Does MTV really matter any more?

A few days ago, we heard from iRiver – maker of the cool Clix line of MP3 players – that they were excited to be partnered with MTV for a 2006 Video Music Awards co-promotion featuring Clix and MTV’s URGE music download service. According to iRiver, in addition to ‘heavy’ promotion of URGE during the Video Music Awards (VMAs) show, several hundred celebrities would be receiving Clix hardware, no doubt a nice gift bag item given the device’s small size and unique interface.

The e-mail made me wonder, though: is MTV anywhere near as relevant of a music opinion leader as it was 15 or 20 years ago? Let’s put aside the common complaint that MTV barely plays music any more, and instead focuses on reality TV programming, beach parties, and other lighthearted entertainment – there is music to be heard on MTV, just less of it. But with the Internet and its tens of thousands of music-related web sites out there, do people really care about what one TV station says they should be listening to? For the rest of the story, click on Read More, below.

There’s evidence on both sides of these questions. People clearly continue to watch MTV, and there’s no doubt that music-themed shows like TRL still attract lots of attention from younger viewers, while music industry-influenced shows like Cribs and Pimp My Ride have at least some influence on what people think is cool in homes and cars. There’s also the fact that nothing has clearly emerged to supplant MTV in the United States – if you want to watch music videos on TV here, you’ll probably do it either on MTV, MTV2, or VH1.

But does MTV shape music opinion, merely reflect it, or neither? The network’s annual VMAs – supposedly highlighting the best in music video entertainment – came and went yesterday, and like past years, it seems unlikely that anyone will remember three days from now who won or lost, that any of the winners will go on to greater success because of their awards, and so on. Unlike the Grammies, Emmys, or Oscars, it seems like no one brags about their Moonman trophies – if they do, maybe it’s just that no one’s listening. This year, MTV switched some of its awards to a formula where viewers helped to choose the winners, perhaps hoping that the viewers would care more about the awards if they had some stake in the outcome.

And people are getting plenty of music video content these days from the Internet – a lot for free, from sites like AOL Music, the official web sites of bands, and elsewhere (read: Bittorrent). The rest comes from stores like Apple’s iTunes, which give you split-minute previews and let you make up your mind about buying the rest. Younger listeners have embraced the Internet quickly and fully; swapping MP3s was only the beginning.

The impression I get is that the Internet is basically eating MTV and other non-interactive media alive – artists can take their music and messages directly to the masses, find hundreds of different, semi-influential outlets to talk with, and become well-known even if MTV has no role in the process. People I talk with are finding more good music these days through blogs and other web sites rather than MTV’s Overdrive. Then, when they want to buy the music, they do it through iTunes, not URGE. For many people, MTV’s been cut entirely out of a loop it once could have controlled from end to end. In my view, the reason’s that MTV picked the wrong horse to back when it went with Microsoft rather than Apple, and is only beginning to reverse that trend with sales of certain of its TV shows through iTunes.

To be totally clear about one point, I don’t think this is a “good” thing – I actually like some of what MTV has done in the past, music and otherwise, and the network has definitely developed some of the most entertaining and conceptually influential TV programs of the past dozen years. I’ve actually paid for a bunch of them through the iTunes Music Store, and would buy even more if its older, all-too-frequently-cancelled-in-their-prime shows were also available. But as a music opinion leader, MTV has basically disappeared from my radar, and I can’t say that I mind. Readers, what do you think?

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