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Video Created the Revenue Star
How MTV Works With Major Record Labels to Create Stars
by: bill aicher

"I never would have listened to Dave Matthews' [music] if I hadn't seen him on MTV."

The above quote from the 1998 MTV Ethnography study supports the assertions by many that music videos are nothing more than glorified advertisements for artists. Since the debut of MTV in 1981, the music world has never been the same. Image is what sells artists these days, not music. Labels work together with MTV to ensure the playing of their videos, leading to increased sales of only certain artists and genres. Due to a combination of contracts, production costs, narrowcast policies, and payola agreements with MTV, artists of major record labels enjoy an increase in sales, while independent and lesser-known artists suffer.

Selling the Image, Not the Music

E. Ann Kaplan brings up the point that the main purpose of making videos is to sell an image of an artist. What people see on MTV is what they go to the CD store and buy. Oftentimes artists will set a certain mood in their video by attaching the song to certain experiences. For example, Duran Duran's video "Girls on Film" features a plentitude of sexual and erotic imagery. Kevin Godley, the video's director, agrees that the video was made to promote the song through sensationalism, referring to the purpose of the uncensored version as "just to make people take notice and talk about it" (Goodwin, 1992).

This concept of selling artists through image is carried by the record companies as well. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell states, "I don't think there are any record companies now in the real sense of the word. We're all in the fashion business. You used to be able to sell records purely on music and musicianship. Now it's packaging, media, television, and video" (Goodwin, 1992).

MTV's Power to Increase Sales

The MTV Video Music Awards have helped out album sales. While it does not have the impact on retail that other awards shows do, the sales changes are noticeable. The week after the 1995 awards, sales of various acts featured on the show increased, including TLC, REM, and Alanis Morissette. After winning an award for Best New Artist in a Video, Hootie and the Blowfish enjoyed a sales resurgence as well. "It had already peaked in its sales, but it took a major turnaround in sales this week," contended Bobby Hall, music buyer for Virgin Megastore in Los Angeles.

This mentality gives considerable power to MTV to control the music. They are the primary source for music videos (Kaplan, 1987). Since they are the biggest source for videos, record companies work closely with the network to ensure exposure for their artists. Exposure on MTV proves to increase record sales, so the promotional outlet is a highly desired commodity by these labels.

According to a study in April of 1994 by the joint Merchandising Committee of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers and the Recording Industry Association of America, 6% of respondents credited MTV or VH-1 for their purchase selections. Out of the 40 videos that MTV deemed "Buzzworthy" between January 1994 and May 1996, 75% had been certified gold or platinum (Brandweek, 1996).

Maverick Records VP Abbey Konowich explains rock band Candlebox's success: "Candlebox is truly an MTV act, with these kinds of records the best tracking comes from MTV" After the band's "You" and "Change" videos were added to MTV's rotation, the album neared record-high sales figures (Billboard, 1994).

Only the Strong Get Play

This effect MTV has on record sales, though it may help major labels and mainstream music, is severely detrimental to independent labels and less popular musical genres. MTV was attacked in the 1980's for its narrowcast policy, where it refused to play videos by certain black artists. They still continue this trend in different forms, such as the specials "Hip-Hop Week" and "Alternative Nation," shows that cater toward specific genres, while completely ignoring others. When the popularity began to dwindle for hard rock music, MTV canceled its program "Headbanger's Ball." Because of this, hard rock lost an enormous portion of its advertising space on MTV. To a lesser extent, rap lost a large portion of its viewing audience when MTV moved "Yo! MTV Raps" to late nights from its previous late afternoon slot. These narrowcast practices lead to a highly specific advertising style, in which only certain genres receive exposure.

The control of what is advertised does not stop there. Instead, it only increases through payola and exclusivity contracts between MTV and record labels. MTV entered into a deal with CBS records in which MTV could choose 20% of CBS's annual clip production for exclusive broadcast on MTV networks, provided they agreed to play another 10% of videos, chosen by CBS, in light or medium rotation. Deals similar to this are common with all the major labels. According to these various contracts, MTV is required to play videos chosen by the labels, in effect guaranteeing promotions for major label artists. These contracts constitute a form of payola, a practice that is illegal according to the Communications Act. However, Section 508 applies the Act to broadcast outlets only, in which cable television is not included.

This payola applies to more than just contracts. Channels like The Box (a station where you call in to request what is played via a 1-900 number) have been part of payola-like practices as well. Large record companies oftentimes hire groups of people to call in and continuously request song from their artists. This practice can also be applied to MTV's new popular video show "Total Request Live." In this show, all requests in that day are tallied up and the eight most requested videos are played on MTV. There is no limit on how many times one person or company can vote, so the ballots are often stuffed by the record companies.

The Minorities Dwindle

All of this spells out big problems for independent labels. First of all, independent labels are unable to afford the high production costs attached to music videos. Several labels do make videos for their artists, but these are low-cost (about 1/6 the cost of the average MTV video) and rarely make it onto MTV, who plays flashy, high-cost videos. Independent labels then find themselves at a loss due to this lack of capital to promote their artists. Due to the contractual agreements and payola by the large conglomerates, the independents are at a loss to get their artists the exposure necessary to sell albums.

The success of the punk rock band, Offspring, demonstrates MTV's power to promote labels and their artists. Offspring, a member of independent Epitaph Records, enjoyed huge sales success after their album "Smash" was promoted through music videos on the MTV network. However, this is one of the few exceptions in which independents enjoy success due to MTV. If MTV were to play more independent artists, the same would most likely happen (Banks, 1996).

Bryan Turner, president of Priority Records sums up the power of size and money on MTV well. "It's all too conveniently becoming a majors only situation. It's financial reasons that's allowing them to play major label stuff. A major says to them, 'Here, play this and we'll give you an exclusive on our video by Sinead O'Conner or whoever" (1996, Banks).


MTV embraces the major labels and in turn makes their artists into stars. MTV is well aware of the influence it has on trends and sales. Image has become increasingly important, as MTV's Ethnography study pointed out. One person surveyed by MTV, when asked about the impetus behind her purchase of Natalie Imbruglia's record, stated, "I hadn't seen or heard anything about her [until I saw her on MTV], and she just looked really hot. So I just bought the CD [because of that]" (Hay, 1998).

Music is not the only field in which the independent or minority voice is shut out. In fact, it happens throughout the media. What we see with MTV is related to the concept of mainstreaming, in which the most popular and prominent voice is the one sure to please the most people. MTV is global, and it is corporate. In order to make the most money it must subscribe to the most accessible music. When we look at other media such as print or radio, we see similar results. The minority voice is shut out by the major conglomerates, only leading to a static world view in which the whole world subscribes. People begin to lose their ability to think for themselves and strength begins to lie in money itself - not art, not content, not knowledge. Commercialism and globalization control MTV, as they do with most other media.

MTV is used as a promotional tool for the major labels. The artists who are featured on MTV exhibit better sales figures on average than those not featured. Image has become extremely important in selling records with the advent of music television, and some artists suffer because of this. More often, however, artists suffer due to the lack of influence their label has on MTV. Those labels and artists embraced by the network repeatedly fare better than those not. Todd Cunningham, MTV VP of Research and Programming knows how MTV continues to control the music world. "MTV viewers ultimately think that they, more than MTV, are the most influential in what goes on in music" (Billboard, 1998).



Anonymous. (1996, May 13). Culture trends. Brandweek, 1.

Atwood, B. (1995, September 23). Morissette sales winner following MTV awards. Billboard, 6-7.

Banks, J. (1996). Monopoly Television. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Goodwin, A. (1992). Dancing in the Distraction Factory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Gunther, M. (1997, October 27). This gang controls your kids' brains. Fortune,172-182.

Hay, C. (1998, September 26). Viewer opinions sought. Billboard, 5-6.

Kaplan, E. (1987). Rocking Around the Clock. New York, NY: Methuen.

Russell, D. (1994, May 28). In-store play outranks MTV, according to NARM study. Billboard, 34.

Russell, D. (1994, February 5). Radio, retail, & MTV fire up sales of Candlebox debut. Billboard, 8-9.


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