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If you’ve ever enjoyed a music video on your Nokia Lumia 920, you probably imagined them to be a relatively modern phenomenon. But music videos didn’t start with The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, any more than it started with MTV, VH1 or YouTube. In fact, believe it or not, the story of the music video begins well over a century ago.

A picture perfect beginning 

It was American electrician-slash-photographer George Thomas who was the first to marry images to music. His ‘illustrated song’ – a series of still images printed onto glass slides, coloured in by hand and projected onto a screen alongside a live musical performance – made song-book publishers Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern’s number, The Little Lost Child, a massive hit back in the music halls of 1894.

Melodies are made

Skip forward almost thirty years to the era of the talkies, and musical films were taking off dramatically. Spooney Melodies was a series of five musical shorts produced by Warner Brothers between 1930 and 1931 – films that mixed art-deco animation and live-action footage and aimed to showcase the popular tunes of the day. Clocking in a six minutes (so double the typical length of the later pop video proper), only one of them, Crying’ For The Carolines, is known to have survived.

Video boxes juke it out

In the late 1950s, a company called Cameca in Courbevoie, France, came up with the Scopitone, a jukebox that incorporated a 16mm film component. Magic! Soon the Italians were following suit with the Cinebox, which emigrated to the USA with the Scopitone in the 1960s, where the Cinebox became the Cinejukebox and Francis Ford Coppolla invested in the Scopitone. The craze for video jukeboxes had fizzled out by 1967, but by then the enthusiasm for music videos was unstoppable. 

Video kills the radio star

It was television, of course, that truly embraced the music video. In the mid-1970s, alongside the UK’s famous Top of the Pops (which had quite restrictive rules on how many non-live ‘outsourced clips’ they could use in the programme), Australian TV shows Countdown and Sounds were busy popularising the genre. Sounds presenter and DJ Graham Webb hired new director Russell Mulcahy to shoot videos for songs he wanted to feature on his show but that didn’t already have their own promo clips. Mulchay went on create the video for The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star – which became, in 1981, the first music video ever to be played on MTV!

Music TV takes off

Since the 1980s, round-the-clock music video channels have become the norm – starting with MTV, VH1 and Canada’s MuchMusic – and in 1984, MTV launched their Music Awards (latterly the VMAs). Directors grew ambitious – John Landis’ video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller cost a staggering half a million dollars to make and opened the way for African-American artists in the music video scene.

Videos go viral

Although MTV is now more focussed on reality shows than music, the Internet has picked up where TV has waned, and, since 2005, YouTube is now the first port of call for anybody searching for their favourite artist’s latest video. The video for Lady GaGa’s hit, Bad Romance (which owes more than a nod to Thriller) became, in 2010, the most-viewed video not only on YouTube, but on the entire Internet. And now, thanks to smartphones, more people than ever check out videos anywhere, anytime.

So, one hundred and eighteen years old and still going from strength to strength – here’s to the music video!

Image credit: SayLuiiiis