Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Televised Revolution

Changes are afoot in Russia's pop music industry, as MTV gets ready to beam into listeners' living rooms.

Gone are the days when the rapper Bogdan Titomir could splash out a few hundred bucks, film a room full of his pals on Ecstasy and call it a music video: MTV makes its Russian debut next month, changing the rules of Russian pop.

Now is probably as good a time as any for MTV to be dipping its feet into the Russian market. Despite endemic piracy, there is a domestic music industry of sorts -- at least everyone is being very industrious, for love, if not yet for money.

Radio stations have abounded for years now, and not so long ago becoming a pop star involved simply cutting a track and paying a little money to get it on a station's play list. But with each passing year, the importance of videos in the business has grown, and today any serious group has to have one.

But until now, Russia has lacked a reputable television forum where the bands can show off their talent (or lack of it). Enter MTV Russia, which hits the airwaves Sept. 25. It's coming in with a bang: The launch party at the Manezh Square shopping mall is expected to feature more than 3,000 of the most chic and famous from the Russian music and fashion world. Rubbing elbows with them will be about 400 starry-eyed teenagers to be chosen by a radio competition, which will be announced in a couple of weeks.

Moscow and St. Petersburg still dominate the music business because that's where all the money is, and because there are no nationwide radio stations on which to promote songs. MTV Russia will also initially be limited to the twin capitals of all that's cool, airing on Channel 5 (the same station on which Kultura is broadcast) and on UHF 38, a low-reach station left over from the Soviet Union, as well as St. Petersburg's Channel 51. MTV Russia will start with about six hours a day starting at 12:30 a.m., which will be increased later if it attracts enough advertising. (For those Muscovites who want their English-language central European MTV, Kosmos-TV will continue to broadcast it as well.)

The rights to MTV Russia are owned by Biz Enterprises, the company that produced Biz TV, one of a handful of Russian television programs dedicated to pop music. Biz TV was started in 1992 on the Moscow TV station 2x2 (which later became TV Center) by Boris Zosimov, whose greatest claim to fame is that he organized the "Monsters of Rock USSR" concert in 1991, featuring such stars as AC/DC and Metallica.

Under Zosimov, Biz TV has become Russia's most professionally run venue for music videos. But now Biz TV is being shut down, and Zosimov and some of his colleagues are moving to MTV Russia. He says the time is ripe for MTV to move in because there is now an abundance of indigenous pop music, to which the producers plan to devote around half their airtime.

Green Grey, for instance, is a popular band that hails from Kiev and has just spent a week in Moscow making a video for the song "Limo," which will be the first release from an album due out later this year.

"Limo" is inspired by a recent gig where Green Grey supported Faith No More. The two bands have clashing styles, and the crowd hated Green Grey. The lead singer, Boolie, finally lost his temper and gave the audience a piece of his mind, using rather colorful language, before storming off stage. The episode was a minor sensation, and the band was hit by bombastic attacks about uppity young Ukrainian singers flying in on chartered jets and riding about Moscow in limos. The song is their rebuttal, saying they don't care if they ride about in a limo or not. To make the point, for the video they tried to put a limo on the back of a flat-bed truck and drive this around Moscow a la Bjork in New York. In the end, that proved to be too much of a hassle, so they settled for just riding in the truck.

Green Grey is a great band, but at the moment they are broke. They live off gigs and corporate sponsorship, promoting Pepsi in Ukraine. But even though it was a struggle, the band knew the importance of music television today and so scraped together the $20,000 to make the "Limo" video, the minimum needed for a decent video.

"You have to make a video if you are going to be successful," says the band's producer and manager, who goes by the name Juzzy. "You can't just repeat yourself. And you can't use cheap, low quality videos anymore."

Green Grey is no stranger to MTV. In 1994, William Roedy, an MTV executive, saw them at the Stars of the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg and gave them an impromptu award for the best young band and invited them as guests to the 1996 and 1997 MTV music awards in London and Rotterdam.

But the band's "Limo" video was about as low budget as you can get away with. The big stars have more to spend. For example, last year Alla Pugachyova, Russia's Madonna-on-a-chocolate-eclair-diet, and her feather-boa-toting hubby, Filipp Kirkorov, each forked out more than $100,000 for their "Pozovi Menya s Soboi" and "Zaika Moya" videos. This is still not quite the multi-millions that Michael Jackson regularly drops on a few minutes of saying "Ooooh," but it is on a par with groups like the Funk Soul Brothers, who are on the international charts at the moment.

And that price tag is likely to go up. In conversations with people in Russia's music television business, one word keeps cropping up. Andrei Afanasyev, head of Biz Enterprises' public relations office, emphasized the word with an emphatic nod of the head; Juzzy worries that there is not enough of it around. The word is "quality."

"We want to help people to learn more about quality music, not all this Russian crap. Pop music can be real," said Tutta Larson, one of Russia's first and most famous VJs, who is moving on to MTV Russia after a long stint on Biz TV.

Larson, whose real name is Tanya Romanenko, has been in the business for five years. She began as an office flunky in the marketing department until Biz TV screen tested all their staff as possible VJs. She didn't get the job the first time around.

"The woman doing the screen test said I had no chance," said Larson.

"She said that I can't speak -- I used too much slang -- and that I waved my hands about too much. I am too active for the camera."

But Larson got a second chance when a presenter got sick and she was asked to fill in for a few shows. "I was terrified, and I screamed all my musical news. I still do the same thing, but I try and be natural and have fun." And the audience loves it.

It seems likely that soon a Russian band will only know it has hit the big-time when it hears Larson screaming about their work. MTV willturn the business of promoting Russian bands on its head, as bands will have to produce a video if they want to be really famous.

At the same time, to find the best songs -- and the videos to go with them -- MTV is going to have to hustle.

"MTV doesn't have enough material yet," said Juzzy. "They need us as much as we need them."