Introducing the Awl Music App: Music Videos for and by People, Not Machines

by Eric Spiegelman

Today, we launch Awl Music as an app on iTunes. You can watch your favorite music videos on your iPad, or throw them to your Apple TV like any other television channel. Get it here! Here’s why we think this needs to exist.

My music video collection began in 1989, the year my family finally got MTV. Cable had been slow to arrive in the San Fernando Valley, and my family was not much for early adopting anything anyway. I had one previous experience with MTV, a few years earlier, when I spent two weeks of the summer in the basement of my aunt’s house in Scarsdale, watching six hours a day of MTV with my cousin Stephen.

That was 1986, and it was was a phenomenal year for music. It was the year of Janet Jackson’s Control, Peter Gabriel’s So, The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Madonna’s True Blue, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell and The Pet Shop Boys’s Please. Phil Collins was still releasing videos off of No Jacket Required, and he was still fronting Genesis for Invisible Touch. MTV played the videos from these albums with the frequency of propaganda, and they carved deep, deep pathways into my brain.

The video for “Sledgehammer” was the first time I was conscious of filmmaking technology. “Land of Confusion” was my first exposure to political satire. The strings at the beginning of “Papa Don’t Preach,” played over scenes of the Manhattan skyline, became indelibly associated with New York City. Things I adored for the rest of my life first came to my attention during those two weeks watching television in Scarsdale.

But by the time MTV came to my house in the Valley in 1989, all those music videos were off the air. Even at the age of twelve I had a sense of nostalgia, so I went on a mission to capture all the ones I associated with that summer. Whenever there was a “Top 100 Videos of All Time” weekend, I spent hours with my face a foot from the television, one finger on the VCR’s record button. For good measure, I also grabbed new videos I liked, just in case they vanished, too.

I ultimately filled two VHS tapes, long-play setting, six hours each. I’m not sure I ever watched them. It just felt good to know I had that connection to 1986 if I needed it. Years later, the Internet came around, making this entire exercise pointless. The tapes no longer have any function (nor do I own a VCR), they just remind me that I once tried very hard to hold on to something ephemeral that was really important to me.

A number of people I grew up with had a relationship with music videos. We saw them the way we looked up to a cool older sibling we wanted to be like one day. Music videos defined our sense of fun. They provided some belonging to those who felt different. They presented us with attitudes to imitate. They had an effect, and we loved them.

It’s with this in mind that The Awl began Awl Music, and today we re-platform site as an iPad app. You can watch it like a television channel if you also have Apple TV. The app is available right now on iTunes.

Awl Music is meant to emulate the MTV experience of thirty years ago. We have VJs just like MTV did back then, and these are people you already know. Dave Bry, Jeff Rosenthal, Sarah Johnson and David Shapiro — all friends of The Awl — are programming the channel. Awl Network editors like Alex, Choire, Edith and Adam will also contribute. There will be guest VJs like Emily Gould and her “Songs About Gossip” playlist, as well as crowdsourced selections like the “Summer Jams” playlist. Everyone who programs the channel has great taste. Each one has a different taste.

In some ways this is a reaction against the trend of algorithm-based discovery engines that permeate the Internet nowadays. Our VJs pick videos that resonate with them. We believe these videos are less likely to suck than the ones guessed at by lines of code. We’re taking on the machines. The machines understand genre, they can detect syncopated rhythm, and they know what other videos people who watched one video also watched. But the machines don’t understand meaning.

For the next week and a half, The Awl will be running a series by a few writers who know what it’s like to find meaning in a music video. Specifically, we asked them to write about the first music video that meant something to them. If Awl Music can bring even a touch of experiences like theirs to your television set, we’ll consider the whole enterprise a success.

Eric Spiegelman is a web producer in Los Angeles.