Rock Video Monthly was a subscription service, inaugurated by Warner Music Enterprises in October 1992. For $3/mo you would receive a videocassette with ten new releases in a chosen genre every month.
For perspective, MTV, which Warner sold to Viacom in 1985, did not originally pay for music videos. At that time, music videos were known as video clips, because they were often literally clipped off a larger program like a live show or a musical. These clips were considered a promotional vehicle for artists. So, MTV received and played them for free, while collecting money from advertisers and subscription fee from cable companies. Good deal!
By mid-1980s it became clear that music videos were real programming, hence they should have been paid for.
Come 1990s, MTV played about ⅓ fewer music videos than previously. MTV president Van Toffler stated that “the novelty of just showing music videos has worn off”, but I bet it was just a matter of finances. There was no money in playing music videos anymore.
MTV started broadcasting reality soap operas in May 1992. Before that, MTV had dabbled in production of game shows and animated cartoons. The shift from music to “youth-oriented pop culture” was so dramatic, that by the mid-1990s the majority of MTV’s daily schedule was devoted to programming that was not related to music.
So, the subscription service would kill several birds with one stone:
- it would signal to viewers that unlike Viacom, Warner was dedicated to music and music videos;
- it would give proper attention to genres that were under-represented in traditional MTV and VH1 programming blocks; the only chance one could catch a heavy metal song on MTV was within the boundaries of the “Beavis and Butthead” show;
- finally, the network would profit from selling 30-minute music video tapes.
Rock Video Monthly started with heavy metal, hard rock, modern rock, rap, and dance/pop categories. In 1993, heavy metal and hard rock categories were combined, modern rock was renamed to alternative rock, dance/pop became just pop, and a country category was added.
It is bewildering that ten years after the founding of the MTV, Warner Music stepped on the same old landmine, branding its content as rock even when it clearly was not. Rap and pop and dance are not rock! But to Warner bigwigs, who by the 1990s became old farts, “modern music” meant just one thing: rock. Considering the above, it is interesting that country music received its own branding. Does it mean that country was farther away from rock than even rap?
Back then, the average price for a new VHS movie was twenty dollars, so Rock Video Monthly was a pretty good deal. Special releases, up to six per year, were sent in for free. A magazine called “Huh” was added to the subscription later for no additional charge. Reportedly, it was similar to “Spin”, but less pretentious and more metal friendly.
The magazine and the videos exposed subscribers to genres and artists that they would not have heard otherwise and played a role in their musical education.
After all, cable television was not available everywhere. A satellite dish was an option, but for many viewers the MTV or VH1 programming was less than satisfactory. Other television music programs like Night Flight (USA Network) and Night Tracks (WTBS) bit the dust in the early 1990s. So, Rock Video Monthly subscription series filled the void and satisfied the hunger for fringe music.
It seems that Rock Video Monthly did not work well for Warner financially. In 1994 the price was raised to $4/mo and cheaper cassettes were introduced. This did not dissuade the subscribers, who would have gladly kept their subscription going just for the chance of seeing new music videos that “did not make them want to strangle children”. Nevertheless, in December 1995, the service was cancelled, exactly when it was the most needed, right after MTV drastically cut the time it spent playing music videos, and a decade before YouTube.
Regarding YouTube: In 2008 Warner Music pulled hundreds of thousands of videos from YouTube following the collapse of talks with the Google-owned company. The videos returned to YouTube nine months later, but Warner has never been happy with the content-sharing deal.
In 2017 Warner Music has renewed the deal “under very difficult circumstances”, according to Warner Music CEO Steve Cooper. He said, “There’s no getting around the fact that, even if YouTube doesn’t have licenses, our music will still be available but not monetized at all”.
Remember, that Warner-owned MTV was receiving music videos for free just quarter century earlier! And MTV was running ads between videos! And MTV was charging cable companies! All the while the producers of the videos and the artists getting nothing except exposure on MTV. Corporations have no morals and no shame.
The legacy of the service has survived in the videocassettes that have been mailed out. Ebay is full of them, sometimes you can catch a nice lot for a reasonable price. It appears that most of the tapes sold on eBay are from the alternative releases. Incidentally, this is exactly the kind of music I listened to thirty years ago.
So, I got myself a Christmas gift: a box of alternative tapes, along with some pop and metal.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!