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MJ & MTV's Music Revolution

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In the making it sounds like any other Hollywood Big Deal: big money, big stars, a prize-winning director and a plot shrouded in secrecy. Yet for director Bob Giraldi, the past hectic month of flights and phone calls to London and the Coast will not end in a blockbuster movie. Giraldi’s prizes, after all, have been Clios, not Oscars, earned for his TV ads for Miller Lite and McDonald’s. And last week when he dollied his cameras toward Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, his goal wasn’t Cinerama, but minirama: a co-medic, five-minute video clip designed to mega-hype their recently released duet single, “Say, Say, Say”.

Such videos have become the hottest new art form—and a rock ‘n’ roll requisite—thanks to MTV, the music television channel that now beams 300 such clips a day into 15 million cable-TV homes. Last week 17 of the 20 top-selling albums in Billboard were represented on the home screen by way of video minimovies showing rockers in concert or lip-synching lyrics to bizarre vignettes.

The clips, supplied free by record companies, are as much advertising as art, of course, and they are also expensive. The five-minute video for Michael Jackson’s song “Billie Jean”, which portrays the singer as a light-stepping, back-alley lover en route to a tryst, cost over $75,000 to produce. The Giraldi-directed video for “Beat It”, which features Jackson as a mean-streets Prince of Peace, employed Dreamgirls co-choreographer Michael Peters, 14 dancers and two genuine street gangs and ran up a total bill of some $150,000.

It may be the best money Michael Jackson and his record company, CBS/Epic, ever spent. (Michael picked up the costs for “Beat It”; CBS paid for “Billie Jean”.) Played almost to saturation on MTV, the two videos have helped push sales of Jackson’s Thriller album past the 10-million mark in U.S. sales alone—or about $50 million in gross sales. Still selling at the rate of 200,000 copies per week a full 10 months after its release, Thriller is the best-selling album in CBS history.

Jackson, however, is only the most spectacular beneficiary of the video boom. Overall, it’s become a miracle tonic to a recording industry beset by a four-year slump and a 40 percent decline (1979 through 1982) in revenues. Launched two years ago by Warner Communications and the American Express Company, MTV, with its 24-hour-a-day rock format, has taken the place of radio listening for many of its mostly under-35 viewers. The cable channel, which is signing on at least half a million new subscribers a month, “has given us a phenomenal new way to expose music and has changed the record industry dramatically,” says Elektra/Asylum board chairman Bob Krasnow. Adds Jim Mazza, president of Capitol and EMI Records: “If it were not for MTV, the music industry would still be floundering.”

The other big winners in this high-stakes video game have been new rock groups struggling for exposure. When Duran Duran, the now-popular British quintet, released its first album in the U.S. in 1981, the LP went nowhere. Then the group recorded Rio, their second album, and flew to Sri Lanka to tape a video clip to accompany their single “Hungry Like the Wolf”. The resulting jungle adventure, featuring a brief wrestling match with a barely clad native girl (but no wolf), proved a smash on MTV, and Duran Duran watched “Rio” climb steadily to No. 14 and “Wolf” to No. 3 on the charts. Last year, during their U.S. tour, Duran Duran found themselves mobbed by 5,000 fans in New York—not at a radio station or record store, but at a Manhattan Radio Shack that had been selling the Hungry tape.

While radio stations catered to old-style rock diehards, new groups like the Fixx, Eurythmics, Flock of Seagulls, Def Leppard and U2 turned to MTV to find their teenage following. The Stray Cats, Long Island’s rockabilly trio, thrived in Europe and on college stations back in the States, but they had little luck cracking the rigid playlists on commercial stations. Then MTV began airing the video to Stray Cat Strut, a film fantasy in which the group performs in a dingy alley while an irate fishwife showers them with garbage. Suddenly the trio “started to sell in Seattle even though we didn’t have any radio stations playing the group,” recalls Capitol’s Jim Mazza. “The orders started coming in. Well, MTV had gotten into the Seattle market, and people were going out and buying albums like crazy.”

Rock groups and record companies haven’t been the only ones to capitalize on MTV’s muscle. While casting the movie Flashdance in New York last year, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer saw the channel for the first time (it wasn’t yet available in L.A.). Later they turned three of their movie’s song-and-dance numbers into videos and released them to MTV to coincide with Flashdance’s release. The film, of course, became the summer’s surprise hit, earning $86 million through September.

“MTV was exceedingly important to the success of the film,” says Simpson. “There is a one-to-one correlation between where MTV is hot and where Flashdance is hot.” Not to miss out on a good thing, Staying Alive‘s producers pursued the same tactic with that film’s hit song, “Far From Over”.

Of the 20 to 25 new videos that come to MTV each week, some 95 percent suit the channel’s all-rock format and find their way onto the air. To keep some balance between heavy metal, syntho-pop, rockabilly and the rest of rock’s subspecies, the station regularly surveys viewers, record stores, dance clubs and radio stations and has the results tabulated by a computer. Such programming-by-numbers has made for a mostly white lineup of stars, and even Michael Jackson had some trouble getting airplay.

“In the beginning they did not know what would be acceptable to their audience,” notes CBS Records vice-president Frank Dileo, who says he went back to the station “several times” to argue for Jackson’s inclusion. MTV’s Les Garland, the channel’s vice-president in charge of programming, says the issue is rock-ism, not racism. “You cannot be all things to all people. You cannot play jazz and country music and funk. You lose your focus.”

Some rock videos have gotten the brush from MTV for reasons other than music. David Bowie’s bare-bottomed frolic in “China Girl” was sent back for heavy editing, and other clips have been dumped altogether. Among them: Van Halen’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”, featuring midgets chasing a transvestite, and the Rolling Stones’ “Neighbours”, with its suggestion of mutilation and murder. “Censorship is not a word we like to use around here,” admits Garland, one of three men on the station’s “review committee.” “We call it good judgment.”

Good business might be more like it. Videos have found their way onto stations across the dial, from NBC’s Friday Night Videos to Turner Broadcasting’s Night Tracks to HBO’s Video Jukebox and more. Contracts are also changing to accommodate video. “Before, we made record deals,” says Elektra’s Bob Krasnow. “Now we make audio-visual deals. Next year we will make one, probably two videos on every pop and black album we put out.”

In many cases money that once went for touring now goes for videos, which start at about $35,000. “The idea in the ’70s was to get the act on the road, touring from city to city,” says Al Teller, the general manager of Columbia Records. “But even under the best of circumstances, the number of people that would be reached was a fraction of what you can reach through MTV in a shorter period of time.”

It is not cash flow, however, but a new creative outlet that has attracted many directors to the genre. “At first I thought this is a great place for new directors to start,” notes Tobe (Poltergeist) Hooper, who recently teamed up with rocker Billy Idol. “Then I thought, ‘Gee, this is a great place to do a three-minute film, to use it as an experimental ground.’ ” Says Brian Grant, a veteran of some 175 promos including Olivia Newton-John’s Physical and Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money: “It’s really a laboratory. Your back is against the wall all the time. You’re always fighting time and money, and you learn a lot.” Bob Giraldi, who has worked with Diana Ross and Pat Benatar as well as Michael Jackson, is enthusiastic: “There are no artistic limitations on MTV, only budget limitations.”

Sometimes even those don’t matter. Michael Jackson is rumored to be planning a 10-minute video for the title track from his Thriller album. Its projected cost, according to one report: a whopping $500,000. And Stevie Nicks, after taping an elaborate Civil War costume drama to go with Stand Back, trashed the final result because she thought she looked too fat in a couple of shots. What price vanity? In Nicks’ case, about $85,000.

Still, given video’s mushrooming importance, perhaps a little vanity makes sense. With cable TV set to begin in England next year, MTV has now joined a consortium in search of a second music television channel abroad. One competitor is a group co-led by Beatle businessman Ringo Starr. Meanwhile, video bars and discos are popping up in the U.S., and some 500 movie theaters will soon begin showing minivideo concerts before their feature films. Video 45s (costing about $20 for three songs) and hour-length albums (at about $60) are already available for home systems.

Will all this vidiocy put the squeeze on MTV’s appeal? Not according to MTV’s Les Garland, who notes happily that more than 60 percent of America’s TVs have yet to hook up to cable. “As far as I’m concerned, there is no ceiling,” he says. “As long as cable TV expands, so can we.”