It was 40 years ago this weekend that the course of popular music was forever changed by the launch of MTV. The industry was turned upside down, the nature of rock and pop stardom completely shifted, and everything from album promotion and marketing to live performances and movie soundtracks was unrecognizably transformed. The channel debuted as part of cable's new wave, along with other themed networks (HBO, ESPN, CNN) that would prove similarly game-changing -- but only MTV's impact on the culture of its time was great enough to ultimately define an entire generation.
Of course, it didn't happen overnight. When MTV first launched on Aug 1, 1981, it wasn't available in most major markets -- the staff held their launch party in Fort Lee, NJ, because no one could get the channel in Manhattan -- and the operation was still fairly ramshackle, with a particularly technical difficulty-plagued first 24 hours. What's more, the music videos weren't quite there yet either: By most estimates, MTV only had somewhere between 100 and 200 videos in their library at the time, and had to lean disproportionately on certain artists with more clips available (like REO Speedwagon and Rod Stewart) simply to fill 24 hours of programming.
And the quality of those videos? Well... it wasn't the highest plane the art form would reach. Since most 1981 videos were shot before MTV even existed -- filmed to be shown on proto-MTV video programs like PopClips or U.K. performance shows like Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test, or just sent to markets where an artist didn't plan to tour to give them added visibility -- budgets and aims were low, with many shot as rudimentary performance clips, or as unintelligible art pieces. MTV's golden age would kick off in earnest a couple years later, as the channel's increasing influence inspired an influx of both label spending and artist ambition -- not to mention an emerging class of video auteurs behind the camera, many of whom would eventually make the jump to feature films.