[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
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
"This is not an autobiographical album by any stretch of the imagination,"
"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
(Senior Writer Gil Kaufman contributed to this report.)