Our generation screwed over MTV. We rewarded the movement towards reality television by religiously watching every move of stars like Heidi Montag and the Jersey Shore crew. MTV, in fact, aired the first true reality program with the 1992 premiere of The Real World, described by many at the time as innovative and definitive of a generation. Additionally, our clever ways of downloading music illegally forced the industry to adapt to a changing digital world. Platforms for illegal downloads have been replaced with free or inexpensive services that pay royalties for each song played.
The reality, however, is still the same: music videos used to be springboards for record sales, but with the advent of YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and other streaming services, music has become instantly and legally obtainable at virtually no cost. While it’s fashionable to decry reality television as a hallmark of the destruction of culture by Generation X, we need to recognize that MTV is merely adjusting to this shift, redirecting its musical expertise into other facets of its programming—and into the subconscious of its viewers.
With record sales in steady decline, the next-best stream of revenue artists can receive is an indecent amount of exposure—commercial spots, television series promos, episode soundtracks. While the overall value of MTV’s television shows leaves a lot to be desired, one truth is undeniable: their music supervision is on point. Lauren Conrad’s “acting” in The Hills may cause viewers physical pain. But one of the series’ highest-rated episodes featured an acoustic cover of Rihanna’s “Umberella” by YouTube sensation Marie Digby, thrusting Digby into the spotlight. Shows ranging from Jersey Shore to Awkward have been consistently showcasing rising artists with the help of tickers at the bottom of the screen displaying the name and artist of the song playing during the scene. MTV’s Soundtrack blog includes an even more comprehensive list of songs from each scene, ensuring that music is featured as prominently as the reality show content.
Additionally, MTV’s abandonment of music video programming has also driven artists to get more creative with their music videos. There is no incentive to spend money on a bland music video since there is no guarantee it will gain exposure, regardless of how popular the artist is.
Did MTV start this trend of bringing background music into the foreground of modern television? Certainly not. The CW realized the inextricable link between memorable moments and memorable music within television shows, as seen in the success of The O.C. I guarantee anyone who has ever watched The O.C. can’t listen to the song “Champagne Supernova,” without thinking of the iconic Seth-Summer Spiderman kiss scene. As music was a major feature of One Tree Hill, the fan bases of many of the artists grew significantly.
More and more cable networks are placing a stronger emphasis on music supervision, and MTV has been using its authority as music television to continue the cause of giving artists their big break, and taking them to the next level. For example, subtle advertising through TV spots is also one of the main reasons why indie music has exploded. Instead of force-feeding its audience the same music overplayed on the radio, MTV has provided opportunities for fans to find music for themselves, thus giving them a sense of ownership over their musical tastes.
We need to remember that cultural musical touchstones are essential to generational identity. We are scattered throughout an increasingly diverse world of music. Regardless of personal taste, MTV’s music video programming helped unite a generation through pop music. Now, MTV provides the best of both worlds: expanding opportunities for unknown artists through its program soundtracks and its new MTV Artists app, while still pioneering the potential to connect with favorite artists through programming such as the reality show Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life and the Video Music Awards.
When MTV transformed most of its programming from music-centric shows to reality TV, it was rewarded with the largest boost in ratings in over a decade. Its television shows may be stupid, but their soundtracks are providing opportunities for rising artists that were simply not available a decade ago. Music supervision is becoming an increasingly key component of the television, advertising, and film industries—which may be the best news for artists in years.