Remember When TV Channels Had Music On Them?

You may not live near a record shop or live venue, but if you want more music, chances are you own a television: this was the alluring promise of linear TV music channels, which, two decades after their peak period, came to a decisive end this week.

Channel 4 have announced the closure of The Box, 4Music, Kiss, Magic and Kerrang! on 1 July, amid declining eyeballs on linear TV, rising operating costs and plummeting advertising revenue. The stations – which served a hard-to-reach national audience often underserved by the music industry – now “no longer deliver revenues or public value at scale”.

After the rollout of digital UK satellite television in 1998, the new millennium saw an arms race in music broadcasting as corporate boardrooms targeted the bored and music-loving teenager. At their peak, between 2003 and 2010, there were nearly 40 rolling music video channels available in the UK.

For me, as I entered adolescence in Blair’s Britain, living in the suburbia of east Lancashire, those channels became an all-consuming and eclectic syllabus on music past and present. Once we had upgraded to Sky Digital (posh), my brother and I wore out the padded buttons on our chunky Sky remote controls scrolling music TV with the attention span of a fruit fly and the brutality of a hard-boiled record executive.

After the success of rock and metal channel Kerrang!, Sky launched its own imitator, Scuzz, in April 2003: the sweaty video for Funeral for a Friend’s This Year’s Most Open Heartbreak jump-started an era of bounty for the stay-at-home pop-rock fan. That year the visionary music entrepreneur Darren Platt founded Channel U, which transmitted grime into living rooms across the UK and broke the mainstream hegemony: Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal, Chipmunk (now Chip), Skepta and Ghetts all received crucial TV airplay, as the luxurious white-letterboxed videos of 2000s US hip-hop were replaced by footage from Peckham and Bethnal Green.

Other channels launched at around the same time included The Hits, Magic and Flava, while legacy stations such as MTV expanded their reach into specialist indie rock, R&B and club music iterations. It’s no coincidence that the old-school Top of the Pops died during those years.

While MTV Select, which ran on viewers’ requests, was an early education in democracy (disappointing), shows like VH2’s The Next Song Will Be Great implicitly understood the gamed, double-your-money promise of music TV on young minds. A show about the 100 Best Videos Ever became a highbrow seminar on auteurs such as Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry, and was where I first encountered groundbreaking videos such as Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy, Bjork’s All Is Full of Love and New Order’s Bauhaus-influenced True Faith.

That collision of eras and styles is important. Much has been made of how 2010s streaming flattened 60 years of pop history, but for millions it was the music channels that got there first. This had implications: despite the best efforts of MTV2’s Zane Lowe-fronted Gonzo interview show, it was hard to be quite so thrilled by indie acts such as the Pigeon Detectives and Babyshambles once they were juxtaposed with their obvious indie influences, the Smiths or the Cure. Later, Simon Reynolds theorised about pop music’s addiction to the past, but here was the first time I witnessed contemporary music culture’s fight for oxygen against its own history.

Music TV could foster strange pleasures, too – and I don’t just mean staying up late to catch the version of Rock DJ that doesn’t cut before Robbie Williams rips off his own skin. Grownups would be bemused why, aged 14, I knew all the words to Cliff Richard’s Wired for Sound, but I’d become hooked by the Milton Keynes roller-skating video of this Magic TV mainstay.

Today, the music video appears to be in decline. The artistry of videos has diminished in a world of pinched budgets, reduced to “visualisers” for YouTube featuring lyrics and holding images. Recently the chillwave artist Washed Out took some flak for releasing a video made entirely with OpenAI’s Sora feature: a grim glimpse of the automated slop future of a zombie internet.

However, the music video is arguably alive and well on TikTok, where, instead of sitting catatonically on their sofa like I did, fans now confidently respond directly to tracks and blend their own creativity with that of the artist. There are thrilling and eclectic content curators such as Margeaux Labat offering obscure new music picks. Filmed DJ sets, popularised by Boiler Room, have become their own genre. But the chance of colliding serendipitously with a fully realised cinematic music video, especially as algorithms increasingly inform and narrow down our tastes, feels smaller than ever.

In the 2020s, linear music TV is a dispiriting experience: a carve-up between Jools Holland, BBC Four’s Friday night archive Top of the Pops programme and Sky Arts’ bewildering clash of Andrea Bocelli arena shows and boomer-friendly reunion rock. What remains of music TV is nostalgia for an ageing broadcast audience: Tony Blackburn’s That’s 60s channel or Mike Read’s Heritage Chart Show. Like a lot of things about living in the UK, it is run poorly, without love, and in the slavish service of an imagined community of retirees.

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