Music History

40 years ago today, MTV debuted

At 12:01 am on August 1, 1981, on a handful of cable systems across the US, this happened.

At the time, MTV was considered a bad financial risk. Who would want to watch short films based on songs 24 hours a day? And where would these films come from?

Both were big problems. Even though MTV came out of New York, the channel wasn’t carried on any of the city’s cable systems. And the entire MTV library at sign-on consisted of just 250 music videos, 30 of which are by Rod Stewart.

The first video shown was, of course, this.

Funny how that prediction didn’t happen. Radio is still here while MTV barely shows music videos anymore. The “M” in “MTV” doesn’t even officially stand for “music” anymore. In fact, when you think about it, the music video era only lasted about 20 years before it went into decline, killed by the changing demands and habits of music fans and YouTube.

But while it lasted in its original form, MTV effect on the music industry and culture, in general, was incalculable.

  • We became more familiar with what music stars looked like. Until MTV, fans had to be content with stills in magazines and the occasional (VERY occasional) appearance on network TV.
  • How you LOOKED as a musician became as important (if not moreso) than how you SOUNDED.
  • Because the British had more experience with music videos, the UK became a huge source of content. As a result, we saw many UK acts become major North American stars.
  • Making a music video became a new artform.
  • Once record labels realized that music videos could sell tremendous numbers of records, they were only too happy to give MTV new videos for free.

Canadians were marginalized from the new music video revolution at first. Because of Canadian content regulations (which MTV didn’t care about, of course), the network wasn’t able to get a broadcast license. Unless you had one of those big satellite dishes, MTV was unavailable and, in fact, illegal in Canada. We’d have to make do with after-school video programs (like Toronto Rocks) and late-night shows (remember Good Rockin’ Tonight?) until MuchMusic appeared in 1984.

Some fun links:

  1. A list of the first videos played on August 1, 1981. Note that the first Canadian act on MTV was April Wine with “Just Between You and Me,” which appeared in the second hour of MTV’s life. And notice the high rotation of Rod Stewart.
  2. Here’s a list of rock videos that were banned by MTV.
  3. If you’d like to relive that first day’s programming with all the videos, go here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38427 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “40 years ago today, MTV debuted

  • MTV. 1981-2021.

    20 years of great music programming.


Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.