Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Rocking the Internet

February 2016

By Mike Gould

Ground Control to Major Tom…
      David Bowie, RIP

Rocket Man
Did you know that David Bowie was also an ISP? It’s not all that surprising when you consider all the other revolutionary things he did in the worlds of music, video, film, and fashion. I just read a fascinating account on Ars Technica of his BowieNet project, which he started way back in 1998, URL below.

The Thin Wired Duke
Briefly, BowieNet provided dial-up services (remember those?) so that people could access the Internet via telephone modems (remember those? “Chirrrrr… Burbleblurbleburble…. beeblebeeblebeeble… You’ve got mail!”). Genius that he was, Bowie foresaw the importance of the online world intersecting with the worlds of show biz and music, and was in the vanguard of artists directing their own careers over the WWW. From the article:

"BowieNet was an immersive portal—David Bowie 24/7," …. "Fans could get access to unreleased music, artwork, live chats, first-in-line tickets, backstage access, tickets to private, fan club-only concerts... [Bowie] always looked to keep BowieNet … fresh by exploring new technologies to keep fans engaged and excited. He always preached [that] it's about the experience, the new."

When you signed up for BowieNet, you received a CD-ROM with exclusive music and video tracks and a customized version of Internet Explorer that would direct you to his site. You also got an email address (your.bad.self@davidbowie.com or whatever) and 5M (!) of space to create your own web pages.

But the major innovation involved setting up an online community of followers and music fans who could chat among themselves about all things Bowie. Remember that this predated MySpace and all the social networks that followed. He even made a song available for download in 1996, back when most people spent around 30 minutes online a month. Downloading that song might have taken up that entire allotment, yet 300,000 people downloaded it. 20 years ago. The mind buckles.

Young Americans
Other artists have dealt with the evolving Internet of Songs differently. In 2000, the heavy metal band Metallica caused a major ruckus over the burgeoning online music sharing scene typified by Napster. Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, discovered that a demo of an as-yet unreleased song was available for download via Napster. Further investigation revealed that Metallica’s entire back catalog was available for free to anyone with a suitable computer and a modem. This obviously was a threat to the band’s income and property rights, and lawsuits ensued.

This led to a stand-off between Metallica and their free-loading fans, who regarded the move as an attack on their fannish-ness, the act of a greedy, music company-loving band burning bridges loaded with the people who supported them all these years. Or something. Good article about this in the URL below.

The outrage never made a lot of sense, but pointed out that the Internet had changed everything about the music business. Napster was sued out of existence in 2001, but it lives on in a slew of other online services, some legal and others not so much.

There is a documentary movie about all this call Downloaded, available at the URL below. It even has an interview with Bowie.

Modern Love
There are those who contend that entities like Napster did a lot to help some bands, especially up and comers without much in the way of label support or airplay. The classic example is the band Radiohead. Their album Kid found its way to Napster three months before it was released on CD, and was downloaded by millions of people worldwide.

When the CD finally hit record stores (remember those?), it went to number one on the Billboard charts. As Radiohead was a pretty minor band previously, this success has been directly attributed to Napster. Several other new bands of the era also credit Napster with their initial successes.

At this point music is now completely digital (OK, there is still a market for old-school vinyl records, and it is growing. Analog lives! But that’s another article…), which means it can be potentially swapped, traded, downloaded, burned to disks, stored in playlists, stuffed into hard and thumb drives, loaded into MP3 players (iPods, etc.), and generally bandied about as a free commodity. How, then, can record companies, and more importantly, musicians, continue to survive to make more music for us to consume?

Changes
Enter the Apple. In 2001, Apple introduced iTunes, and suddenly everything was different. iTunes started out as a player of MP3s, based on an app called SoundJam MP which Apple purchased in 2001. Rev. 2 of this supported the iPod, which was another technology Apple adapted from other manufacturers. One must remember that Apple doesn’t always invent the technology they sell; they quite often buy up the best that is out there, improve it considerably, and then make millions in sales.

Steve Jobs starting working with the music industry to make a way to monetize the downloading of tunes, and the iTunes Store was born: a way to legally download tunage and still make money (usually a pittance) for the musicians involved. These days, musicians make most of their money from performances, it would seem.

You can now download all of David Bowie’s music from Apple, at $1.29 a pop (so to speak), including his last work, Lazarus, released the week of his death. Discounts for complete albums.

Heroes
I have an extremely peripheral connection to David Bowie: I built the website for musician/producer Ivan Kral. Ivan worked with Bowie on several projects, as well as Iggy Pop, U2 and other luminaries. Check him out at http://ivankral.net - dig the photos he shot of that era.

BowieNet: http://arstechnica.com/business/2016/01/david-bowies-isp-as-remembered-by-the-guy-who-helped-create-bowienet/

Metallica vs. Napster: http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/metallica-frontman-looks-back-on-napster-battle/

Downloaded, the movie: http://www.downloadedthemovie.com

David Bowie on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/david-bowie/id551695?app=music

Mike Gould greatly admires David Bowie and will miss his genius. He (Mike, not David) was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a laser artist, performs with the Illuminatus 3.0 Laser Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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