THE SMARTEST BET IN TOWN Twenty years ago, MTV the first 24-hour music video channel was created by WASEC, a joint venture between Warner Communications
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Twenty years ago, MTV — the first 24-hour music video channel — was created by WASEC, a joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express. From a marketing standpoint, the notion was brilliant: Consumers subscribed to watch record label promo clips that were supplied free to MTV, which sold commercial spots and encouraged more cable systems to carry the service through its highly effective “I want my MTV” campaign.

On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m. — just months after its inception — MTV debuted to the strains of The Buggles' “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a selection that proved prophetic. The general public loved the “clips-as-programming” concept, and soon the copycats sprang up, ranging from NBC's Friday Night Videos and TBS's Night Tracks to local market clip shows, and eventually MTV's own spin-offs such as VH-1, MTV Europe, MTV Asia, etc.

Although these many promotional outlets (and the launch of the CD format around the same time) helped bring a boom to music sales, video also had its dark side. Artists suddenly found their music taking a backseat to their visual appeal. Ironically, a record label that balked at a $50,000 album budget had no qualms about writing checks for music videos (at $100,000 a pop) to promote that same album. But one thing was certain: Once the video box was opened, the music business was changed forever.

Around the time that MTV was launched, a visionary by the name of Michael Nesmith — yes, the same guitar player from The Monkees, but also a brilliant singer/songwriter/producer in his own right — released his 1981 “video album” collection of songs entitled Elephant Parts. Unconventional in that it was only sold in videotape form — without an accompanying audio CD release — the critically acclaimed Elephant Parts was not overly successful, but it was clearly years ahead of its time.

Whereas Elephant Parts' VHS format was fine for home viewing, videotape is hardly suitable for portable playback systems. Today, DVD provides an ideal format for long-form “video album” or live concert releases, and anyone who's listened to well-recorded Dolby Digital or DTS discs on a decent surround system would agree that the format is capable of audio performance that is acceptable to most consumers. By creating music releases in DVD form — with picture and sound — consumers would have numerous playback options, whether as audio-only in an in-dash player or watching the performance on a computer screen or large home theater system. As DVD replication makes its eventual price drop, DVD music plus picture releases could represent a powerful, value-added product priced competitively with today's CDs, yet offering much more in terms of versatility and content.

Whether DVD music releases will enter the mainstream as an alternative to CD is anybody's guess. However, DVD authoring services will surely be in heavy demand in the years to come. Many audio studios now offer CD editing/mastering/premastering, and DVD pre-production could provide a lucrative sideline for a facility or independent engineer. So as you're checking out this month's NAB show in Las Vegas, a couple of hours looking into authoring systems could be the smartest bet in town.