When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider: The Rise and Fall of BowieNet (1998)

When we con­sid­er the many iden­ti­ties of David Bowie — Zig­gy Star­dust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke — we often neglect to include his trans­for­ma­tion into an inter­net entre­pre­neur. In line with Bowie’s rep­u­ta­tion for being ahead of his time in all endeav­ors, it hap­pened sev­er­al tech booms ago, in the late 1990s. Fore­see­ing the inter­net’s poten­tial as a cul­tur­al and com­mer­cial force, he got ahead of it by launch­ing not just his own web site (which some major artists lacked through the end of the cen­tu­ry), but his own inter­net ser­vice provider. For $19.95 a month (£10.00 in the UK), BowieNet offered fans access not just to “high-speed” inter­net but to “David Bowie, his world, his friends, his fans, includ­ing live chats, live video feeds, chat rooms and bul­letin boards.”

So announced the ini­tial BowieNet press release pub­lished in August 1998, which also promised “live in-stu­dio video feeds,” “text, audio and video mes­sages from Bowie,” “Desk­top themes includ­ing Bowie screen­savers, wall­pa­per and icons,” and best of all, a “david­bowie e‑mail address (your name@davidbowie.com).” While the dial-up of the inter­net con­nec­tions of the day was­n’t quite equal to the task of reli­ably stream­ing video, many of BowieNet’s approx­i­mate­ly 100,000 mem­bers still fond­ly remem­ber the com­mu­ni­ty cul­ti­vat­ed on its mes­sage boards. “This was in effect a music-cen­tric social net­work,” writes The Gar­dian’s Kei­th Stu­art, “sev­er­al years before the emer­gence of sec­tor lead­ers like Friend­ster and Myspace.”

Unlike on the the vast social net­works that would lat­er devel­op, the man him­self was known to drop in. Under the alias “Sailor,” writes Newsweek’s Zach Schon­feld, “Bowie would some­times share updates and rec­om­men­da­tions or respond to fan queries.” He might endorse an album (Arcade Fire’s debut Funer­al earned a rave), express increduli­ty at rumors (of, say, his play­ing a con­cert with Paul McCart­ney and Michael Jack­son to be beamed into out­er space), crack jokes, or tell sto­ries (of, say, the time he and John Lennon sat around call­ing into radio sta­tions togeth­er). As Ars Tech­ni­ca’s inter­view with BowieNet co-founder Ron Roy con­firms, Bowie did­n’t just lend the enter­prise his brand but was “tremen­dous­ly involved from day one.” As Roy tells it, Bowie kept BowieNet fresh “by explor­ing new tech­nolo­gies to keep fans engaged and excit­ed. He always preached [that] it’s about the expe­ri­ence, the new.”

It helped that Bowie was­n’t sim­ply look­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the rise of the inter­net. As the 1999 ZDTV inter­view at the top of the post reveals, he was already hooked on it him­self. “The first thing I do is get e‑mails out of the way,” he says, describ­ing the aver­age day in his online life. “I’m e‑mail crazy. And then I’ll spend prob­a­bly about an hour, maybe more, going through my site.” Even in the ear­ly days of “the con­tro­ver­sial mp3 for­mat,” he showed great enthu­si­asm for putting his music online. He con­tin­ued doing so even after tech­nol­o­gy sur­passed BowieNet, which dis­con­tin­ued its inter­net ser­vice in 2006. Now, as the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic keeps much of the world at home, many high-pro­file artists have tak­en to the inter­net to keep the show going. David Bowie fans know that, were he still with us, he’d have been the first to do it — and do it, no doubt, the most inter­est­ing­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1999, David Bowie Pre­dicts the Good and Bad of the Inter­net: “We’re on the Cusp of Some­thing Exhil­a­rat­ing and Ter­ri­fy­ing”

David Bowie Sells Ice Cream, Sake, Coke & Water: Watch His TV Com­mer­cials from the 1960s Through 2013

How David Bowie Deliv­ered His Two Most Famous Farewells: As Zig­gy Star­dust in 1973, and at the End of His Life in 2016

John Tur­tur­ro Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to the World Wide Web in 1999: Watch A Beginner’s Guide To The Inter­net

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Cindy Phillips says:

    My first inter­net provider was Bowienet in 1993. I saw him do an inter­view about it and he said on film what I had expe­ri­enced. He chat­ted with us some­times. It was great fun. He said he used oth­er names some­times but he told me once it was him. How I wish I had a screen­shot. He said in the inter­view a lot of his oth­er alias­es which made me laugh because one of them was Gus. Gus and I were great tak­ers there but I didn’t real­ize it was Bowie! He was ask­ing me what I thought about his var­i­ous projects and what I liked or didn’t like about his shows, what I hoped to see more of. Being a Bowie fanat­ic since ‘72 I can tru­ly say it was a high­light of my life!

    Hail hail the Thin White Duke, Zig­gy Star­dust, Hal­loween Jack and most won­der­ful­ly in his final years — pure unadul­ter­at­ed Bowie no longer in any char­ac­ter. Play­ing him­self. Ah. Such a bril­liant man!

  • Malumbo says:

    Request for sup­port,

    Dear David,

    I am a young Malaw­ian lady, an activist who fights for the rights of peo­ple liv­ing with HIV and AIDS. Since Jan­u­ary 2022, the south­ern part of Malawi has been hit by floods that have washed away peo­ple’s prop­er­ties includ­ing farms.

    I am intend­ing to sup­port the affect­ed peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly those liv­ing with HIV and AIDS in improv­ing their social-eco­nom­ic lives through impart­ing busi­ness skills and irri­ga­tion farm­ing meth­ods since they can not cul­ti­vate their crops using rain-fed agri­cul­ture.

    I am writ­ing to plead for a part­ner­ship with you in cash and kind as I car­ry out this work.

    Look­ing for­wards to your pos­i­tive response in this mat­ter.

    Best Regards,
    Malum­bo Mwale for Wom­en’s Inno­va­tions Cen­tre.

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