The Forgettable David Bowie Song That Changed the Music Industry Forever
David Bowie performed live on stage in 1996, shortly before the release of the first downloadable single from a major label
"I am the future / I am tomorrow / I am the end." - David Bowie, "Telling Lies"
If the music industry were going through a tumultuous change, David Bowie might as well have provided the soundtrack. On September 11, 1996, Bowie's "Telling Lies" became the first downloadable single by a major artist, appearing in three different formats on Bowie's website and being released over three weeks (a traditional single was released later in November).
As a song, "Telling Lies" is ... well, it's a pretty general drum'n'bass with some brooding Bowie lyrics ("Swear on me in times of war and stress") and no real hook. It's dark and may reflect the time the singer co-headlined with Nine Inch Nails earlier this year. As AllMusic noted back then about Earthling, the album on which “Lies” was the first single: “The record often sounds as if the beats were simply grafted onto existing songs. The songs are never broken up by a new form; they are pretty conventional Bowie songs with a fancy production. "
But we're not here to discuss the mid-90s Bowie platters that are a bargain staple for years to come. While his output has been inconsistent over the decade, Bowie was certainly a step ahead in terms of technology - he founded his own internet service provider, BowieNet (he also released part of his music catalog as "Bowie Bonds" in 1997), a financial move which precedes the very current trend of classic rock artists selling their release rights ... and unlike those artists, Bowie got his songs and license income back).
To be clear, in 1996 you could find music on the internet even though there weren't any mainstream streaming or peer-to-peer sites and iTunes was nearly five years away. Two years before Bowie, Aerosmith released "Head First," an unused track from their Get a Grip sessions, as a free WAV download on CompuServe, which is perhaps the 1994 most set.
But the single "Telling Lies" represented a deliberate attempt by a major music label to appeal to a growing number of web users who, surprisingly, really liked music. Bowie himself debuted the track in a live online chat on CompuServe, where a moderator stated: “Tonight we come to each other and have three David Bowies [sic]. Two in disguise. You are the judge: Who is 'Telling Lies'? ”It really wasn't that different from a Reddit AMA.
If you dig through this chat, you end up with only two brief mentions of what would be a momentous moment for the music industry (of the three "Bowies" in the chat, No. 1 was the actual musician). Here is one:
Question from CZL: [104676,544] William H. Sokolic
Tell us about this internet song that is slated for release and that won't be on the radio or in record stores?
(6-11, David Number 1) Um ... there are three different mixes available for download. None of this will be available in record stores. On the album “Earthling” there is a fourth that will appear in a completely different mix. Will be canceled sometime next year.
According to a press release at the time (via Wikipedia, so judge this number at will), the single “Lies” is said to have reached 300,000 downloads. Still, it was only three short years later when we got to Napster, the file sharing service that was going to panic the music industry. How freaky were the labels? Warner Bros. quickly grabbed a free Tom Petty download from MP3.com that they'd already agreed to for no apparent reason.
You know the rest. ITunes was introduced in 2001, paving the way for paid downloads. And downloads soon turned into streaming; Spotify wasn't the first, but its introduction in 2006 pretty much defined how we legally consume music today (streaming accounts for 83% of US music revenue).
The music industry collapsed after peer-to-peer and iTunes became the norm, but appears to be back on track, with 2020 barely hitting the 1999 record in terms of global sales. And while Bowie or any memorable single can't be credited for marking the path of music consumption for the next 25 years, take note of what the iconic musician had to say in his 1996 chat. He spoke to Trent Reznor about touring, but the lesson he'd learned could have been applied to the streaming world ahead of him.
"I just wanted to get away from the bias of what an artist should do about what my so-called reputation should do," he said. “I often dive into the deep end of a situation just to see what happens. I find that the positive results of any experiment outweigh the negative. Always put yourself in a situation in which you are somewhat beyond your own depth. "
More like that
Guitarist Earl Slick shares an honest report by David Bowie in the mid-1970s
These were David Bowie's favorite sandwiches in New York City
We used Spotify's new Play Count feature to identify the best deep cuts in pop history
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The Forgettable David Bowie Song That Changed the Music Industry Forever first appeared on InsideHook.
Kirk Miller's article The Forgettable David Bowie Song That Changed the Music Industry Forever was originally published on InsideHook.
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