In the summer of 1998, a strange press release made its way out to technology and music publications throughout the world. David Bowie, the legendary musician and cultural provocateur, would be launching his own internet service provider, offering subscription-based dial up access to the emerging online world.
At a time when plenty of major corporations were still struggling to even comprehend the significance and impact of the web, Bowie was there staking his claim. “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet,” he said at the time. He understood that a revolution was coming.
Bowie had always appreciated the interplay between pop music and technology, but the explosion of the web in the mid-1990s offered something entirely new in terms of its communicative possibilities. In 1996, Bowie became the first major artist to distribute a new song – Telling Lies – as an online-only release, selling over 300,000 downloads. By then, like many other music artists, he had his own website and was exploring interactive CD-ROM technology – notably through the 1994 release of Jump, a PC CD that let users create their own video for the track Jump, They Say as well as watch interviews with Bowie and music videos from the Black Tie White Noise album. In 1997 he arranged an ambitious live ‘cybercast’ of his Earthling concert in Boston – although the limits of internet access at the time meant that capacity was quickly reached, and most viewers received only stuttering images and error messages.
But his true ambitions were more profound. Throughout 1997 and 1998 he worked with the web and interactive entertainment pioneers Robert Goodale and Ron Roy to explore the deeper possibilities of the internet as a means of reaching fans and distributing music. The result, on 1 September 1998, was the launch of BowieNet, initially in North America, but later worldwide – an ISP offering “uncensored” access to the internet attached to a dedicated David Bowie website. Subscribers could browse a vast archive of Bowie’s photographs, videos and interviews, as well as a blog, career chronology and news feed. The artist also promised further exclusive tracks and webcasts, including footage from the Earthling tour. Most enticingly for many fans, users also got their own BowieNet email address – a strange, exciting new way to declare their affinity with the artist.
More importantly though, Bowie conceived of this service as a visual, interactive community for music fans. Through his Ultrastar company he negotiated deals to give users access to music services like the Rolling Stone Network, which livestreamed concerts, and Music Boulevard, one of the first companies to offer paid-for downloadable music tracks. The ISP provided every user with 5MB of web space, encouraging them to create and share their own websites; there were also forums and live chat sections where Bowie himself conducted live web chats. This was in effect a music-centric social network, several years before the emergence of sector leaders like Friendster and Myspace. The site was also technologically ambitious. At a time when most homepages were simple constructs of text and still images on a default grey background, BowieNet used emerging plug ins like Flash and RealAudio to provide animating graphics and downloadable music clips. Newcomers were told they’d need at least a 28k, but preferably 56k modem connection – this was demanding at a time when the commercial WWW infrastructure was still in its infancy. Parts of the front page of BowieNet remain available on the Internet Archive.
For Bowie, this ISP wasn’t just a new means of marketing his material to the masses, it was the realisation of something he’d always understood about music: that the fan response completes the art. During a Newsnight interview in December 1999, Bowie found himself evangelising the impact of the internet to a mostly disbelieving Jeremy Paxman. “We’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying,” he said. “The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment – the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.
“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here – the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”
He was envisioning something we all take for granted now – that link between popstar, Twitter, Instagram, fanbase and culture; that frisson between the artist as an aloof creator and the artist as an active participant in their own community. He also understood the internet as venue – if not the venue of the coming era. In October 1999, BowieNet hosted a virtual premier of the The Saatchi Collection’s groundbreaking exhibition, Sensation: Young British Artists, before its arrival at the Brooklyn Museum. In the same year, he experimented with cross-platform advertising, adding a CD-ROM component to a re-issue of the Let’s Dance album, prompting the BowieNet service – common practice now, but rare back then.
The experimentation continued through the late 1990s and 2000s. In 1999 he worked with French game developer Quantic Dream on the ambitious adventure Omikron: The Nomad Soul, contributing music to the soundtrack as well as making an appearance in the game itself. In January 2000 he co-launched his own branded online bank, BowieBanc, which put his image on a credit card and, naturally, offered customers a free subscription to BowieNet. It was a controversial move at the time, and shortlived, but it was a hint at the way music artists would soon be controlling and marketing their images in a variety of seemingly unrelated sectors – it spoke of the entrapreneural spirit that would come to define pop stardom in the digital era.
BowieNet was over as an ISP by 2006, the technology had moved on – as had Bowie himself. But he retained an understanding of the web as a platform of transgression. On 8 January 2013, Bowie put a video for his new single Where Are They Now on his website, without any fanfare or pre-promotion. The song, heralding his first new album in a decade, was immediately available on iTunes in 119 countries. It was a stealthy act of digital anti-promotion that would prove massively successful, relying on news sites and social media to spread the word. The word duly spread.
Bowie was an expert manipulator of media – be it music, art or video. It was inevitable that he would spot the potential of the internet, not just as a mass marketing technology but as a new way to make, share and expand upon his work. Later, the digital era would make heroes of businessmen like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, but Bowie was early in understanding that this brave new world would distort the traditional barriers between art, celebrity and commerce. He knew that the agenda-setters of the 21st century would be a different breed. BowieNet will not be considered among his greatest achievements in the coming weeks, but it was symptomatic of his restless, inquisitive genius and his instinct for image as a form of communication. He always saw the revolution coming.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 11th January 2016 12.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010