I see that the original MTV VJs are on a publicity “run” supporting a new book that they have collectively written. Normally I would say that something like this is gratuitous and unnecessary. In this case it is quite the opposite. There is no questions in my mind that MTV changed the cultural landscape of the world. Not necessarily for the better, but that is not the fault of anyone at MTV. The network or “The Channel” solidified some human traits that have changed the way live, We tend to think in soundbites these days. Most Americans and probably most people in the world have the attention span of a moth. The glitz, the glam and the overindulgence that began in the 90’s was definitely fed by the content of the videos on MTV. I cannot think of many other events in our culture that have had as profound affect on the world as MTV.
I worked at MTV for about 14 months, during 1986-1987. Looking back at it I remember it more fondly than I seemed to enjoy it at the time. The people there were terrific and they were some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. In that statement lies a significant problem. Everyone there was so bright, it was difficult to get things done. Everyone always had a better idea. So things were constantly changing.
I was hired by John Sykes and worked closely with Tom Freston and Bob Pittman on many projects. The best thing about MTV is that whatever you imagined could happen. “The Channel” was so powerful within the music industry that people would move mountains to do what we wanted to do. No idea was too costly or too outrageous. We were all young and full of ideas. Pittman, Freston, Doug Herzog, Judy McGrath were driven and passionate. This passion was infectious and became the driving force for MTV.
Shortly after I arrived a decision was made to take MTV in a new direction. We were used like a radio station, but rated like a TV station. Our quarter hour ratings were horrible. People would change the channel whenever they saw a video they didn’t like. So as a result, we needed to add more longform programming to “The Channel” and change it from a video channel to a “Lifestyle Channel”. This move would have a tremendously adverse affect on the music industry, but was definitely the right thing for MTV to do.
It was decided that we needed fresh faces. We decided to de-emphasize the VJs and replace some of the ones that were there. We hired Downtown Julie Brown and one by one let the others go. It was fun to see them on TV today. It brought back some memories. Mark Goodman, coming from a radio background, brought experience to the job and he was very good at it. Martha was everyone’s darling. Every teenage boy and lots of men had serious crushes on her. I did not work with Martha a lot, but she was always nice to me and from all reports a real pro. Nina was supposed to be the “ditzy blond with an attitude”. That could not have been further from the truth. Nina was probably the easiest of all the VJs to work with and worked her butt off. Alan Hunter was the guy next store. He was nowhere near as colorful as the others, but he had more staying power than the rest. He just did his job well and kept his head down. A good guy. The fifth VJ was J.J. Jackson. J.J. died in March of 2004. He was the first VJ to be let go.
I remember being at a John Mellencamp concert in the football stadium at Indiana University. John was at the height of his popularity, thanks in no small part to MTV, and several of us ventured out to Bloomington for the event. J.J. came along. I knew that J.J. was going to be fired on Monday. I was stunned at the reception that the VJs got when the group snuck into the first row of the stadium as the show was beginning. Fans were cheering J.J. and the others like they were rock stars. I guess they were. It hit me then, how huge MTV was in the hinterlands of the U.S. I don’t remember exactly which other VJs were present, but J.J. stuck in my head. Let’s just say he was less than friendly to some fans that came up and asked for his autograph. I felt like saying to him, you will miss this in a week. Enjoy the adulation while you can.
Jack and Diane-The video that changed John’s life and was a big part of MTV’s early days.http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h04CH9YZcpI
About six months after I joined MTV, my old bosses at Columbia Records contacted me and asked me if I wanted to come back to the label. I said no. Six months later they came back again and this time I was ready to leave.
After seeing what has happened in the music industry, this is one decision that I regret. Who knew at the time that the industry would essentially disintegrate. It seemed like a good decision at the time. I would stay at Columbia for fourteen more years (20 altogether)and did very well. I was happy, made lots of money and lots of friends. But, deep in my soul I am a TV guy.
The problem was, as a promotion man I was used to seeing things happen quickly. Each Tuesday, when adds were done at radio stations, I would get a report card of sorts. I knew if I did a good job or a bad one. I would see records break or not. It was sort of like being an adrenaline junky. I could tangibly see the results of my work and quickly.
At MTV I could spend months putting a show together and see a bump in the ratings of a tenth of percentage point. There was no immediate feedback for your efforts. For some reason I didn’t feel a part of bands breaking. Which is nonsensical, because my efforts at MTV on behalf of bands had a tremendous impact on their careers. I am not sure why I didn’t feel more of a part of it then.
Whether it is good or bad, I had a significant role in launching the “Hair Band” era. When I was at MTV bands like Poison, Great White, Cinderella and dozens of other bands were breaking as a result of the airplay they received on MTV. When “Slippery When Wet” , the game-changing album from Bon Jovi, was released I was sure it was going to break the band.
A few years earlier Bon Jovi entered a song in a contest for unsigned bands on WAPP in New York. The winner would receive a contract with Atlantic Records. I was one of the three judges for the contest. Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” won the contest. The band turned down the deal with Atlantic. Instead they signed to Mercury (at the time a questionable decision). The first album featuring “Runaway” did just alright. “Runaway” was an airplay hit in many markets, but the album didn’t sell much at the time. Bon Jovi’s second album made progress, but still did not break the band. But the growth was steady and people were beginning to take notice. When I heard “Slippery When Wet””, I was convinced that this would be the album to break them.
Some of the bosses at MTV did not share my enthusiasm. I managed to secure medium rotation for the first video, out of the box. This was a hard fought battle. The band was clearly not “cool” to others at MTV. The label was not happy. My good friend Randy Roberts was promoting me on the project gave me a bit of a hard time for not putting the record into a higher rotation. It was not necessarily up to me. It had to be a consensus. Most people in the music meeting were not interested in the video at all. They were not believers. So, while I saw this as a victory, Randy wanted more. I remember giving him a hard time. Saying, rather loudly that he should be happy, because nobody else really gave a damn about the band. I liked Randy a lot and had worked with him in my first job at Polydor Records several years before. I felt bad about jumping on him. I still remember the phone conversation and feel bad about it. But it was the truth.
Here is the video that broke Bon Jovi. “You Give Love a Bad Name” gave credibility to the “Hair Band Era”. We didn’t know at the time that Jon and the band would prove to be so much more than just a Hair Band.
Several weeks passed and sure enough the phones were ringing off the hook for “You Give Love a Bad Name”. The video went into heavy rotation and stayed there forever. The rest is history. A few months later we took the band to Jamaica to film for a weekend. It was a terrific time. Jon and the band were great and everyone had a good time. As the summer approached it was time to look for bands for the New Year’s Eve Show.
The show was broadcast live and was more of an industry thing than anything else. I suggested we book Bon Jovi for the New Year’s Eve Show. Les Garland, who was our GM, said I was crazy. “This was an industry thing and no one gives a damn about Bon Jovi”. I loved working with Les, but this was not one of his most visionary moments. As the summer ended Bon Jovi was on fire. Garland came back to me and said, “Bud, let’s get Bon Jovi for New Year’s Eve”. I told him it wouldn’t happen, because they were booked at Madison Square Garden. OOOPS. What I remember most about that New Year’s Eve Show was that we had a horrible lineup, featuring Carl Perkins, and some extremely forgettable bands.
In retrospect I really enjoyed my days at MTV. What made me leave was that I never felt comfortable being on the other side of the desk. I knew what it was like to be a promotion man. Quite honestly, I didn’t like being promoted. I enjoyed the process…but I did not like saying no. I knew how hard “NO” was to hear. I didn’t like being the bearer of bad news. I think if I had been more experienced I would have enjoyed it more at the time. Every promotion man’s dream was to be the one making decisions. While music was done by committee at MTV, I definitely played a role into picking what played on “The Channel”. I had the best seat in the house and was too dumb to realize it at the time.
I mentioned earlier that I was a real TV guy. Whether it is in my office while I am working or at home, bthe TV is always on. This is a habit I learned at MTV. I am nostalgic about television shows that were on when I was a kid. This is the truth. In 1981 my wife and I were living in LA and I remember coming home for lunch one day, “Leave it To Beaver” was on the TV. I said to her, why doesn’t somebody put these shows on in prime time. People would watch. As it turned out, a few years later, someone with more entrepreneurial spirit than I , started Nick At Nite.
I also remember having a conversation with Bruce Tenenbaum, a friend of mine who worked at Atlantic Records. It was 1978 or 79 and I remembering discussing that the videos that record labels were making were being under utilized. They were being shown on TVs in a few record stores. What if we put a show together and played them on TV? We got as far as thinking of a host. Unfortunately, my inexperience with things like raising money and other aspects of starting a TV network, won out. In fairness, I was just out of college and 23 years old at the time. I wish I knew what I was doing at the time.
Anyway, the broadcasting business is thriving. Major network television is re-defining itself, but content providers have more outlets than ever before. The record business is holding on for dear life. MTV played a major role in both these situations. Had MTV been able to figure out a way to play a lot of videos and still get ratings, the world would be a different place.