The rumours started six months ago - a leak here, a leak there. "Psssst.. did you hear? Bowie is planning something big on the Internet. He's going to become his own ISP!" It made for great headlines - "Cyberspace Oddity" and "The Man Who Sold The Net". Now we can all take a look at Bowie's latest venture into the brave new Internet world with the launch September 1 of BowieNet. How does it stack up? Is it worth plonking down cash (or rather, credit) for? And most importantly, what's David's email address? Read on...
By Evan Torrie
I signed up for the BowieNet Premium Content option via the Web on the morning of its launch. By doing so, I serendipitously avoided some of the grief which people who had pre-registered encountered. Since I didn't sign up for full ISP access, I can't comment on the CD-ROM and its bonus tracks which BowieNet VPN customers receive, so I'll just concentrate on the premium content available on BowieNet (if you're interested in the freebies, see the end of the review).
In addition, be aware that BowieNet is still adding material. Some features such as the 3D chat and the Earthling Live section were not operational as I write this, and in other places there were promises that the information would continue to be updated and corrected from its initial release.
With those caveats in mind, let's get on with the show!
The first thing you'll likely to notice when you visit BowieNet is the attention to graphic design. No gray backgrounds or Times 12 fonts here! That's hardly a surprise coming from a man whose first job was in graphic design, but there's been a top notch job done here with a site design which combines seamless frames with dark, fractal-inspired and human body-part backgrounds to give a futuristic, chaotic look and feel. I'm not a fan of frames in general and the interface doesn't make use of windows wider than 640 pixels, but there's obviously been some serious effort put into the overall design and look and feel. Particularly nice is the attention paid to such small details as Flash animations for the navigation buttons (a swirling Mandelbrot) and semi-transparent navigational buttons on the Exclusives section. Somewhat irritating are a couple of backgrounds which are too light, making it hard to read the white text (e.g. Bowie's orange locks on the BowieNet journal page).
As with any graphics-intensive site, the initial download time can sometimes be a bit intimidating for those with slow connections, and I'd certainly recommend having at least a 28K and preferably 56K modem connection (especially since some of the RealAudio clips require more than 28Kbps for immediate streaming download). Once the graphics are cached locally by your browser, the next visit goes much faster. Those of you who are lucky enough to have cable modems or DSL won't notice a thing (apart from turning me green with envy).
The premium content of BowieNet is divided into three major sections. I'll give a short description of each here and then go into detail on each section below.
Also provided are a Help and a Search section, which are both pretty self-explanatory.
The Help section could probably use some more assistance for Premium Content users who don't get the CD-ROM with preinstalled software, e.g. explaining how to add a news host to their newsreader to be able to access the message boards, and how to get access to chat, since both require downloading and/or configuring separate software.
My personal test for determining whether a site is earning its keep or not is how well its Search feature performs. There's nothing worse than having a multi-thousand page website, and never being able to find anything on it. Luckily, the search features are built on top of Microsoft's Knowledge Manager which indexes web pages as they are added to the site and provides Boolean and wildcard searching, so it's easy to find anything on the site. Unluckily, because the site uses a framed interface, the documents returned are the bare frame contents rather than the overall interface in which you normally see them when navigating the site.
I tried out my favourite test - the quintessential Bowie-neophyte search.
"What song is that one where he sings 'put on your red shoes'?"
Typing put on your red shoes into the search box was successful, returning the lyrics to Let's Dance. However, when you click on the link for the document, it opens directly in the browser window and doesn't present you with the framed interface that you'd normally see when you navigate through the chronology. Thus, there's no accompanying information to indicate on which album the song appeared, nor can you get to the sound clips or videos or photographs that you'd normally see with the song. It would be nicer if it either opened up in the same surrounding frames as you'd normally see it, or, if it gave you some link to jump to that frameset.
In addition to the exclusive BowieNet content, the home page also includes links to a customizable daily news section provided by Lycos, and the music news of the day from Rolling Stone. This is obviously part of a plan to become somewhat of a web portal, where members will keep BowieNet as their home page and use it as a jumping off point in their Internet travels. To encourage this, BowieNet VPN members will also get disk space to be able to build their own web pages.
Another feature that I would like to see added to the home page is a "What's New?" section which lists the most recent site additions. Once the site starts growing and adding new material, it may be hard for the average user to keep up with what has been added and where, so an index would be a welcome addition.
There's one huge advantage that BowieNet has over any other fan site - Complete and unadulterated access to the Bowie archives of photographs, video, diaries and audio tracks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bowie section which really comprises the heart of the personal and exclusive Bowie material. Let's look at the subsections one-by-one.
This is really just a general press release type biography, albeit with a couple of rare photos. Nothing to get too excited about, although it's interesting that it never mentions Never Let Me Down by name.
To take full advantage of the chronology, you really need to have Macromedia Flash installed on your computer (it comes with the BowieNet CD-ROM for full ISP purchasers). This nifty navigation tool displays a matrix of years (decades on the left, years along the bottom), with clipped pictures representing each piece of work (see below). As you sit and watch, the pictures slide across the screen, representing each year going by and the albums/videos/films etc that were released that year. You can stop the animation, jump to a particular year, or go directly to the piece of work you see displayed by clicking on its picture.
The Flash animated chronology timeline
Bowie's material is divided into six categories in the chronology, albums, compilations, movies, soundtracks, tours and videos. Each one brings up a different timeline. One quibble is that the timeline doesn't show the name of the work until you hover your mouse over it, so unless you know the picture and the year of the album you're interested in, you may have to drag your mouse over everything. Perhaps for the less graphically inclined (or less patient) amongst us, a simple popup menu of items for each category of work would be a nice alternative.
Once you do decide to click on an item, you get information about the work plus a list of further subcategories such as audio, lyrics, photos, video. The audio clips are all in RealAudio and generally around one minute in length. The lyrics are sometimes questionable (Bowie has said he is going through them with a fine tooth comb over the next while). The photographs are often the most interesting part of this section, because they include some rarities rather than just the standard press photos. The Young Americans photo section, for example, includes a couple of pictures taken by Coco Schwab inside Sigma Sound. It's also nice to finally get to see some of the videos which never made it on to local television (e.g. the video for Strangers When We Meet or Dead Man Walking).
On such albums as Earthling you get additional material such as a transcript of an interview with David where he discusses the influences behind each song in insights. On the Outside, we get the transcript of Nathan Adler's diary. It would be great to see this additional material extended for each album, perhaps even just an interview with Bowie now about each song as he remembers writing it.
The movies and videos section include Bowie's major (and not so major) releases. Yellowbeard even gets a nod with a video clip of Bowie's appearance as a shark.
There are a few peculiarities about the chronology. For example, Stage is listed as being from 1977, even though the tracks for it weren't recorded until 1978 on the Low And Heroes Tour! And every one of the saleable items has a CDNow "Buy it here" logo even though most of them are not in print. (Note to Virgin/EMD on the rereleases. It's ridiculous that you can't even go out today and buy a copy of the album voted most influential of the 70s!).
Also, the tracks are from the original albums rather than the Rykodisc reissues. This means you don't get access to any of the bonus tracks which Rykodisc included, such as the demo of Candidate included on the Diamond Dogs album. However, you do get the tracks from the Virgin rereleases of the EMI albums, which means that you don't get the pleasure of listening to a clip of Too Dizzy (for which I don't know if I should be pleased or disappointed).
Finally you will also have a hard job finding some of Bowie's rarer material. There's no singles category, for exmample, so you won't get to hear any of the rare B-sides. Similarly, there's no entry for such one-off soundtrack items like Real Cool World, nor for rare items like the Planet Of Dreams track composed with Gail-Ann Dorsey.
Ultrastar has stated their intention to get a lot of this rare material up, and there certainly is room for expansion. Other areas that would be nice to see added to the chronology are major interviews with Bowie from over the years, if only just for our the reader's amusement to see what promises were kept and broken.
The introduction describes this section as "the most current and accurate news on what he is up to". Is that a subtle dig at the fan site rumour pages (sheepish look)? In any case, if anyone knows what Bowie is really up to, it should be Bowie himself. So far, the news items have been updated once every two days and also contain photos which only Bowie would have access to (e.g. a picture of Bowie recording the Gershwin tribute song in the studio with Angelo Badalamenti).
There's also a list of past press releases, including a classic one announcing the release of Ziggy Stardust
"Perhaps by becoming a fantasy David Bowie is able to make fantasy into reality (are we really so sure of that separation anyway?), and to take the idea further, to the conclusion it arrives at with this album, the fantasy becomes tangible, and reality, by its sheer outrage, slips into fantasy."
Errrr... whatever you say. I imagine this area will get fleshed out with more past classics like this as time goes on.
Now we get into the really fun parts. As the introduction says...
"You'll see concert footage and photos from the earliest stages of David's career, photos that have been locked away for years, audio clips that no one outside of David's inner circle has heard, and plenty of other content that any Bowie fan, no matter how serious, would love to get their hands on."
To begin, there's a gallery of Mick Rock pictures, three full length RealPlayer videos from the 50th birthday show, a photo gallery of Bowie's candid snapshots with various friends and celebrities (including John Lennon, Eric Idle and Bjork), and a few photos and videos from the filming of Everybody Loves Sunshine.
There's also a placeholder for Earthling Live Tracks which just says "Coming soon...". It will be interesting to see whether these are tracks that were destined for an album that will never make it. If so, it would be nice if they were provided in full 16-bit CD quality using MP3 compression as was done for the Internet release of Telling Lies. RealAudio is good, but it's not perfect.
This area has great potential for keeping the hardcore Bowie fan coming back for more; there's definitely enough material to keep it going for many years to come. Will we get to see ancient clips of Bowie's advertisements for Luv ice cream? His appearance in the BBC's Pistol Shot production? The Diamond Dogs promotional video? Bowie's early painting efforts?
Finally, we come to what I think will be the most popular and interesting area for both casual and hardcore fan alike. It's like a direct connection into a personal life and thoughts of Bowie. Rather than being the unapprochable rockstar who you only read about in the press, you'll now get to read and hear more about Bowie's everyday life, the projects he's working on, books he's been reading and photos that you won't see in any press kit.
Every few days Bowie submits a new entry to the ongoing journal, which is also archived for posterity. It's much more of a direct feedback to ongoing events and reports than you'll see from any other major celebrity. For example, in the first few journal entries, he debunks a few of the ongoing rumours about particular projects, reminisces about his bodyguard Tony Mascia and complains about the immense amount of work that has gone into getting the website up and running (Ed: hey, tell me about it!)
One feature that I think would make a great addition to this area is some way to submit a question that you've always wanted to ask Bowie directly, and have him pick one every week or so, write up an answer to it and post it in this section. Sort of a Question Of The Week. It would be a nice two way street, and the anticipation of wondering whether your question would be the one selected each time would keep the members coming back.
Also included in the Journal section are other personal Bowie contributions, including his favourite web sites, his booklist and a family album, including more candid photos from throughout Bowie's career (including a long-haired passport photo when he was 17) and the infamous swimming trunks and saxophone picture.
The second major area of BowieNet, and the one really designed to engender member participation and feedback is the Discourse section. If "David is poking around checking things out in here" as promised, fans will no longer ponder the years-old question asked on alt.fan.david-bowie ("Does David ever read this?"). Of course, live chat sessions with Bowie in attendance are planned , which will be a more direct way to ask a question if you ever get selected out of the rabble. Let's go through the subsections one by one.
Live chat is one of the most addicting pasttimes on the Internet, and BowieNet Chat tantalizes the fan with the news that
"From time to time - David and "special guests" will enter the chat room - sometimes announced - sometime under a alias."
Judging by my experience on Teenage Wildlife Chat, the alias thing may drive a few people crazy with impersonators. Of course, that's also part of the charm of it. Chat comes in two flavours, standard IRC (Internet Relay Chat) which members can log on to with a separate chat program, and a novel 3-D "BowieWorld" chat from World's, Inc. The 3-D chat was not available at the time of writing, but if you want to take a look at an example of what you might see, visit the World's web site where they have a demonstration you can download. Hopefully there'll be some provision made for Mac users of the 3-D chat, since there is no mention of support on the company's site.
One thing to be aware of is that it appears both chat systems will require you to authenticate yourself as a BowieNet member with your username and password, so you're unlikely to find any Michael Bolton fans milling about to harass if that's your bag, baby.
The most popular section of the old www.davidbowie.com site by far, the message board received hundreds of posts per day (although it could hardly be said that they were all Bowie-related!). On BowieNet, the message board has transmogrified into an NNTP based news posting area (like USENET's alt.fan.david-bowie). This means that rather than using a web browser, you'll need to set up and use news-reading software, something which is preinstalled for BowieNet VPN members, but may not be so obvious for the premium content members (see the Frequently Asked Questions page).
There are six groups for discussion:
- Poetry Lyrics
The news server seemed a little tardy in my perusal, and by using NNTP, users have to switch to a different news reading interface rather than being in an integrated BowieNet web browser environment. I feel a few people will find this a little disconcerting, even though the overall NNTP service is probably more reliable than most web-based bulletin board systems.
Once again, the news server for BowieNet members requires authentication with your username and password. However, there is a free version of the news groups available to those who haven't signed up. I haven't quite worked out the rationale of this, since alt.fan.david-bowie is already available, so I'll be interested to see how the division between these two plays out.
BowieNet solicits fan contributions in the areas of "art (drawings, photos, scribbles, digital creations, sculpture (or maybe photos of sculpture), fiction, poetry, or anything else that you want to submit". So far there's nothing up because it's brand new, but this is a popular section on Teenage Wildlife (judging by the hundreds of pictures I've cropped and scaled over the years!)
As the section says "there can never be too much Bowie on the net" (Prince, are you taking note??). There's a directory of fan sites in this section listed in alphabetical order, with invitations for new submissions.
BowieNet VPN members can create their own pages via an association with Tripod, and this section will provide an index of the member's pages.
The Outside section collects links to the non-Bowie related Internet world. Currently, the links are divided into five categories - music, art, literature, design and movies. There are currently about ten links in each category with invitations for fans to submit their favourites, and a promise that the links will be rotated monthly.
There's also a section called Body Links, which promises each month a new member of Bowie's friends or family in an expose of their favourite links plus commentary. The first contributor is Duncan Bowie, David's son, who explains his predilections for computer games, Celtic culture (even though he is a sassenach), philosophy and real dolls. He also provides a separate rant on the Internet in general and David's role in the new Star Wars trilogy. A few other stars have already contributed a collection of links (currently sans commentary) including Lou Reed, Gail-Ann Dorsey, Laurie Anderson and Frank Black. It looks like this will be a fun place to come see what the "stars" browse.
As you can see, overall BowieNet is a pretty impressive piece of work, especially the personal Bowie information which has been hidden in the vaults (and I'm sure a lot more of it will surface over the coming months).
What features then do I think could be improved upon? First, as I said before, I would like to see the addition of a What's New section so members can keep up with what's been added throughout the vast site all at a single glance. I'm also very much in the camp of more dynamic involvement on the user's side. At the moment, there's Chat and Post for talking to other members, but apart from that, all of the site content is pretty much a static affair (albeit with animation). I'd like to see more user interactivity; perhaps votes or games with a Bowie bent (e.g. CNN's Quick Vote, or Yahoo's games). And a Question Of The Week submitted by a lucky member would be a great idea (if I say so myself).
What was that grief I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Well, more than a few people who had pre-registered their usernames and passwords were dismayed to find that they weren't able to log in come September 1. It turns out that VPN members must have the CD-ROM before they can set up their account and log in. However, even premium content members had problems with pre-registered passwords and the initial setup didn't accept non-US addresses, which was particularly galling to those outside the US as they currently don't have the option of signing up for VPN membership. The division of labour between Concentric Networks which supplies the network services and Ultrastar which provides the content and design have been problematic. Hopefully these are all just initial teething problems which will (and have in the case of the non-US addresses) be fixed quickly.
I also personally had problems with Internet Explorer 4 on my Macintosh failing to correctly read the RealAudio files (although it does so correctly in Netscape). This is strange since IE is the recommended BowieNet browser. From my investigation it seems like a bug in Internet Explorer, although BowieNet is the first site which has triggered it because of the slightly non-conventional way in which it returns RealAudio files.
So, is it worth spending money on? Well, that really depends on what option you're looking at and your degree of Bowie fandom.
The longterm question though, and the one which I've heard over and over from other Bowie fans who have followed him for years, is "will this be maintained?" With a history of capriciousness and an admitted attention span of a grasshopper, fans can only hope that BowieNet does not suffer the same fate as some Bowie projects have in the past.
However, since you're paying on a month by month basis it's no skin off your nose if you decide to cancel at any point. And so on that basis, if you're a Bowie fan of any flavour (and if you're not, what on earth are you doing still reading this), I strongly recommend you at least take a month's look at BowieNet.
On the sheep scale, BowieNet gets a four ot of five baaas.
For those who don't want to pay anything, there's still a small free section of BowieNet. There are free message boards (although you'll need to add freenews.davidbowie.com to your news hosts) and a non-Flash version of the album discography which includes RealAudio clips for a few songs from each. It's really just a teaser of what you'll find inside the site though, and something which you can also easily find on other fan sites.
(One scheme which would entice those who are uncertain as to whether they want to subscribe is to post some more selected details from the premium content section in the free section. Perhaps a couple of highlights from the past month from the exclusives would entice more fence-sitters).
David's Bowie Email Address: As the frequently asked questions file for premium content notes, David's email address is locked in a vault for which no one person knows the complete combination. If we told you it, we'd have to kill you. In other words, no, you can't send mail directly to David.