The first-ever music video is considered to be “The Little Lost Child” by Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern from 1894, which was called an illustrated song. It was a series of projected still images, accompanied by a live music performance of the song.¹
Music Videos went through a long history of development, starting from illustrated songs, then the invention of the first motion picture with sound-on-film, all the way to animated videos that were structured around music, to eventually get the official term “music-video” which was first used in 1959 by Jiles Perry Richardson.
Today, music videos are defined as short films that focus on a musician or group of musicians, in an effort to promote their music. The videos often feature the performers singing or playing their songs while footage of them performing is shown, or even animated versions of the song. Music videos began as promotional tools for musicians in the early 1980s, but they soon became an art form in their own right.
In 1981, MTV (Music Television) began airing music videos as part of its programming. The first music video to ever air on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. The video was shot in 1979, but MTV didn’t air it until 1981.
This was partly because MTV was originally a channel that only showed music videos and partly because the technology to produce quality music videos didn’t exist until the early 1980s. The Buggles were one of the first bands to have a music video produced with new technology.
Talkies, soundies, and shorts before MTV
Music was a huge part of the first films ever produced. In fact, some people refer to those early films as “talkies” because talking and singing were the only things they contained.
Around the 1920s and 1930s, music began to be incorporated into silent films. Singers would use hand signals known as “subtitles” to indicate to audiences when they were supposed to start singing. The first film with synchronized music and speech was the 1926 feature Don Juan starring John Barrymore, which was probably the first “soundie”. In 1927, Warner Brothers released a musical called The Jazz Singer which used sound throughout the entire movie.
The 1940s saw the release of a number of musicals, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Goldwyn Follies. These films featured popular singers and dancers of the time and were intended to be shown in movie theaters before the main feature film.
In the early days, music videos were often called “soundies” because the only items featured were music and people singing or playing instruments. As time went on, music videos began to include artists talking and acting and footage of them performing their songs. Eventually, music videos became so complex that they could be considered short films, or “shorts” rather than just clips of musicians performing.
Promotional Clips Before MTV
The Czechoslovakian “Dáme si do bytu” (“Let’s get to the apartment”) made and directed by Ladislav Rychman is believed to be the first example of a promotional music video.
Sometime around the late 1950s, the world was introduced to a visual jukebox, which first started in France with the likes of short films, accompanied by songs. It immediately spread to other countries with similar machines being developed and used. After that, shows were aired with pre-recorded music audio for which the producers went to a certain location and taped a lot of different visuals with the musicians lip-synching their song and then afterward editing it all together.
The early music videos were very simple and only showed the artists performing their songs. However, as technology progressed and music videos became more complex, they began to be seen as their own form of art. Nowadays, music videos can be incredibly creative and tell a story or convey a message.
How MTV revolutionized music videos
MTV was the first channel to air music videos as part of its programming. It began broadcasting on August 1, 1981. The first music video to ever air on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.
MTV revolutionized the music industry by giving artists a way to promote their music. As the music industry evolved, music videos became more complex and provided additional income to musicians. Music videos also allowed genres of music that didn’t have a visual element, such as jazz, classical, or reggae to be recognized by mainstream audiences.
Today you can find just about any popular song on MTV. The network has started airing full-length movies rather than just short clips. MTV has also spawned numerous celebrity artists who started out on the network. Artists like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Mariah Carey all got their start on MTV.
Music Videos Then and Now
The early music videos were simple, consisting of footage of the musicians performing or being interviewed. However, as MTV grew in popularity, so did the quality and complexity of music videos.
In 1984, Michael Jackson released his music video for “Thriller.” The video was directed by John Landis and is often cited as one of the best music videos ever made. It was heavily influenced by horror movies and featured Michael Jackson and his backup dancers dancing in a graveyard. “Thriller” was nominated for eight MTV Video Music Awards and won six of them, including Video of the Year.
Since “Thriller,” music videos have become increasingly creative and elaborate. Some music videos even tell entire stories or feature complex choreography. However, the majority of music videos still consist of footage of the musicians performing or being interviewed.
In recent years, there has been a trend of releasing music videos as short films rather than just promotional tools for the song. This has led to some very creative and innovative music videos, such as “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyoncé, and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.
The first music videos were actually illustrated songs with live music performed, which over time, developed into the first motion picture with sound-on-film. After that came animated videos with lyrics as a form of singalongs. Eventually progressed to actual music videos.
Music videos are promotional clips for musicians, often consisting of only the artist performing their song. However, as technology progressed and music videos became more complex, they began to be seen as short films rather than just promotional tools. Nowadays music videos can vary in style from simple clips to completely-fictional short films that tell a story.
¹Altman, Rick (2007), Silent Film Sound – Columbia University Press