Bowie Leads Music Ch-ch-ch-changes

Many writers are excited by Stephen King’s e-book, “The Plant”. King is selling it at his site for $1 per chapter and says he’ll write as long as people pay. So far he’s still writing.

But it’s Napster that fascinates the media, and the search is on for a new music-industry business model. Leading the charge is none other than David Bowie.

Most music stars are horrible at business, but there are exceptions. Herb Alpert founded A&M Records, and Chet Atkins was an industry executive for decades. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull made a fortune in the salmon business.

Unlike most musicians, Bowie doesn’t hate MP3s. As a businessman, Bowie’s best-known move was his 1999 float of “Bowie Bonds”, $55 million in debt instruments backed by the future royalties on his older albums. The deal got Bowie serious attention on Wall Street but also gave him greater control over his music, which should be the goal of every musician today.

At 53, Bowie has reached the mellow stage of life where he wears fame the way most of us wear our best suit. He’s comfortable writing a chatty web journal, and his site has spent most of the last year rolling out experiments in musical entrepreneurship to the accompanying drumbeat of press releases.

Bowie released his first “cybersong” on his web site in May 1999. His latest move is to get his fans involved directly in the creation of a new 20-cut “greatest hits” album. Last night, for instance, fans were invited to the Bowie site to select their favorite versions of tracks that might appear on the CD.

The Bowie site has experimented with all sorts of technical gizmos over the past 18 months, from chats and contests to 360-degree cameras and 3D worlds. Fans can join BowieNet for $5.95 per month, and the company resells ISP services at $14.95 per month. Bowie says he’s getting a kick out of it.

Bowie, of course, can afford to experiment in the most pretentious ways imaginable. He’s rich; pretentiousness is part of his image; and he’s a partner in Ultrastar, the development company that does his web site. Most musicians can’t follow more than a few steps along the path he’s built without running into serious financial difficulties.

I might compare him to George Vanderbilt, whose money built the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. Things like electricity, running water, and home networking were only for the most forward-thinking ultrarich in 1894, but in time, all these innovations filtered right down to the middle class. I guarantee it will take less than a century for what Bowie is doing to reach the average musician near you.

What is he doing, you ask? He’s taking control of his own music, his own image, and his own marketing. He’s building a ladder other musicians can climb to reach the same goal. He’s trying out new revenue sources (like subscriptions) and a new, direct connection with his fan base. Time has changed him, but the song (track three on his recent “ChangesBowie” compilation) is wrong. He is changing his time.

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