Hillary Atkin

MTV and Its Corporate Cousins Going Back to Their Musical Roots

May 10, 2013

More than three decades after its debut created a seismic shift in the pop culture landscape, it can be very easy to forget that MTV still stands for music television.

That also makes it surprising to learn that 1,200 hours of music videos are aired each week across the Viacom family of networks, including MTV, CMT, and VH1, that reach 100 million homes in TV-land and 60 million online via digital and social screens. It’s a universe that encompasses MTV Hits, MTV Jams, MTV Buzzworthy, MTV Hive, VH1 Soul, VH1 Tuner, CMT Pure, CMT Edge and Palladia.

That is the framework upon which the network is trying something new — by going back to its roots and focusing on musical artists across a broad spectrum of genres and levels of experience.

It’s a concept called the artist opportunity hub that has been percolating in soft launch/beta mode since the VMAs last fall. Basically, artists could come in and create platform pages for themselves on artists.mtv.com, artists.vh1.com or artists.cmt.com — an “inside” network that has already received significant traffic and engagement with videos without any real marketing — to the tune of 2.3 million visitors in April, according to comScore.

Now the model is kicking into a new phase and includes access to many other large-scale opportunities to reach a broad audience and to generate revenue.

First and foremost, there is the opportunity for artists to get their videos aired on the networks, which has always been a tricky process in the past involving record labels, managers, publicists or other music industry connections who have traditionally operated the star-making machinery.

MTV, VH1 and CMT’s music teams will evaluate videos based on the number of eyeballs and fan interaction on each artist’s page. Selected artists will receive an email that their video has been viewed and then will be notified when and where it will go into video rotation.

Much like the blind auditions on NBC’s "The Voice,” where it’s all about unfiltered talent, the process is more egalitarian than “who you know.” It means that music fans, especially tastemaker fans who rally around emerging artists, will play a critical role in helping to identify artists that are strongly resonating within different fan and genre pockets.

In a digital sense, it still is about who you know, as Shannon Connolly, the SVP of Digital Music Strategy for Viacom Music and Logo Group, explained to us.

“The more you drive people to your content, the more we listen to you, and that’s how you get into our programs," she says. "If you can mobilize your fan base, that’s how we notice you.”

And it’s not just about playing music videos. It’s about having songs chosen that go into popular shows like "Awkward," thus providing another platform from which emergent talent can grow.

If that sounds like what happened with some unknown bands whose music was featured in commercials and elevated their careers, yes, there is also an advertising element that will come into play as the concept evolves.

"With the launch of this hub, we have the potential to work with brands to help find the artist that best suits their needs and goals and then create custom campaigns with tremendous scale that could play out across all of our platforms and screens," Connolly says.

Although the hub launched without a sponsor, she says having the “right” brands connect — and you can imagine there are a slew of them — is a huge part of the strategy.

“We believe it will be a primary part of the revenue stream for artists in the next 5-10 years. We have the platforms and scale to integrate artists into campaigns, and it becomes a really powerful opportunity,” says Connolly.

At the same time, she says that Viacom wants to stay focused on the artists, wanting them to feel there’s someone behind the curtain, that they’re not submitted into a black hole.

The corporate philosophy, Connolly explains, is that artists should get paid and participate in the revenue.

"The rev share model percentage of Spotify, YouTube and some of the others doesn’t really yield payouts to artists that are meaningful. The industry purposefully is taking a rev share approach that isn’t sufficient," she says. "Because we’re advertising-based, we have other ways of making money. We will have a tip jar that allows fans to leave tips to artists. As for commerce, they’ll be able to sell merchandise on our page. For us, it’s about creating success stories.”

As for the fans, they will have several participatory opportunities coming up shortly that will demonstrate the digitally democratic nature of the new venture.

They will get to determine two musical acts who get a slot to play at the three-day Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which runs May 17-19.

The festival’s lineup includes Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, the Black Crowes, the Shins, Public Enemy, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kings of Leon.

“Working with Artists.MTV/VH1/CMT, we’re giving music fans an unmatched voice in giving two emerging artists this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the festival,” said Shaul Zislin, founder of the Hangout Music Fest, in announcing the two winners as Americana group Banditos and folk/blues/pop duo Johnnyswim.

Reps for both bands say they’re incredibly grateful to the artist opportunity hub for providing the support, and the opportunity. Banditos came in through CMT and Johnnyswim through the VH1 platform.

Similarly, the opening act for country music artist Hunter Hayes at his New York City show in June will also be crowd-sourced. The list of potential opening acts will be narrowed down to ten, with the Grammy-nominated Hayes then personally selecting the opening act.

"The vetting process may change, but the intent is to be very valuable to the artists," Connolly says. “We’re going to learn as we go.”

A mobile app for the artists’ platforms is planned to launch this summer. Sounds like sweet music to the ears of artists — and their as yet untold audiences.

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