The Man Who Foretold the World: 5 Times David Bowie Saw the Future of Tech

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As a content writer, there are many things I expect to see at the beginning of the year. Year in review pieces that reflect on what we learned (or what we should’ve), industry predictions for the coming year, and touchy-feely infographics.

But not this. I wasn’t prepared for this.

david bowie and tech

David Bowie’s death was a shock through the system, resulting in a flood of digital memoriams across social media. Many added their own drop of how the Thin White Duke’s influence reverberated through their own lives. And the ripple effect was a tidal wave.

Though fans are once again falling in love with the image of the man and his music, techies around the world are also lamented the great loss of one of IT’s chief supporters. After all, David Bowie and tech go hand-in-hand.

Because aside from being Ziggy Stardust and His Majesty Jareth the Goblin King, Bowie was a big supporter of the internet and saw the early potential of how technology could change the music business, as well as his relationship with fans.

Below, I’ll show you the five ways this music man proved his technology prowess and saw the possibilities of IT, many of which are now commonplace practices today.

1. BowieNet

In September 1998, Bowie launched his own internet service provider (ISP) BowieNet, a high-speed dial-up service that would connect users to the emerging frontier of the world wide web. Partnering with Robert Goodale and Ron Roy, Bowie launched the ISP initially in North America before expanding its service internationally.

Aside from its ability to connect users to the internet, the ISP was also anchored to a David Bowie webpage, where users could browse through an artist bio, photographs, and scroll through a newsfeed of the music star, not so unlike the Facebook experience of today. As well as having their very own BowieNet email address, users were connected to an interactive community (a precursor to the music-based social network MySpace), where they could create a personal page and participate in forums and livechats.

While BowieNet’s popularity declined as cable broadband and faster DSL options took off, the musician still offered his fans a space to connect until the ISL shut down officially in 2006, just as MySpace reached its heyday.

david bowie and tech

2. “Telling Lies” Online Release

Two years before the launch of BowieNet, Bowie was also dabbling in new pathways for music distribution. Three years before Napster and seven years before the birth of Apple’s iTunes store, Bowie experimented with the growing advent of digital music, and became the first major artist to chart unfamiliar waters by releasing three different versions of “Telling Lies” as an online-only track.

Today, many musicians in the business have ventured into the world of free online download, either as a way to nurture a small, growing fan base or reward them, as Radiohead did with their 2007 release of In Rainbows, which also functioned as a snub to the industry.

Even 20 years ago, Bowie’s venture was largely successful. 300,000 downloads is huge for any artist today, and distribution like that in 1996 was unfathomable.

3. Live Cybercast of Earthling Concert

As an early supporter of music videos, it’s not surprising the Bowie also saw potential in the avenue of live streaming, something commonplace today on platforms like Periscope and YouTube. In 1997, when Bowie was on tour in support of his latest album Earthling, the music mogul decided to live stream his Boston show for fans around the world. .

While the idea didn’t entirely translate into success (broadband limits at the time either resulted in blurry images or error messages), this new venture forecasted the rise of live streaming, now much more successful thanks to technological developments and larger network capacity.

david bowie and tech

4. Jump: The David Bowie Interactive CD-ROM

In addition to his interactive BowieNet, he also released an interactive CD-ROM, Jump, in 1994 to coincide with the release of his forthcoming album Black Tie White Noise. With Jump, fans could craft their own music video for Bowie’s “Jump They Say” or even remix “Black Tie White Noise,” in addition to the four music videos and interview clips that were included on the disc.

His effort is not unlike today, where fans can upload their own mixes of their favorite songs to Soundcloud or create their own videos through editing software and upload to YouTube.

While the effort proved a critical failure (even Bowie went on to say how he loathed the final result), the man’s efforts at creating a personalized music experience for his fans is still admirable.

5. Beginnings of Internet Radio

Spotify and Pandora are prime spots for music fans to take charge of their listening habits, with the former a playlist playground and the latter a spot for fans to find similar artists based on their current favorites. But before these two sites became major channels for users to listen in, David Bowie had also launched his own internet radio station, where fans could listen to both his studio and live recordings, as well as jam to stations where members could also hear non-Bowie material.

While many of us take advantage of this technology today, Bowie essentially connected his fans to a larger base to music. With a subscription to BowieNet, fans were able to have access to his entire catalog through the radio but also become exposed to other artists and their music.

david bowie and tech

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”

David Bowie’s death has left a hollow in the hearts of countless musicians and fans who were inspired not only by his artistry, but also by his innovative spirit. And while he can never be replaced, it is this innovative spirit that will continue to live on, proving that rock ‘n roll never really dies.

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