Musicians are some of the savviest internet users around, building fan bases, sharing music, and even breaking into the industry thanks to the web. But it wasn’t always that way. In the internet’s early days, few people knew how to use it, least of all rock stars. Most music industry professionals thought it was another office tool destined to fade quietly away. A handful of visionaries thought otherwise, though. They saw a means to revolutionize their art, and modern music wouldn’t be the same, or even possible, without them.
Prince declared the internet was over in 2010, then later earned an Aggrievement Award for his antagonism against digital distribution and people using his material online. Backtrack a few decades to the mid-1990s, though, and Prince had an expansive vision of music careers — his first, of course — transformed by the internet. Frustration fueled his vision, but that same vision also predicted his less than generous future stance.
Like many artists, Prince was tired of labels controlling his career. He wanted to control his access to audiences, the chance to create and deliver entire experiences the way he envisioned without worrying about sales or placating record company execs. The first step in Prince’s plan: his online business called New Power Generation, where he controlled distribution.
While his ideal world included a radio station and his own label, the reality was a fan-dedicated website where Prince delivered his independent music and videos to members along with physical merchandise. He earned a Webby in 2006 for his achievements, but he never adapted to the idea of iTunes or other digital distribution methods. To him, that was giving up control all over again and undoing what he built.
David Bowie was the first internet celebrity streamer slash influencer, taking his website much further than Prince’s venture. In 1998, the former Ziggy Stardust launched BowieNet. Like Prince’s NPG, BowieNet offered perks to members, including access to music and a chance to chat with him and other fans in the site’s chat rooms. It also doubled as a full-service provider. Bowie actually set up competition against AOL and other early ISPs, but his vision was far from one of corporate success.
Before social media’s ubiquity, there was Web 2.0. Web 2.0 systems were broad and unorganized, given meaning based on user content and interactions. It was a marketer’s dream, a chance to understand how users of the digital age behaved. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails didn’t invent Web 2.0, but he was one of the first musicians to have a dedicated presence on it — for better and for worse.
Reznor said he always wanted one thing from NIN’s Web 2.0 presence: better knowledge of the fan base. That meant giving fans a peek behind the scenes by presenting himself as a normal person like everyone else. Unlike Bowie, with his predictions of the internet’s capacity for the terrible, Reznor didn’t realize what he was in for. In 2009, after countless trolls and hate messages, he decided it was time to leave the internet transparency to other artists.
Like Prince, The Beastie Boys wanted unrestricted access to their fans and freedom to distribute their music. They turned to Ian Rogers for help in the mid-’90s. Rogers designed band websites part-time and worked for the Boys’ manager John Silva while attending college. He’d developed the Don't Mosh in the Ramen Shop (1994) CD-ROM for the Boys. Then they asked him to design something new to get fans interested in Lollapalooza, but the Beastie Boys video game he created for it was the start of something much bigger.
Rogers created an early fan blog for the band, posting daily updates during their 1998 tour, including images and concert reviews. The website irked Capitol Records that year by hosting high-quality MP3s without the label’s approval, but the next year changed everything. The band worked with Capitol to post rare MP3s of their earlier work on the MP3 dot com website and delivered even more music later on. It was a big move, considering the MP3 sharing site Napster started the same year. At the time, analysts said it was a concession to the band, not the start of a new trend or a gift to fans.
It was a bit shortsighted of those analysts. Two years earlier, Capitol learned a lucrative lesson in digital music’s potential with Duran Duran. Robin Sloan Bechtel joined Capitol in 1989. The label wanted his computer skills because, as Betchel told Billboard, few people understood new technology at the time. That went double for the internet. Bechtel worked closely with Dave Goldberg, Capitol’s marketing manager at the time, on integrating a multimedia approach to the label’s marketing plan. In 1997, Duran Duran was preparing a new album for release, making them the perfect test subjects.
The band was happy to cooperate and further its well-established reputation as music pioneers. Bechtel and Goldberg presented Capitol with a plan for selling music online, targeting groups who couldn’t visit traditional record stores to purchase them. But they found an even wider audience. Capitol sold a digital version of Duran Duran’s "Electric Barbarella" with a twist. The digital version was an exclusive remix, and despite costing twice as much, it sold twice as much as the physical version.
In 1994, years before Capitol embraced the idea of digital singles, Robin Bechtel had to convince company executives the internet was here to stay. He and Goldberg won an award for designing a rudimentary video game to promote Frank Sinatra’s Duets (1993) and were eager to continue experimenting with multimedia. He had radical plans, despite not being entirely sure what he was doing.
Bechtel was one of the few who understood how the internet worked. He was invited to be part of the task force promoting Megadeth’s Youthanasia. He proposed an interactive website where the band “lived” called Megadeth, Arizona. It featured a chat room where band frontman David Mustaine first learned how to directly reach out to his fans. There were also several additional firsts, such as news and music clips. No one, including Mustaine, predicted its success, but it turned into a model other bands followed.
Before Bowie sold full albums online and Duran Duran’s digital “Electric Barbarella” turned label executives’ heads, there was Aerosmith. Signs of the music industry’s change appeared in 1993, with the release of the experimental first MP3 single and the first online concert (more about that later). Geffen’s Chief Technology Officer Jim Griffin had created the first corporate intranet and decided it was time to shake things up even more. Aerosmith was happy to go along for the ride.
In June 1994, Griffin released “Head First” from the band’s Get A Grip recording sessions as a free digital download for CompuServe customers. It was a previously unreleased track, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler thought it an unmissable opportunity to connect with fans. “If our fans are out there driving down that information superhighway, then we want to be playing at the truck stop,” he said. It took up to 90 minutes to download, and only 10,000 of CompuServe’s 2 million customers downloaded it. But the New York Times rightly predicted it was the end of the music industry as we’d known it.
Marillion and Steve Hogarth were internet pioneers in more ways than one. In 1996, the band followed the growing trend of reaching fans directly and started interacting with them online. A year later, they tried something that’s almost as ubiquitous as social media now: crowdfunding. Marillion appealed to fans and raised $60,000 to help pay for their North American concert tour. A decade later, Marillion had another internet first.
In 2008, Marillion made their double-CD album Happiness is the Road available for free on the internet. Unlike Radiohead, Marillion didn’t lead fans to their website for the download. They put it on file-sharing sites and encouraged people to share the files around, but there was a catch. While the album downloaded, users saw screens advertising Marillion merchandise and upcoming tours, and they were signed up for email notifications about future Marillion news. It was a small sacrifice to make a much bigger opportunity possible.