On a basic level, “Video Killed the Radio Star” harkens back to a time when the emergence of television supplanted radio as the primary source of information and entertainment. On a general level, it can be interpreted as a reflection on new technology replacing the old. In the cultural history of the 20th Century, because it was the first video ever played on MTV, the song has come to represent the emergence of the music video and the marginalization of radio.
I’d argue, though, that while music videos and MTV probably didn’t help radio, it wasn’t the only thing that caused the decline of the medium. Even MTV stopped playing videos years ago, I think that two different forces more powerful than video combined to render radio less vital. (Note—these opinions are about rock radio—I would not even presume to opine about the state of urban, Latin, country or other genres).
First, as I alluded to in my prior piece, I think that radio’s success commercially resulted in consolidation of ownership and a homogenization of content. Independent owners, willing to take risks and hire edgy DJs and program directors, were replaced by media behemoths that sanded off the rough edges and used market research to cater to the masses. There has always been a balance in radio programming between leading the listeners and following them—in other words, trying to determine the right mix of music that you think the audience will or should like and the music you know they already like. I think that the balance on commercial radio has shifted way toward playing the known, and avoiding risk. The spirit of adventurous radio still lives on in the occasional independent station and on college/noncommercial stations. Unfortunately, these stations tend to have small listenerships, can swing too far toward the strange and unknown, and often have difficult to listen to student DJs (which I can say, having been one).
The second force is, of course, the new technologies, mostly digital music, and the Internet and satellite “radio,” that allow listeners to create their own playlists, stream music from around the world, download music easily and find stations that narrowcast in limited genres. This allows each individual listener to decide, on a moment to moment basis, the balance between the known and unknown, and how much the listener wants to rely on their own taste, and how much to leave to someone else’s decision. And videos have become a way to circumvent the tight playlists of commercial radio and the small listenership of noncommercial/independent radio by getting the product directly to the consumer. Videos, however, remove some of the mystery, because they create a codified, unitary version of a song's meaning. The ability of every individual listener to imagine a personal vision is gone. I have no memory anymore of what I thought the first time I heard Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" on the radio--now, all I can think of is claymation.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this—it is just reality. It isn’t as easy as when I was a kid, when there was a choice of a few radio stations, you pretty much knew that one station played top 40, another played album rock, and another was “free form.” Or you put on a record. And I lived in the media capital of the world, so I can only imagine that radio was even less varied elsewhere. Now, if you like popular hits, you can find a way to listen to them. If you want to only listen to obscure indie rock, you can do that. And if you want to mix things up, you can do that, too. But all of this choice requires more work than I think most people are willing to do, and can simply be overwhelming. Maybe not to most people who read obscure music blogs, but most regular people. I wrote this earlier this week, and here's an op-ed from today's New York Times that discusses some of the same issues.
Although I would expect that most people reading this were in fact aware that the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video on MTV, I am willing to bet that a significantly smaller percentage of you knew that it was not the first version of the song released. The song was written by Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley, all members of the Buggles, and it was a demo of the song that helped get the band signed. Apparently, it took the trio about an hour to write. While recording the album, Woolley left amicably, formed The Camera Club and released his somewhat less “produced” version of the song on the album English Garden. Here it is:
Shortly thereafter, the remaining Buggles released their version, which became the huge hit and a cultural icon. And to show there were no hard feelings, Woolley appears in the video. Downes and Horn started to work on another album, but instead joined Yes, in what was at the time a true head scratcher. The second Buggles album was later released, to less acclaim, and Downes joined Asia and has been part of other bands. Horn has mostly made his name as a producer. The Camera Club’s second album went unreleased, and Woolley has become better known as a songwriter, often for movies. One of the other members of that band was Thomas Dolby, who must also have recognized the interplay between TV and radio. His debut album was called The Golden Age of Wireless, and the first track was another early MTV staple, “She Blinded Me With Science.” The second track? “Radio Silence.”
Sunday, May 11, 2014