This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revist all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.
It's November of 2004. Bush had just won his second term as President of the United States. Green Day released American Idiot two months ago. Osama bin Laden is in a cave somewhere watching porn. If you're me, you are an elementary school student trying to finish a project the night before it's due, even though you had three months to do it. You also live in Chicago and haven't figured out how to use deodorant.
Two thousand miles away in Los Angeles, and a thousand miles the other way in New York City, are two wide-eyed men, one on each coast, in a situation similar to mine. Sort of.
They just received notification from the world's largest music corporation that they have less than two months to create a music-based television network that would be carried on Dish Network. This includes creating its website, hours upon hours of programming, a name, and graphics. More importantly, they had to create an identity. Their deadline is January 20, 2005.
In LA is Andy Schuon, the president, creator, and CEO of a channel that technically might never exist. When he worked at MTV during its 90s heyday, the network was established. It existed. This new channel was probably a balled-up Post-It note that fell behind a bookshelf.
The other person is Greg Drebin, a former colleague of Andy's at MTV, who is brainstorming this channel with Andy long distance. It would be LA-based, a slight issue considering most days are spent with the New York City skyline in clear view.
Fast-forward to August of 2015. I figured out how to use deodorant. Andy Schuon is on a first-name basis with Sean "Diddy" Combs, his business partner in music-based television channel REVOLT. Greg Drebin is the Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at 20th Century Fox. They are incredibly successful people. I am sitting on top of a Harry Potter bedspread.I've never had two people so excited to have a phone conversation with me. "So," Greg begins, "Let's talk about IMF."
On its archived website, the channel is described as, "founded on the thought that great music comes from all over the world." In its most basic definition, the International Music Feed (IMF) was a music video network. Greg imagines IMF as, "the guy who lives in the apartment next to you who's always playing his music too loud, but it's always really good and a little bit different... and it's usually something you like."
Their target demographic was 12 to 24-year-olds, or, "the Google generation." As a 14-year-old at the time, I was right in the thick of that demographic. I could come home from school, jump onto the couch, grab the TV remote, and flip over to IMF. Usually, World's Best Videos would play some American Top 40 followed by a weird Ukrainian rap song, or Norwegian pop rock. Afterwards might be Passage to India, which showed Hindi pop. Bridge to Latin America played everything from Mexican rock to Spanish pop. Hip Hop Society might have a Nas song followed by German hip-hop.
This was cool and all, but it was still just an odd channel I watched once in a while until eventually, there was that one video, that one band that taught me to explore more of what I didn't already know.
It wasn't something completely wonky or extravagantly unique, just a strange little band from England called Test Icicles. The group lasted two years, has just one album to their name, but it was comprised of future underground music darling Sam Mehran, future Palma Violet's producer Rory Atwell, and Blood Orange back when he was just Dev Hynes. But that's years later. In this music video, they are awkward 20-year-olds who look like the guys at your school who tried to roll their own cigarettes and couldn't get dates.
The music video starts out with a blank, pink screen, then goes to a table with test tubes and flasks filled with pink liquid. The camera speeds up as a simple drum beat is paired with choppy guitar riffs. Soon, it shows a group of three skinny dudes on a stage, pink smoke coming out of the amps, and a crowd of people slowly turning into zombies. In retrospect, it's a shitty video. Everything about it is just plain fucking weird. The song is called "Circle. Square. Triangle" for Christ's sake.
And I kept watching it over and over again for the sole reason that it was different. It's why I watched a video where a French woman sings into a microphone that falls from the sky, and a video where a British Napoleon Dynamite skates around a roller rink for three minutes straight, or the one that's all animated and switches from English to Spanish like they're not even different languages. I couldn't get this anywhere else on TV.
Even if I could get it somewhere else, IMF always seemed to get it first. Thanks to IMF, I'd heard of artists like KT Tunstall and Two Door Cinema Club months before they were VH1 "You Oughta Know" artists.
Andy lists a few different reasons for this. "If we just played things that were already familiar to you somewhere else, we wouldn't be giving ourselves an advantage. If we were in competition with MTV to play a Britney Spears video more times per week than they were, we were never gonna win."
Then, there's the business side. "There was a lot more pressure on MTV and VH1 from
the record industry to play their current priorities, so MTV and VH1 have a tendency to play along with their business partners, and we didn't have to."
In an age where hardly anything is original, the International Music Feed claims a significant number of "firsts," "lasts," and "onlys." It's still the only music video network created by a music corporation, Universal Music Group. It's the first and only music video network that focused on incorporating foreign artists into its rotation. It's also the last American music video network that played music videos 24/7. Not even Palladia, MTV's apology for being an abomination to intellect and mental development, can say that.
Even better was that the music aired wasn't just under the UMG umbrella. Deals were hatched with other labels, large and independent, so the music was widespread and eclectic, hence the occasional Hungarian folk music.
"We had the global catalog from Universal and from Sony Music and from many, many independent record labels," Andy explains. "We had EMI as well, because EMI was not part of Universal at the time." Was there anyone they couldn't get? "We never got the Warner Music Group into our system. We tried for a long time. They just never came to terms with us."
Of course, there is another place with endless amounts of music—the internet. With YouTube, iTunes, and multiple steaming sites and torrents, there were no limits, but limitless choices mean it's impossible to know where to start.
This is why IMF worked—it showcased music that viewers didn't know they needed. It provided an easy introduction to what was popular in other countries, a true global pop station. It's how I learned about Swedish rock band The Sounds months before they were played on Fuse, how I discovered my unconscious love of German punk, and when I looked up the translations of everything I listened to, it's how I learned Tokio Hotel songs are exponentially worse when you understand the lyrics. Greg refers to it as, "The ability to be a trusted filter and resource," or, the metaphorical loud-music-playing neighbor. IMF was a gateway, my gateway, to new sounds that I'd otherwise never hear. The 24/7 video access was an added bonus.
This was part of Andy's and Greg's plan—tapping into the obvious idea that music is global. "This is pop music," Greg explains, "so the tempo and beats still felt familiar and common, even if the lyrics were a different language... We wanted to keep it less text-based and more icon-based because when you travel the world, what you see to represent the men's room, or a bus, is an icon in most cases, a symbol. A lot of the graphics packaging was about these icons that were familiar, yet helped explain what you were watching."
It had a seemingly ideal arrival—MTV filled valuable airtime with My Super Sweet Sixteen, MTV2 was basically MTV followed by the number 2, Flavor Flav couldn't find love on VH1, and Fuse just realized there were other artists besides a Warped Tour lineup. It hardly mattered to me though—I had IMF. As a socially awkward teenager who was scared to leave the house, IMF was how I stayed in touch with the outside, and I knew in my little optimistic heart strings that IMF would last forever and ever.
So what the hell happened?
"We went out desperately trying to grow the distribution footprint of IMF." Andy and Greg reached agreements with internet services like Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse, "but we were not able to get carriage on Comcast or Time Warner Cable, or DirecTV most notably. We were really stuck roughly around 10 million homes." Andy sounds more subdued than just a few moments beforehand. "You have to realize that at that time in 2006 to 2007, it was sort of a distribution valley in television... This was a time when systems were at capacity both in cable and in satellite, they couldn't add new channels, and their model was in flux. We did not benefit from good timing."
Greg adds that money was also an issue. "When we would meet with the operators, they weren't looking for more music channels, even though ours was very distinct and unique and arguably played the most music of any channel. In their mind it was just another one of the ten or 12 they already had, and they couldn't see the value of taking up channel space by adding another one."
Their creation was in trouble, so in late 2007, Andy looked for a network IMF could merge with. A smaller arts network by the name of Ovation caught his eye because, "Ovation had a full penetration deal on DirecTV."
He called up Ovation's management, set up the meetings, and the deals were made, but on one condition—Ovation would be the viable one, not IMF. "We talked about nesting IMF or having some IMF programming live on through Ovation, but those conversations never really went anywhere... We essentially all packed up and had a nice going away party," Andy tries to say this matter-of-factly, but a little disappointment comes through. "Now we have the memories."
On New Year's Eve, 2007, Andy, Greg, and Ovation's management signed the contracts and closed the deal. New Year's Day, 2008, they entered LA offices that were no longer their own, and informed their staff of 20 they were in transition. In the meantime, 2,000 miles away, I sat cross-legged on the couch wondering why the hell a documentary about Jackson Pollock played on my screen instead of mildly offensive German hip-hop.
Of all the fanmail Andy's received, one letter has always stuck with him. "I'll never forget it. He was a kid from Montana, about your age back then, who'd come across this pop music from India." I imagine the kid sitting cross-legged on his couch like me, staring at the screen like he'd lose a part of himself if he turned away. "He was feeling bigger than his body, and wondering what the whole world meant... and seeing people like him in another country really gave him a window to the world." I think back to the time I first saw the Test Icicles video. I couldn't decide what to think, but I couldn't take my eyes off it, and I hoped there was someone else out there who couldn't either. It meant there were people like me who didn't want to leave their couch. It meant there were people like me who found a way to explore the world through the vibrations coming from their television speakers.
Lisa Mrock is on Twitter.