Remembering BowieNET

Posted by Karen on Jan 14, 2016 12:00:00 AM
Written by Max Stoner

The passing of David Bowie on Monday has prompted scores of tributes. Recognised for his contribution to music, film, art, fashion, culture and a whole lot more. Bowie was not only an artist but a visionary. In possession of an enigmatic, almost otherworldly quality, his being a canvass upon which he choose to experiment and subvert. His next move never predicted - from his play on notions of gender in the 70's, to the boundaries he pushed in the early days of music television, Bowie was always one step ahead - even in death, with the reflective Blackstar released just days before he passed; effectively writing his own requiem.

A lesser known story, which serves to only further enhance Bowie's reputation as a pioneer of our time, is that of BowieNET - the Internet service provider he formed in 1999. BowieNET provided users with a high-speed connection, a customisable homepage including a 20 Mb/s allowance, a email address and music videos and chat rooms which the singer participated in himself.

BowieNET was less an ISP, more a visual and interactive digital space for music fans to congregate and to interact with him in. A fusion of Myspace, Twitter and Youtube before any of them had even been hatched in thought.

Ultimately, just as Bowie often pre-empted shifting tides on a musical and cultural spectrum, he foresaw the power and havoc the internet would have upon the music industry. In 1996 he became the first major artist to distribute a new song for an online-only release (Telling Lies) and created the world's first cyber song; when inviting BowieNET members to send in lyrics to co-write the track "what's really happening now".

At a time before Napster, before music executives started to sweat in their €4,000 dollar suits, Bowie was telling people "If I was 19 again, I'd bypass music and go right to the internet".

In an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1999, Bowie predicted how the internet would fundamentally alter the relationship between musicians and their fans, as well the disruption it would bring to all areas of society. Retorting to Paxman's view of the Internet as "just a tool" Bowie stated "We're on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying... where the interplay between the user and the provider is so simpatico it will crush our ideas of what mediums are all about". He continued "I don't think we have seen the tip of the iceberg... I think the potential of what the Internet will do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable".

BowieNET will feature low down the order amongst his most enduring legacies, such is the richness of his tapestry of work and influence, but fitting it is that one of great creative, provocative and visionary genius of our times would foresee the power of the net as the rebellious and creative force it has become.


Max Stoner is a Corporate Sales Manager at Fluidata. You can find him on LinkedIn here.
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