Best Of '99: Hundreds Pay To Download Bowie's hours ...

Label says that's a good three-day total for first high-profile rock album to be sold exclusively online.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, Sept. 23.]

Several hundred people have bought rock veteran David Bowie's new album,

hours ..., since it went on sale as a downloadable file Tuesday,

according to a Virgin Records executive.

That has exceeded the label's expectations, Jay Samit, Virgin's senior

vice president for new media, said Thursday (Sept. 23).

Samit, who would not disclose exact figures, said he would have been

happy with a total sale of 200 copies of the album, which can be downloaded

from several dozen websites in North America and Australia for prices

comparable to what a traditional CD would cost. The album will be released

in CD form Oct. 5 and is the highest-profile album to be first sold

exclusively as a download.

"It's all part of our overall strategy in moving forward into digital

distribution," Samit said concerning what he dubbed an experiment.

Bowie, who has long been active on the Internet, said in New York last

week he is excited about the prospect of downloadable music, but added,

"They've really got to do something about the bandwidth. It'll be some

time until it effectively parallels retail sales" (RealAudio

excerpt of interview).

The sites are estimating the download time for the album at between

seven and eight minutes for people with T1 lines and up to five hours

for people with 28.8 KB modems. It contains 50 minutes of music —

the 47 minutes of what will be the traditional hours ... CD plus

the Internet bonus track "No One Calls."

While that's a common CD length, Bowie said part of the allure of digital

distribution is that "the aspect of a prescribed amount of minutes is

gonna disappear, which is good."

The album, Bowie's first since Earthling (1997), is available in

Liquid Audio and Microsoft Audio formats at several websites, including

Musicland, Tower Records, HMV, Musicmaker.com, Harmony House and Virgin

Megastore.

Most of them are selling it for $17.98. Musicmaker.com — owned in

part by EMI, which owns Virgin — is charging $12.95.

Musicmaker.com co-founder and CEO Bob Bernardi said that price is consistent

with the site's policy of selling individual songs for $1. The company

is offering the album's 11 tracks as individual downloads, which Bernardi

said is easier and less time-consuming for consumers. It also might

represent the way albums are marketed and sold in the future, he said.

"We think there's tremendous market for [single-song downloads]," Bernardi

said. "But you really need broadband to make people happy."

Broadband is a term used to describe high-speed Internet access and the

wiring needed to achieve it.

Samit said the label limited the number of participating sites because

it is still trying to assess the technology. That's why only North American

and Australian sites are involved.

"Here's a physical-world parallel," he said. "You open a store in this

great new location where a lot of people live and it didn't occur to you

that you didn't buy a cash register. So this is an experiment. We're

putting retailers in mind."

But the demand from consumers is there, Samit said. "You have to be from

Mars not to realize" that people want to be able access music through

the Internet these days, he said.

The new album finds Bowie returning to a more traditional rock sound

after delving into drum & bass and techno on Earthling. The songs

are soulful and midtempo, and revolve around the theme of time and growing

older. Among the songs are "Something in the Air" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "Thursday's Child" (RealAudio

excerpt).

"This is not an autobiographical album by any stretch of the imagination,"

Bowie said.

"As any writer would, I've used aspects and incidents and events from my

past, but I've often tied them together in their conclusion with my

contemporaries and some of my peers and friends that I feel probably didn't

have the fortune that I've had in my life and career. I've watched them

flounder a little over the last 10 years or so when they're reaching that

stage where it's very, very hard to start a new life" (RealAudio

excerpt of interview).

Though Bowie is probably the best-known artist to release an album on

the Web, he's far from the first. Rappers Public Enemy and Ice-T and

rockers Frank Black and They Might Be Giants have all done so on independent

online labels.

(Senior Writer Gil Kaufman contributed to this report.)