Behind David Bowie's Pioneering Internet Service BowieNet, Where the 'Sailor' Was Known to Roam
The service presaged everything from 'Second Life' to Spotify -- and provided Internet access on top of it.
That's the name David Bowie was known to go by on BowieNet, his Internet service provider that doubled as an interactive fan club.
Launched in September 1998, BowieNet offered the era's standard Internet access and online storage for a $19.95 monthly fee. But it stood out by promising users a firstname.lastname@example.org email address, plus chat forums, along with exclusive audio, video and photos. For $5.95 a month, anyone who wanted to stick with their old ISP could still access all BowieNet had to offer. An early online music fan community was born.
Since Bowie's death on Sunday at age 69 following treatment for cancer, an outpouring of tributes has addressed the singer-songwriter and producer's vast influence on music, fashion and art. His ISP fits into a narrative of Bowie as a pioneer of business and technology as well, arriving as it did amid 1996's "Telling Lies," one of the first singles released for download; 1997's "Bowie Bonds," securities that allowed the artist to raise $55 million against his future royalties, and 1999's Bowiebanc.com, an online bank.
Perhaps most of all, though, digital music industry veterans say, BowieNet -- coming years ahead of Friendster, MySpace and YouTube, to say nothing of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram -- showed prescience about the interactive, back-and-forth nature of fandom in the Internet era. In this, as in nearly everything else, Bowie was the man who fell to Earth, the superstar who descended into cyberspace.
"He was really engaged with folks for a period of a few years there," says Paul DeGooyer, principal at Relative Comfort, a consultancy focusing on music in the interactive space. "It predated Twitter as a platform, but people really had that sort of direct connection to him."
A pre-launch website for BowieNet touted the service as "an exclusive virtual backstage pass to David, the world of music and full, uncensored access to the internet customized for the music fan." That backstage pass extended as far as what was billed as the first "cyber song," Bowie singing lyrics written by a fan contest winner named Alex Grant as BowieNet users watched via webcam; the track, "What's Really Happening?" ended up appearing on Bowie's 1999 album, 'Hours…', and attempts to track down Grant were unsuccessful. BowieNet also included video games, live streams and a 3D virtual chat environment that predated Second Life.
Bowie stated in a December 1998 press release: "I wanted to create an environment where not just my fans, but all music fans could be part of a single community where vast archives of music and information could be accessed, views stated and ideas exchanged."
DeGooyer says Bowie was essentially treating the online platform the way he treated his music. "If you look at his musical career, he has a kernel of an idea he assembles people around based on where he thinks it could go and he lets stuff happen," DeGooyer explains. "It's all very intentional but it allows for accidents. My take on BowieNet is that's very much how it played out."
To be sure, Bowie wasn't the first artist to offer fans an online subscription service. Though not an ISP, Todd Rundgren -- also known for his future-forward approach thinking on technology -- introduced his PatroNet musical offering, slightly predating BowieNet. Prince followed in 2001 with the NPG Music Club.
"This wouldn't work for most artists," recalls Ted Cohen, managing partner at digital entertainment consultancy TAG Partners. "Todd, Bowie and Prince were all really innovative in figuring out ways to make this fan connection work." Presaging the social media age, the three also stood out about by being directly involved in their online presences, Cohen adds: "It wasn't something where they licensed their names out to some outside company."
In fact, the company running BowieNet was one Bowie had co-founded: UltraStar, which aimed to set up online portals focused on various sports, entertainment and fashion niches. In the late '90s, UltraStar built the website for the New York Yankees; as with BowieNet, interested parties could also pay for dial-up Internet access and an online fan club. By December 1999, Live Nation precursor SFX Entertainment -- a sort-of forebear to the current EDM promoter likewise called SFX Entertainment -- had bought a stake in Ultrastar. Former UltraStar president Lawrence Peryer directed requests for comment to Bowie's publicist.
Vickie Nauman, founder of the digital music consultancy Cross Border Works, also praises BowieNet for its sense of connection. "David Bowie was way ahead of his time in recognizing that the internet would provide a fertile creative environment for artists as well as consumption environment for fans," she says. "He knew that connectivity was the link between the two and the simpler and easier he could make that, the more likely the artist-fan connection."
Michael Robertson, who co-founded MP3.com in 1997 and last year introduced the online-radio search tool On.Radio, lauds BowieNet as another example of Bowie's drive to break new ground. "I never thought a single artist had enough pull to drive meaningful numbers for an ISP, yet I admired his attempt and even more his constant innovation in everything he saw," Robertson says.
One former BowieNet subscriber, Rex Sorgatz, warns against overly romanticizing the fan culture piece of the service. "It's a red herring," he says. "I remember doing AOL 'live chats' with Sonic Youth back then too -- they were totally boring." The quality of the videos in that era, too, was extremely low by today's standards.
"For me, the most interesting aspect of BowieNet was how smart it seemed at the time," says Sorgatz, who in 1998 was the editor of a print magazine about web culture called Web Guide Monthly. "For a while, it seemed completely likely that one would have an unlimited number of options for internet service providers," Sorgatz recalls. "It looked like one would be able to pick, say, U2 or your local TV station or your neighborhood coffee shop for your Internet." The future of ISPs turned out to be more humdrum than Bowie, and his believers, might have imagined it.
In a 2002 comment to The New York Times that now sounds like a farsighted prediction of of how the likes of Spotify and Apple Music would change listening habits, Bowie said, "Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity." But DeGooyer stresses that Bowie's genius with BowieNet lay partly in knowing to use technology to create a connection that's deeper than most people achieve with their monthly Con Ed statements.
Former BowieNet subscriber Arlette Thibodeau, who tweeted that fans used to greet Bowie's presence on the message boards with "hello, sailor," remembers the service as her first recurring bill. Once, "as an annoying teenager," she tells Billboard, she posted complaining how users would get too self-conscious when Bowie visited the boards. This "kicked off a serious firestorm about community and fandom, to which 'sailor' himself replied, after many posts [speculating] about what he must think of the situation, that sailor felt quite lucky to have all this -- 'this' meaning BowieNet -- in the first place.
"Way to teach a 17-year-old about graceful humility, David Bowie," Thibodeau continues. "I just remember my eyes nearly bugging out at the notification that sailor had replied to my post. A bit like getting an automated update that God had read your diary."