David Bowie and the digital music revolution

Jon O'Brien 12 August 2021

25 years after he released the first downloadable single, we take a look at how David Bowie shaped music’s digital landscape

Five years before Steve Jobs launched the iPod and more than a decade before the advent of Spotify, a man who was no stranger to innovation helped to change the way we all listen to music. But the idea to release the first official downloadable single didn’t emerge from Silicon Valley. It was another ingenious brainwave from the late great David Bowie.

The Thin White Duke had previously explored how technology could impact the consumption of pop with a CD-ROM enabling any fan with a PC to make their own promo for the 1994 track “Jump, They Say.” He was also one of the few major artists who embraced the world wide web in its infancy. Indeed, it was on his own website, davidbowie.com, two years later that the icon introduced many to the art of downloading.

At the height of the iTunes boom in 2012, nearly 1.4 billion songs were downloaded in the US alone. That number on September 11, 1996 was essentially zero. But within just four days, 46,000 people had transferred a brand-new Bowie track to their hard drives, a process via dial-up which took no fewer than 11 minutes. By the end of the month, a total of 300,000 curious fans had also added it to their collection.

"Indeed, it was on his own website, davidbowie.com, two years later that the icon introduced many to the art of downloading"

Of course, the Bowieligious were probably more interested in the radical change of sound at the time. The self-produced “Telling Lies (A Guy Called Gerald’s Paradox Mix)” was a committed foray into the drum and bass scene that had recently been popularised by the likes of Goldie and Shy FX. Its skittering breakbeats and industrial rock riffs would inform much of 1997 parent album, Earthling which remains perhaps the most divisive of Bowie’s career.

Yet the godlike figure certainly appeared to recognise the magnitude of such a release tactic, organising a promotional interactive event at a mystery New York location which cleverly linked in with the song’s theme. Here, regular guitarist Reeves Gabrels and Psychotica frontman Patrick Briggs had to impersonate Bowie alongside the real thing for a Q&A game which invited fans online to play detective. Remarkably, despite answering questions such as, “What is in your wallet?” truthfully, the genuine article was deemed to be less authentic than the two silhouetted and voice-disguised imposters!

"Bowie didn’t leave those without an internet connection completely in the cold, though"

Bowie didn’t leave those without an internet connection completely in the cold, though. Also featuring the previously downloadable mixes from Adam F and Mark Plati, “Telling Lies” hit the shelves in more traditional physical form just a few months later, while a heavier fourth version showed up on Earthling.

Anyone who attended Bowie’s spate of summer shows in 1996 would also have been given a sneak preview of the track—it remained a setlist fixture throughout the following 12 months too. However, following a swansong performance at the 1997 Festival Rock and Pop in Buenos Aires, “Telling Lies” in any form was interestingly never played again.

A fan mourns at a David Bowie mural

A fan mourns at a tribute mural to David Bowie

But Bowie certainly didn’t abandon his interest in the internet’s capabilities. In 1998, he founded his very own service provider, BowieNet, which rewarded signees with exclusive content, a rather cool email address and even the occasional correspondence with the man himself. One lucky 20-year-old, Alex Grant, even bagged a credit on 1999’s Hours (“What’s Really Happening?”) after his lyrics about online life won a songwriting competition staged through the ISP. Bowie admitted at the time that if he were a similar age he’d “bypass music and go right to the internet.”

Having successfully pulled off the first downloadable single, Bowie had no qualms about repeating the trick for an entire album. Described as a throwback to his early 1970s Hunky Dora era, Hours dropped in full online two weeks before its physical copy entered the UK charts at No.5. “I am hopeful that this small step will lead to greater steps by myself and others, ultimately giving consumers greater choices and easier access to the music they enjoy,” Bowie told the BBC at the time. Just 15 months later, iTunes was born.

"Bowie admitted at the time that if he were a similar age he’d bypass music and go right to the internet"

We’ve not even mentioned the immersive 3D chat client dubbed BowieWorld that pre-dated Second Life, his pioneering in-game appearance in the Dreamcast adventure Omikron: The Nomad Soul or the audacious attempt to stream a Boston gig live across the globe as early as 1997.

Bowie’s chameleonic back catalogue inevitably took centre stage in the wake of his untimely death in 2016. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that he was just as forward-thinking in his approach to the digital world as the musical. “I don't think we've even seen the tip of the iceberg,” he told a highly sceptical Jeremy Paxman at the turn of the century. “What the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.” Never has an artist been so prophetic.   

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