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David Bowie Was More Than A Music Visionary, But A Digital, Business Visionary Too

david leftDavid Bowie's musical genius is celebrated, but less well known is his acumen as a businessman and digital visionary.  "The internet carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious and chaotic and nihilistic.... Forget about the Microsoft element. The monopolies do not have a monopoly," said Bowie in a 1999 interview.

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By Mick Masnik from Techdirt

As I'm sure you've heard by now, famed musician David Bowie passed away yesterday at age 69 due to cancer. As someone who influenced so many people in so many different ways, it's great to see basically everyone celebrating his life and his music. But, given that this is Techdirt, I also thought that Bowie deserved a shoutout on topics that we discuss around here as well: Bowie wasn't just an amazing music visionary, but he was similarly visionary about the music business and the internet as well.

All the way back in 1996, he was the first major musician to release music only on the internet, launching the single for "Telling Lies" as a direct download off of his website, and announcing it in an online chat session. Yes, nearly 20 years ago, Bowie embraced internet distribution for his music.

Then, in 1997, he went way beyond basically any other music business model experiment byissuing Bowie Bonds, creating a financial instrument that was backed by the royalties from his music, without losing control of the actual music itself.

That same year, he also became the first major musician to "cybercast" a live concert online. Other musicians had tried similar things around that time, but Bowie was by far the most well-known (though the technology basically sucked for all of them, including Bowie).

Just a year later, in 1998, David Bowie launched BowieNet, his very own internet service provider (ISP), saying:

If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet.

Again, that was 1998 -- the same year that Google was founded (and a little site called Techdirt first came online too, but we'll leave that aside for now).

By 2000, he was already talking about just how revolutionary the internet was going to be for music:

[YouTube has taken the video down.  You can watch it here.]

There's so much good stuff in that interview. He talks about how he doesn't view himself in the music industry at all any more because of the way the industry works, and how much he just wants to do his own thing. And the internet is incredibly exciting to him. He talks about how he got into music because it was a rebellious thing to do, but then:

davidIt had a sort of 'call to arms' feeling to it. This is the thing that will change things. It is a dead-dodgy occupation to have. It still produced signs of horror from people if you said 'I'm in rock and roll.'... Now it's a career opportunity. And the internet carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious and chaotic and nihilistic.... Forget about the Microsoft element. The monopolies do not have a monopoly....

... I like the idea that there's a demystification process going on between the artist and the audience....

... I don't think we've even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think what the internet is going to do to society -- both good and bad -- is unimaginable. I think we're on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying....

... The actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment – the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it's going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

... Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here – the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.

That same year, Bowie also launched BowieBanc, an online banking operation, that offered ATM cards and checks (with Bowie's image on them), exploring new ways of connecting with fans and building his own brand online.

Given all this, it's hardly surprising that in 2002, he gave an interview to the NY Times in which he predicted the end of copyright altogether, as well as record labels, as they would no longer serve a useful purpose:

His deal with Sony is a short-term one while he gets his label started and watches the Internet's effect on careers. ''I don't even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don't think it's going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way,'' he said. ''The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.''

''Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,'' he added. ''So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen.''

It hasn't totally played out the way he expected, but there's no doubt that Bowie's ability to be a visionary wasn't merely limited to the incredible music he wrote, performed and recorded, but to the internet and music/internet business models as well.

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