On August 1, 1981, MTV launches as a 24 hour cable television network only showing music videos. This completely changes the landscape of the music business- comparable to the rise of FM radio 15 years earlier. In its first three years, it was mostly populated by bands who already had created promo videos for their songs- a trend that the UK had already been on board with but that the US was not. US labels were hesitant to put money into the production of music videos and as a result certain bands that may have not had success ended up having such from 1980-1983- because they did have videos.
Two particular artists defined the MTV generation for the 80s and should be acknowledged for doing so- Michael Jackson and Madonna. MJ had already realized success breaking off from the Jackson 5 and putting out “Off The Wall,” but no one could have predicted how much success “Thriller” would have. The video for Billie Jean first aired on March 10, 1983 after much arguing between CBS and MTV- to the extent where at one point Walter Yetnikoff said point blank that he would pull all CBS artists if the network wouldn’t play the video. The network acquiesced, and the rest is history. Michael Jackson would go on to produce Bad, which itself produced 7 hit singles. Hard to argue against Michael Jackson being the Beatles of the 80s. Madonna was also prolific in MTV success- particularly important to challenging expectations of women in music and becoming a fashion icon. Other artists realizing great success through MTV play were Prince and Janet Jackson.
Beyond the Big 4 previously mentioned, many other bands benefitted from getting their music out through MTV. Of note, Duran Duran, Boy George, The Eurythmics, Tears For Fears, The Go-Go’s (w/ Belinda Carlisle,) The Bangles (w/ Susannah Hoffs,) and Cyndi Lauper were great successes. In this same era however other artists espousing more of a “new traditionalists” approach were doing well. Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Dire Straits, The Police, U2, Peter Gabriel, Yes, and Asia of note amongst others. Suddenly half of the artists hitting big on the charts are over the age of 30- not a typical situation.