Mix-A-Lot had some mixed company. “There was a record company called Ichiban out of Atlanta, and they had signed this Miami kid,” says Garland. “We put him on in four markets, and this thing blew up. (sings) ‘Ice, Ice, Baby.’ We were like ‘Holy cow!’ Then we put it in another 50 markets. Same thing. This thing was going crazy everywhere. My friend who was running EMI at the time, goes, ‘Garland, are you playing a song by a guy named Vanilla Ice? Is that a hit? I’ve got a chance to pick that record up.’ So I go, 'I think you should grab it.'” For better or worse, “Ice Ice Baby” rose to the apex of the Billboard Hot 100 soon thereafter.
Hip-hop videos weren’t the only Box staples that probably gave Tipper Gore agita. Though tame by today’s standards, Madonna’s “Justify My Love” was rejected by MTV in 1990 and picked up by The Box. “When we added it, we didn’t say a word,” says Garland. “We didn’t make any promos going ‘MTV banned it!’ We notified every one of our cable partners that we were going to put this on, and if we got in trouble with FCC, which we might have, or in trouble with who-knows-who, our position was going to be that we don’t play the videos, we merely make them available. If you’ve got a complaint, take it to the people making the requests. We’re just the curators of the art museum.”
Predictably, “Justify My Love” aired five-to-six times per-hour on Box stations nationwide.
Then prudes and (maybe!) racists ruined it
The Box, which, it should be said, also helped break underground rock acts like Green Day, had hit-making clout. And because the company took such a freewheeling approach to edgy material it had cache, working as a divining rod for the underground. But still, in the first half of the ‘90s, things got shaky. Viewership was growing, but a share of Box stock worth $10 in 1989 went for $.50 by 1992, the same year the company hemorrhaged $5 million, according to Billboard.
The problems ran deep. “One-to-two dollars for each song selection offered a steady stream of income but it wasn’t enough,” writes Alan McGlade, who became CEO in 1995, of the reportedly six million requests annually dialed into Box stations. “Our [new] challenge was to drive distribution, build a bigger audience, and then sell to advertisers.”
Easier said than done. While viewers loved The Box’s democratic taboo-smashing approach, cable distributors (who stood to earn between 5 and 7 cents per video) did not. “I think the popularity of hip-hop actually hindered our distribution goals, even as it increased our viewership goals,” says Robson. “As we got a reputation for playing hip-hop, a lot of cable systems weren’t necessarily thrilled about having us.”
“I won’t name the market, but it was in the south,” recalls Garland. “We went to visit a cable operator, and he said, ‘Mr. Garland, I know who you are and I have great respect for you, but we’re smack dab in the Bible Belt here. You’re asking me to put Hustler magazine in with the Sunday morning newspaper, and I can’t do that.’
“I was stunned. Like, you’re comparing my network to Hustler? We’re so far apart here, I don’t know how we can get on the same page. I think, ultimately, he did put us on, but I faced stuff like that all the time.”
“As ridiculous as it might sound, some people were afraid of the content,” says Garland. “I heard people, even in our company, complain about things that sound pretty horrible today. Like, ‘That music is too black.’ What the fuck does that mean? Yet they were talking about the most popular videos on the network.”