The importance of being David

 

Not content with floating himself on the stock exchange, becoming a major mover and shaker on the conceptual art scene and partially reinventing himself as a drum'n'bass artist, the ineffable David Bowie has now launched his own Internet service provider. BowieNet (www.davidbowie.com) has been dubbed "the coolest ISP on the planet" by Ziff Davis, publisher of PC magazine and is already valued at over £500 million.

The attraction is simple: it's the first ever music-based, artist-supported ISP and as such is in tune with the interests of many techheads. For the babyboomer generation going online for the first time and wondering how to get themselves through the maze, the name David Bowie has a high recognition value and there's always the cachet of having an e-mail address that ends in @davidbowie.com. As well as basic connectivity, the service provides a range of Bowie-specific content.

The attraction is not quite so simple for Irish Bowieheads, as there is no local dial-in point in the Republic. They should be able to access the custom content over the Internet if they sign up, but using BowieNet as an ISP would require expensive long-distance calls. The BowieNet promoters say they may do something about this in the future if demand warrants it. It can, however, be reached at local call rates from Northern Ireland.

Backed by Global Internet, BowieNet promises to take you behind the scenes "with your own backstage cyber technology pass" offering full Internet access, 20MB of free personal webspace, a fully customisable home page, news groups, chat rooms, online shareware and multi-player gaming. More than a mere Internet connection though, you also get some up-close and personal Bowie action including rare audio tracks and live recordings; live video feeds from the studio; thousands of album reviews, concert reviews and music articles as well as live chat with the man himself. The service costs £10 (plus VAT) a month.

Those signing up get a CD-Rom containing a customised browser, along with two classic live Bowie audio tracks and video tracks never released before, and an encrypted newly recorded audio track which will unlock via the Internet.

Bowie's ISP is the culmination of many years messing about with new technology. As far back as 1983 on the "Let's Dance" tour, he was using portable computers and handling communications by email. He was also the first artist to cybercast a live show over the Web and was the first established artist to post a new song freely downloadable to the public.

Such is Bowie's enthusiasm for the Net that he now claims he wouldn't have gone into music if the Internet had been around in 1968. "When I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future" he says. "But now it's just another career choice. However, I feel the Internet is at the stage where the information and how you can manipulate it and play around with it is still the exciting part of it".

Why so much emphasis on the music end of things though? "I wanted to create an environment where not just my fans but all music lovers could be part of the same community, a single place where the vast archives of music information could be accessed, views stated and ideas exchanged. Our biggest challenge was to assemble unique proprietary content along with first-rate content suppliers and unparalleled Internet service from tech support to billing. After nine months of work, I believe we have achieved just that".

One of BowieNet's star features is "full view camera", a 360degree camera with which you can home into a scene live from any angle when he's in the studio working on new tracks - "the idea is that you can virtually direct your own viewing, if you want to go in close on my nostril you can!".

BowieNet also allows him to bring to a fruition a project he's been working on for the last five years. After discovering a whole load of outtakes from his Ziggy Stardust project, he wanted to get them out and was thinking of a film along the lines of the recent Ewan McGregor-led glam-rock flick Velvet Goldmine. "I think now with the Ziggy stuff, I want to attack it in a multi-media way" he says, "the overall goal is to present Ziggy in various forms on the Internet . . . you still come across people who make out that the Internet is a passing fad. Don't they realise that the entire communications process is undergoing the most drastic revolution we have ever encountered?".

He's certainly having a lot of fun with his "Cyber Song Contest" which has generated acres of publicity for his ISP in the music trade press. After writing the music and the lyrics to the chorus for a song called What's Really Happening, he then invited Net surfers to help him finish off the song by writing the lyrics to the three blank verses - he even sings the "la-la-la's" to help you as a place-holder for the words - and then submit your entry.

The eventual winner, picked by Bowie, is then invited to New York to watch him record the winning song, and also receives a $15,000 publishing contract along with a one-year subscription to BowieNet and Bowie's complete music back catalogue. Continuing the sharing and caring theme, Bowie also wants to create the first online virtual CD. Every member of BowieNet will be given three songs recorded during his 1997 "Earthling" tour and asked to create the cover art and a 48-page insert for the virtual CD. Members are also encouraged to post their reviews of particular shows and submit ticket stubs and photos.

Such a direct, fingers-on involvement has ensured the so-far massive success of BowieNet - when it was launched in the US last September, the network had over 5,200,000 hits in its first two weeks. It's difficult though to see more artist-supported ISP's becoming available, simply because no one else has the same pangenerational appeal and requisite knowledge of new technologies as David Bowie - who's now known as the man who sold the world an internet service provider.