MTV turned music inside out on this date 30 years ago. On August 1, 1981, the 24-hour music channel not only added a powerful visual component to rock but also helped usher in a third pop British Invasion that influenced virtually all forms of music and music videos in the 1980s. By extension, MTV created a new appetite for music sales. Before MTV, rock, pop and soul were radio and record affairs. For a visual look at your favorite artists, you had to turn to album covers and fan magazines. MTV forced stars to become larger than life personalities, dancers and actors.
Music videos for MTV may have killed the radio star but they also sparked an employment boom for video directors, choreographers, cameramen, tape editors, hair and makeup artists, costume designers, and graphic designers. When most people think of MTV in the '80s, what comes to mind first is the channel's cartoony logo and endless clever ways in which the letters M, T and V were displayed.
The person largely responsible for the logo was Fred Seibert [pictured in 1981], a creative director then and now a television and film producer who owns Frederator Studios in New York. Thirty years ago Fred had a vision for the network's brand and inspired artist Frank Olinsky to solve the challenge. Today, on the anniversary of MTV's start, I asked Fred to recall the story of the logo's birth, a fabulous tale he told me over lunch recently:
"Back in 1977, I was 25 years old and going broke as an independent jazz and blues record producer in New York. To make ends meet, I took a job at WHN-AM, a country music radio station, working in promotion production for Dale Pon, the station's creative services vice president. When Dale quit in 1979, he introduced me to a former radio programmer—Bob Pittman—who offered me a job in cable television, which was in its infancy then. [Pictured: Bob Pittman]
"At first, I resisted. 'Bob,' I said over the phone, 'I watch TV, I don't make it.' I was still holding out hopes that I could figure out how to make a good living in music production, my passion.
"But after my meeting with Bob, who was just 25 years old at the time, I realized that I could learn more from him than Dale's replacement. First I made a list of the pros and cons of taking a job in cable-TV. Last on my list of cons: 'You'll never work in music again.' [Pictured: Fred Seibert]
"So I took the job, and on May 5, 1980 I began as the one-man promo production team for The Movie Channel, part of the brand-new Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. We had posh offices high up in a tower on the Avenue of the Americas but a minuscule budget.
"A month later, Bob left a one-page memo on my desk outlining a new network the company was going to develop called The Music Channel. Attached to the memo was a concise timeline for the next 10 years, including a launch date 14 months out on August 1, 1981.
"As soon as I read Bob's memo, I marched into his office, proclaiming I knew more about music than anyone in the building and that I had to work on the launch. He agreed. Just like that I had managed to talk my way into two jobs—supervising the exploding promotion department at The Movie Channel and trying to figure what exactly the new Music Channel would be. Bob said he imagined it as a radio station with pictures. But what would the pictures be?
"Clearly, I needed help. So I reached out to Alan Goodman, my best friend from college radio days at Columbia University's WKCR. Alan was miserable in the advertising department at CBS Records. I knew he could figure out the solution to any music-related problem. So I hired him as a writer, producer and, best of all, a thinker. [Pictured from left, Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert in 1981]
"We started by doing unconventional research—watching Looney Tunes, since wacky cartoons were the closest thing to visual music and represented exactly the same emotional punch and rebellion as rock 'n' roll.
"Alan and I also went to visit my oldest friend from childhood, Frank Olinsky, a brilliant artist whose love for all things music had completely informed my high school years. He also had designed album covers for Oblivion Records, my independent blues and jazz label. [Pictured: Frank Olinsky, self-portrait in 1969]
"I thought perhaps Frank could design our logo. It wasn't actually my job to create a logo, but I didn't have anyone else I could turn to at Warner who was available to do it. Frank and his two partners, Pat Gorman and Patti Rogoff, set to work. Their firm, Manhattan Design, was tucked into a back room behind a tai chi studio above Bigelow Chemists in Greenwich Village. They started sketching logos for me right away—with no budget, no promises, and no idea of exactly what we were actually going to program on our channel.
"Dozens of ideas came and went over the next several months. Soon we zeroed in on a favorite—a Mickey Mouse-style hand squeezing the crap out of a musical note. Then at some point during the winter of '81, senior management decided that we weren't going to be called The Music Channel after all. Bob decided to name it TV-1, with the thought that the new name sounded space age.
"We all rebelled, pointing out there was no number 1 on television sets at the time. To Bob's credit, he gave in and assigned a committee to come up with a better name for the channel. In classic committee fashion, no one could agree on anything with a personality, so we settled on the only thing the group could agree upon—a dull, descriptive name: MTV: Music Television.
"From our field of vision 30 years ago, a channel's name needed three letters, right? Like NBC, CBS or ABC. The problem was that when we said MTV out loud, we all kept mistakenly calling it MTM—Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker's huge indie TV production company.
"'Doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?' mused company president Jack Schneider. But, MTV it was.
"Manhattan Design started grafting the letters onto the logo. But no matter what Frank and his partners created, the result looked crummy. So it was back to the drawing board. Hundreds of sketches flowed back to Alan and me.
"Then one day in April 1981, all three Manhattan Design partners showed up with what would need to be the last pile of graphic attempts. We needed to finalize the logo and begin producing on-air elements, stationery, business cards, promotional materials—all the stuff needed to start a real TV channel and run our business.
"As I weeded through their new submissions, Alan and I grew increasingly depressed. Nothing in the stacks rang a bell. That is, until the bottom of the pile, where we found a crumpled piece of tracing paper with a giant formal blocked 'M' followed by a scrawled TV. Alan and I lit up. It reminded us of the old 20th Century Fox logo—big, dramatic, imposing. The logo would completely fill the television screen's real estate.
"Manhattan Design went back to their studio to gussy up the creation for a presentation to my bosses. A few days later Frank and his partners returned with color samples and a board with dozens of different treatments that were meant to change, depending on what music show was on. Never mind that there weren't going to any 'shows' on MTV, just one three-minute music video after the next, interrupted on occasion by a VJ (our on-camera video disc jockeys) with commentary.
"Management looked at the result and nodded. The logo was approved. In fact, it was the easiest creative approval I've seen. Much easier than the year we had just spent trying to come up with it in the first place.
"Cooler still, Frank had spray-painted a graffitied 'TV,' allowing the drips to stay in. I couldn't decide which logo color treatment would be ideal to pitch to the business side. The experts in marketing had told me that logos had to be fixed—the same every time. So I pinned all the samples to my wall, hoping the right one would present itself to me during the days to come.
"Now came the fun part. The part I was most excited about. We had to animate the logo for our dozens of network identity pieces. These would run 144 times a day. I had always been in love with album covers—actually, obsessed with the great designers who saw cover art as more than decoration but brand identities for their labels. To my mind, the MTV network IDs, done right, could maybe define the new age the way those covers had defined the LP era.
"Bob Pittman's view was that radio had jingles as audio identifiers—the way NBC had its famous chimes. But such a device would be hopelessly dated for the young TV generation. So I asked him how he saw our IDs.
"'Well,' he drawled in his Mississippi accent, 'there could be an animated cow. A giant axe comes and cuts the cow's head off. Then, the cow vomits up our logo! OK?' Clearly Bob wasn't afraid of the cutting edge.
"OK! This was going to be fun!
"But the clock was running down. Animation takes time—and we hadn't locked in the logo's final design yet. I looked at all the versions on my wall, looked down at the board of all the versions that Manhattan Design had tricked up for our 'shows.' Then I blurted out that we'd use all of them—all the time. TV changed every minute, and music was in a constant state of flux. Why shouldn't our logo do the same?
"Problem solved. We'd use all of them! We'd create hundreds and use dozens at a time in one animation. Our audience could draw them, any artist could have their own versions.
"And that's when the trouble started.
"At our first business-side meeting, the lawyers said we had to pick just one, otherwise they'd have to register each and every version with the trademark office. That would be too much work, they said. I convinced them that if they trademarked just the logo's outline, the different colorings and designs wouldn't constitute a 'change.' They reluctantly agreed.
"When we met with our ad agency, they went into a total panic. 'It's ugly,' they said. Besides, the agency's founder had decreed 10 rules of an effective logo, and we had broken eight of them.
"Our head of marketing sympathized with the agency, arguing that a logo needed to be, above all, consistent. I pushed back: 'Our inconsistency is our consistency.'
"We also had come up with a classy black and grey scheme for the sales guys' business cards. 'You expect me to bring this blobby piece of shit to my clients?' screamed the vice president of sales.
"'You think this will last as long as the CBS eye?' asked the senior vice president of marketing, referring to the network's iconic corporate logo. 'Of course not!' I answered. 'It's a rock station. We'll be lucky if we're still be in business in five years!'
"John Lack, the executive who had the idea for a music channel in the first place, asked me who designed the logo. 'Three folks behind a tai chi studio in the Village,' I said. 'Go to some real designers and get something good,' he said. Ten weeks until launch and our expensive logo was dead. Or was it?
"I loved what Manhattan Design had produced. Besides, we didn't have much time left. So I went off to some incredible studios with king-sized reputations and gave them lousy direction—all but ensuring their failure. Frank and his crew had designed our logo. It was great, innovative, one for the ages. I wanted that damn logo.
"At our next big meeting, Alan and I brought along the big-time designers' work. Everyone agreed that they were pretty bad. Reluctantly, with a minor tweak—we changed the 'Music Television' font in Manhattan Design's MTV logo. Now everyone was on board, and the logo animated by the best independent animators in the world came into existence.
"Though we were based in New York, MTV wouldn't be broadcast in Manhattan for over a year. Issues relating to the intricacies of the cable-TV business at the time and competition for available stations kept us out. Believe it or not, many cable operators thought that a rock channel for young people wouldn't be a core cable channel. Back then, most of the decision makers were of a certain age.
"So before midnight on July 31, 1981, we all were taken by school bus (yes!) out to a Fort Lee, N.J., bar. Though New Jersey was just across the Hudson River, the cable company there was different and MTV had been given a slot. At midnight on August 1, MTV: Music Television launched. [Pictured, Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert]
'Launched' is the right word, since the very first thing viewers saw was an animation by Manhattan Design that was a mash up of an Apollo spacecraft landing astronauts on the moon. But instead of jabbing an American flag into the surface, the astronauts planted one that went through a dozen MTV logos. Playing in the background was a Kinks-like hard rock soundtrack composed and produced by Jonathan Elias and John Peterson.
"Then came the first video—the Buggles' hit Video Killed the Radio Star. It fit so perfectly for our launch that for years people thought we had commissioned the song and video for our debut. We didn't.
"At about 12:20 a.m., I gained a lot of faith in humanity when the executive who had asked me about the CBS 'eye' logo came over and shook my hand. 'I was wrong, the logo's great,' he said. 'Congratulations!'
"I'll be emailing him my thanks for a great memory today."
JazzWax clip: Here's the first 10 minutes of MTV, which was broadcast at midnight August 1, 1981...