Teenage Wildlife

Thin Wired Duke

Yahoo! Internet Life, April 1999
Cover

It seems David Bowie wants to talk his work. Not his music-although there's plenty of it, given that the chameleonic British rocker has spent the last 30 years creating such classic pop songs as "Fame," "Let's Dance," and "Ziggy Stardust." Not his movie roles - although there are plenty, ranging from his chilly star turn in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth to smaller parts in The Last Temptation of Christ and Basquiat. These days, when Bowie says "work," he means "network"-and specifically, he means BowieNet [www.davidbowie.com], his newborn boutique Internet service provider (ISP) and music community. Bowie-as-rock-star has evolved into Bowie-as-wired-entrepreneur, able to talk at length on such topics as chat rooms, wearable computers, and the digital-music controversy.

Bowie with iMac
Bowie with iMac

Since its launch last year, BowieNet has inspired more than 10,000 Net users to pony up $19.95 each month in exchange for an @davidbowie.com e-mail address, a free personal home page, and access to a 3-D chat environment and online shareware. But that's only the beginning. Though other celebrity-linked ISPs use their luminaries as figureheads, Bowie himself is an active participant in his site. He contributes rare recordings. He organizes online chat events featuring himself and such cohorts as photographer Mick Rock. And then there are the hundreds of archived articles, song lyrics, and photographs. (Fans who want to stick with their own providers can get the content for $5.95 per month.) "David is entirely involved in this site," says Ron Roy, a partner in UltraStar, the New York-based company that manages the site. "It reflects his personality and his vision."

Part of Bowie's personality, of course, has always been his obsession with invention and reinvention. Just as he revolutionized rock music by siring a series of genres (glam rock, plastic soul, industrial music) and personae (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke), Bowie has used his newfound online clout to seed a number of brainstorms. Late last year, BowieNet held a songwriting contest that invited fans to pen lyrics for the Bowie-composed "What's Really Happening." Bowie himself sifted through tens of thousands of entries before awarding the grand prize-which included a $15,000 publishing contract and a VIP weekend in New York City-to a lucky fan named Alex Grant. In addition, the site is hosting an interactive live-album project, which lets fans select songs and design CD packaging. In the end, though, Bowie's lasting impact will most likely come through his imitators. "These boutique ISPs are the way of the future," says Roy.

In the middle of a mild New York City winter, Bowie took a break from his hectic schedule (in addition to his Web site, he has two albums planned for release in 1999, and he will ring in the millennium at New Zealand's Gisborne 2000 festival) to sit down with Y-Life and discuss fame, fashion, technology, and how it feels to be the man who sold the world an Internet provider.

Bowie in running suit?

DAVID BOWIE: Good morning. I'm just having my morning coffee.

Y-LIFE: It certainly is early.

BOWIE: I've been up for quite a long time, actually. Both my wife and I get up at 6 o'clock or something like that, which destroys my other musicians. [Laughs]

Y-LIFE: Let's talk about how you started the BowieNet site, and your interest in the internet.

BOWIE: It was a confluence of things. My interest began back in the early '90s, with friends who were already into doing design on the computer. I really got quite excited about what you could do visually. By '93, I was starring to work with early Photoshop and Painter imaging software] to do my prints and design based on my paintings. I would scan them in and manipulate them. At the same time, a Silicon Valley friend, who was interested in the way that I wrote lyrics-which was primarily based on the William Burroughs cut-up method-suggested that he could come up with a little program that could do the same thing I do, but much quicker, and give me a far greater variety of output. He did that, and I started using that on a computer. And my son [Duncan] was also into this. He was online before anyone. I would join in and watch what he was doing and get fairly excited about it. I also started to see the abundance of Bowie sites and all that.

Y-LIFE: How old is your son?

BOWIE: He's coming up to 28 now.

Y-L~FE: So he's the perfect age for the Net.

BOWIE: Yeah, really. He really started with games in the '80s. He's so totally fluent. He's done a lot of programming when he was taking a break from university, programmed for BowieNet. He's quite a techhead. I'm not.

Y-LIFE: A lot of musicians came to the Web as a way to reach their fans. Rut you came in through other art projects. Were you aware of other official sites by pop-music artists?

BOWIE: Yes. I've been through nearly everybody's sites.

Y-LIFE: Are there some sites that you look at as models or cautionary tales?

BOWIE: Not really one overall site. I liked the look of the Prodigy site [the band, not the online service - Ed.]. I thought the design was very good. On the other hand, we went off very much on our own when we got down to doing the graphics for our site. I wanted the look of it based primarily on the kind of deconstructed look I had on the album Outside in 1994 - working on the idea of broken graphics and that kind of feel. I already got a bit of a jump start, in that my background was visual arts.

Y-LIFE: Have you been to the Artist's site?

BOWIE: Yeah, It's good.

Y-LIFE: You probably know that he and Todd Rundgren and some other artists have started to use the Net to distribute their music.

BOWIE: We haven't really gone gung ho on selling things online. It's not what I wanted to do. I much more wanted a community, more of an interactive thing. That's why I pushed and promoted the idea of feedback. I ask questions of the users, just as the users ask questions of me, contribute their own ideas, their own visuals, and their own ideas for text. That, for me at the moment, is much more important.

Y-LIFE: How often are you on the site?

BOWIE: I go on daily. Because I get up so early, I can at least put in half an hour daily.

Y-LIFE: Nothing on TV?

BOWIE: I can't stand TV. The only thing I miss when I come to New York is that in Bermuda, where I live, I can get ZDTV [the television network affiliated with ZD Inc., this magazine's parent company - Ed.]. I can't get it over here.

Y-LIFE: You really watch ZDTV in Bermuda?

BOWIE: Yes. [Laughs]. Isn't that terrible?

Y-LIFE: You should get a show.

BOWIE: I used to watch CNN. CNN was, like, on all day. Now I just leave it on ZDTV and see what's happening out there.

Y-LIFE: On your site, you sponsored a songwriting contest in which you wrote a melody and invited fans to write lyrics for it. The winner gets his or her lyrics recorded. Isn't that unprecedented?

BOWIE: Yes, I think so. Unfortunately there were thousands of entries.

Y-LIFE: Did you read them all?

BOWIE: I had to postpone the finish date, because I just couldn't get through them.

Y-LIFE: Have you gotten tired of that melody yet?

BOWIE: Oh, tell me about it [Laughs]. I'm not sure if I'll do it again. Not quite in this way. I'm sure we'll find some other interesting avenues. But this contest was really quite tiring.

Y-LIFE: There have been other projects like that. For example, the Stones had a thing where fans visiting their Web site picked a song for the band to play each night.

BOWIE: Yeah, well I did that in 1990 on the Sound+Vision tour.

Y-LIFE: Online?

BOWIE: No, not online. But with email, because my whole production office was on e-mail. We would have the sets dictated to us through e-mail.

Y-LIFE: You also publish your own diaries online on BowieNet. You've done journalism before, of course, but now you have your own electronic press.

BOWIE: I also have a hard-print house, called 21 Publishing. We feature mainly art books. I've written intros for those. I also contributed on a regular basis to a magazine called Modern Painting [sic]. And to some of the British newspapers. I do write a lot. I'm liking it more and more the older I get.

Y-LIFE: The diary topics are pretty broad. You write about meeting your wife, or herbal cold remedies. This seems to be an effective way for stars to get beyond celebrity, to demystify themselves.

BOWIE: The advent of demystification is very strong. It started in the late '80s, and it's really coming to the fore now. Musically, there's no particular group or artist coming to the fore, but rather genres: hip-hop, or female singers. That seems to be the sound and the feel of the '90s, rather than a Beatles or a Stones or a Prince. It's not personality-led.

Y-LIFE: Why do you think that is?

BOWIE: It's the way that we're evolving. I think the Net is partly responsible. It acknowledges the fact, and that's how we're dealing with individuals and information and personality and cult charisma and all that crap.

Y-LIFE: Who would ever think you would come out for demystification?

BOWIE: I've never really put myself out there as a person. I've developed characters. I've been more interested in the process: what an artist is, what a star is. Much of what I do is taking apart and analyzing and re-representing.

Y-LIFE: But most people know you through your characters, and the character on the site is closer to the actual person.

BOWIE: On the other hand, I probably would be the first person to do that. If you're totally into process, I think that's where eventually you get to.

Y-LIFE: So it's a mask that looks exactly like you this time.

BOWIE: [Laughs and lapses into a radio announcer voice] This is the real me.

Y-LIFE: You admit on the site that your famous '70s diaries were written by someone else, as part of the Ziggy Stardust experiment You've said that once you created a persona, you would hand him over to other people to manage for a time. But these BowieNet diaries are real?

BOWIE: Yeah, yeah. These are for real.

Y-LIFE:Are there any eyewitness accounts of you typing? Or is it dictating?

BOWIE: I type very well. My spelling is atrocious, but I have a spell-checker. Actually I'm often tempted to leave the checker's corrections of words in, because they're much funnier.

Y-LIFE: There's cut-up for you.

BOWIE: "Damned hirsute" is "Damien Hirst" [an artist whom Bowie has supported for many years - Ed]. No, that's completely my job. Anything you see on the site, if it's supposed to be me, it's actually me.

Y-LIFE: So people can see into your private life and pick up those weird, mundane details.

BOWIE: It's unprecedented, but I think it's fabulously instructive in its own way - not about the personalities themselves, but about how personality works. I don't think it's for everybody. I think there are a lot of people who would be quite scared of the act of revealing themselves.

Y-LIFE: Are there any stars you 'd like to see writing online diaries?

BOWIE: Dylan.

Y-LIFE: Can you imagine?

BOWIE: No. [Laughs] Also Iggy Pop. But I always thought he'd be a damned good straight-prose writer if he got down to it. I just don't think he'd bother, which is unfortunate. He'd be really good. Of the new school, Trent [Reznor's] already in there and running. He has quite a lot of foresight. Let's stop there.

Y-LIFE: Do you buy records?

BOWIE: Of course.

Y-LIFE: Online? Or do you just walk into a record store, like a normal person?

BOWIE: For many, many years - at least the last 15 years - I have led a very informal and natural lifestyle, inasmuch as I don't have an entourage. I don't work like that. I do go shopping. I make sure that I'm not imprisoned.

Y-LIFE: On the subject of online delivery: You've been in the music business for 30-plus years. When you look 10 years into the future, what do you see?

BOWIE: I think the whole way of delivering music will change. But I go against the flow. I think most people consider that corporations will continue to crush the idea of .MP3. What in fact they will do - there is a reason that they remain corporations for such a long time, because they have teeth-gnashing survival instincts-is that they'll work out their own way of delivering their own form of .MP3 into the stores themselves. I don't think stores will disappear. People like contact to a certain extent. I think it will be split fairly equally between online and store buying. Store buying will change. There won't be packaging.

Y-LIFE: So stores will stock blanks?

BOWIE: Exactly. You'll burn a CD with a selection of preselected tracks.

Y-LIFE: And the art can come from color laser printers.

BOWIE: Absolutely. You'll have a selection of artwork. That's what we're trying to do with our site Iiveandwell.com [www.liveandwell.com]: present a template of how this might work [the liveandwell.com project aims to create the first online virtual CD-Ed.]. You pick what you want as artwork and text, print it out, staple it together, and put it in the jewel box.

Y-LIFE: And that's OK with you? Wbat about the part of every artist that's a control freak and wants to dictate what finds its way into the hands of readers, viewers, or listeners?

BOWIE: Well, I think ever since the day bootlegs started, you had to let go of that control to a certain extent. There's such a democratic spirit about the whole thing. I only find it exciting.

Y-LIFE: Seventeen years ago or so, with the advent of MTV artists had to make the choice whether or not to join this new medium. Some did, some didn't. At the time, you had been ma king videos for a while. Did you know what a force MTV would become?

BOWIE: I only thought it would have a certain power because, again, having some visual background, I was aware of how strong the visual image is. I don't think any of us knew what impact it would have.

Y-LIFE: Do you think the Net's going to he as powerful as that?

BOWIE: Oh, god, yes. I think we are undergoing a most enormous eruption, a revolution. This is for real. It will change everything that we know-absolutely everything.

Y-LIFE: You've also predicted that the future will be all about wearable computers.

BOWIE: I can't wait.

Y-LIFE: You're going to preorder?

BOWIE: Can you imagine the terrible, nasty things we'll be asked to wear? We'll all look like Devo.

Y-LIFE: The last thing I want to talk about is the part of the Net devoted to gossip and rumor.

BOWIE: Oh, I never read that. [Laughs]

Y-LIFE: You've been the subject of a lot of gossip through the years. For the last decade you've been living relatively normally, as you said. But let's say the Internet in this form had existed in 1974.

BOWIE: Oh, my god.

Y-LIFE: You'd have logged on to Cybersleaze and read all these rumors about yourself..

BOWIE: Yeah. Well, it's human nature. No change from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century to now. Gossip has always been a way that people have assessed their moral station in life. People say, "So-and-so has done this," and they get a reaction from the person they're telling it to, and then they gauge their own reaction. It's a way of finding out the moral temperature.

Y-LIFE: So today your biographers, both authorized and unauthorized, would be online

BOWIE: I think most of it's online, anyway

Y-LIFE: Including your own site-you seen to have the instincts of a pack rat.

BOWIE: I have so much stuff, it's unbelievable. Even in my out-of-my-nut stages, I seem to have not thrown anything away. I probably have more than anybody else around-if that definitive book would ever come out. I think it's much more likely that I'll end up archiving completely on the Net. Just assemble the stuff that's collected over the years.

Y-LIFE: Like a presidential library - but for rock stars.

BOWIE: I wonder if Bill Gates would pay $30 million for the original lyrics to "Space Oddity." Hmmm. Didn't he pay that for the Codex Leicester [a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci's that Gates bought for $30.8 million in 1994-Ed.]?

Y-LIFE: If you tell him that the lyric is older than it is, maybe. He probably doesn't know.

BOWIE: [Laughs] Being a Mac person, I'm in full agreement with you.

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This document last updated Friday, 02-Jul-1999 14:46:08 EDT
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