excitement, but never really broke through to a wide audience. Radio was hidebound by tightly formatted playlists: same sounds, same rhythms, in the same familiar rotations. Radio was the time-honored conduit to keep the music flowing, but it was becoming antiquated.

It was clear that something new was needed. It was not quite so clear that the very something was already there, waiting to be turned on like a simple . . . television set. While the record business hit the skids, home video and cable television were perking along. New means for old dreams.

There was no single pioneer, no moment of signal inspiration. The vidblitz began before anyone knew the planes were flying in formation. Illustrated songs, little three-or four-minute clips, began to rain down on television and clubs in late 1980. Some of them were concert performances, shot and edited with perfunctory flash; others were like surrealistic visual riffs on the song, head comics for beginners, production numbers soaked in blotter acid. A technological catchall, video quickly became a generic name for these detonations of sight and sound, as those little items played on a phonograph were named for the way they were transcribed or recorded.

Now, at latest count, there are 200 programs all across the country that do nothing but show rock videos. MTV is a cable network entirely given over to the playing and perpetuating of rock video, not only as a new form but as a fresh commercial force. It is the hottest basic cable operation in history.

"Since the beginning of time—1956—rock 'n' roll and TV have never really hit it off," reflects Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones. "But suddenly, it's like they've gotten married and can't leave each other alone." One wonders if anyone worked out a prenuptial contract; there are some impressive numbers involved in all this. When it went on the air in August 1981, MTV was carried on 300 cable outlets, capable of reaching 2.5 million homes. Now it is hitting 2,000 cable affiliates and more than 17½ million households. In 1983, according to a just released study by Industry Analyst Mark Riely, overall record sales should hit $3.77 billion, up 5% from last year. MTV, which pulled down approximately $7 million in ad revenue for the first 18 months of its life, will cart in more than $20 million by the end of 1983.

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