80s music videos: See how MTV rocked the music industry in all the best ways

Vintage MTV logos

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Imagine it’s the super-early 1980s, you’re flipping the television dial (yes, dial!) and stumble upon a channel that isn’t just playing music — it’s visually bringing it to life like a mini-movie. If you are too young to have experienced this, trust us: It was a jaw-dropping phenomenon at the time. And this wasn’t a one-off special or a concert recording. No, this was 24/7 — a music video revolution happening right in your living room.

Welcome to the dawn of MTV, a groundbreaking television experiment that catapulted music into a new realm, transforming it from a purely auditory experience to a visual extravaganza. This brave new world of would have a profound impact on pop culture, setting trends, shaping discussions, and making global stars out of musicians in the 1980s. Get ready to rewind and revisit the magic of MTV’s 80s music videos and the vibrant decade they dominated.

MTV logo
Vintage MTV logo

When MTV first hit the airwaves on August 1, 1981, it didn’t just change the television landscape, it also revolutionized the music industry. The famous first words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” set the tone for what was to come: a thrilling audio-visual spectacle that would redefine how people consumed music.

The concept of MTV was simple, yet groundbreaking. It was an entire network dedicated to music videos, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This presented a new platform for artists to showcase their creativity beyond the music itself, transforming the way songs were marketed and consumed. The ’80s, a decade known for its vibrant fashion and bold artistic choices, became the perfect canvas for this explosion of visual music storytelling.

Those 80s music videos, whether they were Michael Jackson’s epic “Thriller” or Madonna’s rebellious “Like a Virgin,” weren’t just promotional tools for albums — they became cultural touchstones in their own right. The videos, with their distinct aesthetics and storytelling styles, played an enormous role in shaping pop culture trends and dialogues, from fashion and dance moves to broader conversations about identity and self-expression.

MTV also expanded the reach of music. Now, fans could see their favorite artists perform anytime — not just at concerts or on late-night talk shows. The access to these music videos made the world feel a little smaller, as fans from across the globe could now share in the same experience, witnessing iconic moments in real-time.

The power of MTV’s 80s music videos went beyond mere entertainment. They introduced important societal topics to a wider audience. The evocative imagery and narratives presented in these videos often touched on themes like racial equality, gender norms, and political unrest, encouraging viewers to engage in critical conversations.

Today, the legacy of ’80s MTV music videos continues to shape the industry. They laid the foundation for the visual albums of Beyoncé and the YouTube performances of aspiring musicians. And while the MTV of today might look a little different, its impact on the music and cultural landscape remains undeniable.

MTV — with its focus on music videos, was not just a radical experiment in television — it was a seismic shift in popular culture. It redefined our connection to music, brought social issues into the living room, and created a shared, global experience — all the while leaving us humming along to unforgettable tunes.

MTV plays the music you want to see (1983)

A handsome blond man is running distractedly through the open-air market of an exotic city. Suddenly, he finds himself transported to a tropical river and running over a rope-and-wood bridge as it collapses. He is succored by a woman who wears tribal face paint.

This is rock ‘n’ roll? Well, this Third-World fantasy scene — an abstract conceptual accompaniment to the song “Hungry Like the Wolf” — has been essential in the march toward stardom of the English band Duran Duran.

Those visual images are seen almost daily in millions of American homes on Music Television — better known as MTV — Warner-Amex’s 24-hour, pop-music cable channel.

Scenes from classic MTV 80s music videos

MTV’s viewing audience has grown from 2.5 million to more than 8 million homes on 900 cable systems in its first year and a half.

BUT THIS 24-hour music-and-interview show is only part of the video boom that’s rocking the rock ‘n’ roll business. Rock videos also are shown on pay-TV outlets such as Home Box Office and Showtime. The rock program Night Flight appears to be a programming hit on the USA Cable network. All of these offerings are seen on several of the cable systems on the Suncoast.

Rock videos are shown in music clubs and dance halls, sometimes taking the place of live performers. Music-oriented video discs and video cassettes are now available for the home consumer.

“I believe video’s going to save the record industry,” said Steve Kahn, manager of the audio-visual department at RCA Records. “We have to find new ways to sell records, and I can’t think of a better way than videotapes.”

MTV is essentially a televised radio station. Instead of disc jockeys playing records, MTV has video jocks, or VJs, who appear on camera between visualizations of individual songs. Sometimes, these are simply performance shots or concert footage. But more frequently, artists are opting for elaborate videos that attempt to capture the mood of the song with provocative images.

The original MTV VJs
The original MTV VJs, L to R: Alan Hunter, J J Jackson, Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood, and Mark Goodman

WITH RECORD companies no longer helping subsidize concert tours by beginning artists, videos have become an essential way of giving the public a visual idea of what’s behind the music.

“It’s the only thing we have that represents us,” said Carole Pope, lead singer of Rough Trade, a Toronto band popular in Canada, but little known in the United States. “It’s good to be seen as well as heard.”

Rough Trade made its video for only $5,000 — peanuts as these things go. Guitarist Pat Travers, in his “I’d Rather See You Dead” clip, has a Jaguar sedan blown up.

“The manager had a car he said didn’t work well,” said Ken Walz, a New York filmmaker who directed the video. “He wanted to make a coffee table out of what was left of it, so he donated it. He thought the effect would be spectacular and help his artist.”

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Brian Setzer, leader of the suddenly-selling rockabilly group, the Stray Cats, flatly credits MTV with the group’s success (its debut album “Built for Speed” went to No. 2 nationally) after the Long Island band had become hot in England.

YouTube video

SEVERAL MAJOR labels also credit MTV exposure with enhancing the careers of some of their artists.

Len Epand, Polygram Records vice president, cites the case of a new hard-rock band, Def Leppard. Its album “High ‘N Dry” was released two years ago, and peaked within months at a respectable 250,000 sales.

Later, the band filmed a video clip of a song from the album, “Bringing On the Heartbreak.” A few months ago, said Epand, “MTV put it in its current rotation,” meaning the video clip was getting daily exposure. “This last December, (the 2-year-old album) went gold. It’s over 500,000 and still selling.”

And the video budget for the second album by Duran Duran, mentioned at the beginning of this article, at least matched the amount spent on the recording of the audio disc.

According to one record executive, in the half of Dallas that was wired for cable — which featured MTV and Duran Duran’s two video clips — sales of the group’s second album were significantly higher than in the half without cable.

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Most of the videos telecast on the channel are made by either the artists or the record companies specifically for MTV. None of the video clips are available individually to consumers; MTV pays nothing for using them.

YouTube video

Video or it didn’t happen

Although record companies are not yet in a position to profit from selling rock videos to the consumer, most are willing to spend from $5,000 to more than $100,000 to produce a video for a single song that may help sell an album.

“If you’re not on MTV, or on cable, then to a certain segment of the audience, you don’t exist,” Polygram’s Epand said. “A large share of music consumers are watching these videos as a guide to record purchases.”

Not everyone is thrilled about either the depth of MTV’s programming or the content of the video clips. Last month in Billboard magazine, video editor Laura Foti charged both the video producers and MTV’s programmers with racism and sexism. She declared that the video clips often show “a cavalier disregard for taste, ethics and originality.

“Props such as French maids, mirrors, beds, highly-glossed lips and cheap rip-offs of famous paintings abound, along with violent and sexist themes.”

John Sykes, MTV’s 27-year-old programming director, defended its programming and was philosophical about the content of what is aired. “We don’t play race. We aim at a specific audience — the rock ‘n’ roll music audience.

YouTube video

80s music videos: Looking for a specific audience

“Just because we’re the first (music channel) doesn’t mean that if we put on a potpourri we’d win. We’d lose. You have to focus on a specific audience … A mixed bag won’t work with cable, not when you have 60 to 70 channels.”

Many companies are looking forward to the day when rock videos are revenue-producing revenue-producing revenue-producing rather than merely promotional tools. Sony is about to launch a “video single” in America (they are already available in Japan) that will contain about 10 minutes of video. The first artist signing announced by Sony was Jesse Rae.

Video, a division of a successful entertainment management firm (Alice Cooper, Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross), plans to begin operation this year as a video label.

Though a number of rock albums (notably the Kinks’ “One From the Road” and Blondie’s “Eat to the Beat”) have been released as video cassettes, sales have been spotty. For one thing, they are expensive — list price for most is around $39.95. More important, the lack of stereo sound on home television is a major deterrent to stimulating the interest of the rock consumer. The advent of stereo televisions may mitigate some of that resistance.

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MTV subscriber growth from 1981 to 1986

MTV subscriber growth 1981 to 1986

Music Television: MTV debuts (article from 1981)

Warner Amex pioneers cable music channel

Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co., already a pioneer in cable TV with ventures like Nickelodeon, the children’s channel, is breaking new ground with Music Television, an around-the-clock service aimed at the viewer who grew up on rock ‘n’ roll.

Music Television, or MTV, features Video Jockeys as hosts for 24 hours a day of rock videos, concert films, animation, music news and interviews with rock stars. And an inexpensive signal-splitter, wired to the cable input line, will send the picture to the TV screen and the stereo sound through the viewer’s hi-fi amplifier and speakers.

Bob Pittman, vice president for programming for Music Television says he thinks the impact of MTV on television will be as great as the change-over in the 1950s from drama-dominated to music-oriented radio.

“I don’t mean to suggest this will signal the end of traditional television programming,” Pittman says. “But it will have a revolutionary impact on the way the hard-core music fan deals with television.”

Since the advent of FM stereo, people have been listening to their radios all hours of the day. And because audience surveys indicate that the TV is left on seven hours a day in the average household, MTV would seem to be the next logical step — a stereo music channel with a television picture.

Its architects say extensive marketing research was used to determine that the 12-to-34 year-old age group would be the best target for the music channel, which was launched over the weekend.

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“We’re not trying to be all things to all people,” says John A Leak, an executive vice president at Warner Amex. “We’re going after the rock audience that grew up on television and music.”

“Rock music is not just a form of entertainment. It also represents a lifestyle, a value system, to that age group,” Pittman adds. “If you’re 50 years, old, you might ask a new acquaintance what church they go to. But if you’re 30, you’d ask what kind of music they like.”


Rock videos — film or tape clips of bands performing their latest recordings — have enjoyed great popularity on European television for several years, and are showing up with increasing frequency on late-night TV in the US. Pittman says the channel will begin with a library of 400 videos, almost twice the number of records on the average radio station’s playlist.

Although MTV will originate some of its own programming, most of the videos will be provided for free by record companies, who will be eager for the prime audience exposure the music channel can provide. The package will be offered to local cable systems, and in turn, the audience, at no extra charge.

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Cable systems, who will get promotional stipends and a chance to add two minutes of local advertising an hour, are signing up like crazy, says Pittman.

And advertisers, who will be able to reach the perfect market for stereo components, records and designer jeans at a fraction of the advertising costs of network TV, are signing up, too.

“Times have been hard for the recording industry, but this could issue in a boom period,” Pittman enthuses. “The networks have been scared to death of rock music, but we can do it because we’ve singled out the perfect audience.”

MTV launches: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” (1981)

On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 am, MTV was launched, and it went a little somethin’ like this…

YouTube video

MTV’s 5th birthday celebrated: 1981-1986

As featured in a special ad section in Billboard magazine – Aug 2, 1986

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (7)

MTV in 1981

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (3)

'The Greatest American Hero' swooped in to save America with laughs - and a catchy theme song (1981)

MTV in 1982

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (8)

MTV in 1983

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (6)

Dynamite magazine covers (1981-1983)

MTV in 1984

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (5)

MTV in 1985

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (4)

MTV in 1986

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (1)

Vintage Toys R Us catalog of Christmas gifts: '80s Out of this World Toy Book (1986)

MTV thanks the music industry (1986)

For 2,628,429 minutes of non-stop rock’n’roll

MTV's 5th birthday celebrated in Billboard 1981-1986 (2)

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. If you were a teenager in the early to mid 1980s, you can’t overstate what a big deal MTV was. When it first debuted, not that many people had cable, so everyone would converge on the house that had cable to watch videos after school (needless to say, the kids with cable were super popular). And when your favorite singer or band came out with a new video, it was news; the bigger the act, the bigger the buzz. You wanted to be the first one to have seen a video so you could tell everyone about it. Today, if you want to see a video, you just pull it up on YouTube; my grandkids have no idea what MTV is.

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