The Forgettable David Bowie Song That Changed the Music Industry Forever

25 years ago, Bowie debuted "Telling Lies," the first major downloadable single on the web

September 13, 2021 7:38 am
David Bowie, live on stage in 1996, close to the time he released the first major label downloadable single
David Bowie in 1996, the year he released a downloadable single online

“I am the future / I’m tomorrow / I am the end.” — David Bowie, “Telling Lies”

If the music industry was going to undergo a tumultuous shift, it might as well have had David Bowie providing the soundtrack. On September 11th, 1996,  Bowie’s “Telling Lies” became the first ever downloadable single by a major artist, arriving on Bowie’s website in three different formats, released over three weeks (a traditional single was later released in November).

As a song, “Telling Lies” is … well, it’s pretty generic drum ‘n’ bass with some brooding Bowie lyrics (“swear to me in times of war and stress”) and no real hook. It’s dark and maybe reflects the singer’s time spent touring as a co-headliner with Nine Inch Nails earlier that year. As AllMusic noted at the time about Earthling, the album from which “Lies” served as the first single, “The record frequently sounds as if the beats were simply grafted on top of pre-existing songs. Never are the songs broken open by a new form; they are fairly conventional Bowie songs with fancy production.”

But we’re not here to discuss mid-’90s Bowie records, a staple of bargain bins for years to come. Even if his output was uneven during the decade, Bowie certainly was one step ahead when it came to technology — he launched his own internet service provider, BowieNet, in 1998 (he also issued part of his music catalog as “Bowie Bonds” in 1997, a financial move that pre-dates the very current trend of classic rock artists selling their publishing rights … and unlike those artists, Bowie got his songs and royalty income back).

Let’s be clear: in 1996, you could find music on the Internet, although there weren’t any mainstream streaming or peer-to-peer sites, and iTunes was nearly five years away. Two years before Bowie, Aerosmith released “Head First,” an unused track from their Get a Grip sessions, as a free WAV download on CompuServe, which might be the most 1994 sentence ever.

But the “Telling Lies” single represented a conscious effort by a major music label to appeal to a growing legion of web users who, surprise, really liked music. Bowie himself debuted the track on a live online chat on, again, CompuServe, where a moderator noted that “Joining us tonight we have three David Bowie’s [sic]. Two in disguise. You be the judge: who’s ‘Telling Lies’?” It really wasn’t much different from a Reddit AMA.

If you weed through that chat, you end up with just two short mentions of what would mark a momentous moment for the music industry (of the three “Bowies” on the chat, No. 1 was the actual musician). Here’s one:

Question from CZL: [104676,544] William H. Sokolic
Tell us about this internet song scheduled for release, the one not available on radio or in the record stores?

(6-11, David Number 1) Um … there are three different mixes to be available that you can download. None of these will be available in the record shops. There’s a fourth that will be available in a completely different mix on the album “Earthling.” Due out sometime next year.

The “Lies” single supposedly racked up 300,000 downloads, according to a press release at the time (via Wikipedia, so judge that figure as you want). Still, it was only three short years later when we got to Napster, the file-sharing service that would put the music industry in a panic. How freaked out were the labels? Warner Bros. quickly pulled a free Tom Petty download from that they had already agreed to give the service for no apparent reason.

You know the rest. iTunes launched in 2001, setting the stage for paid downloads. And downloads soon turned to streaming; Spotify wasn’t the first, but their launch in 2006 pretty much defined how we legally consume music today (streaming makes up 83% of U.S. music revenue).

The music industry cratered after peer-to-peer and iTunes became the norm, but seems to be back on a healthy track, with 2020 just falling short of tying a record 1999 in terms of global revenue. And while you can’t credit Bowie or a forgettable single for charting the path of music consumption for the following 25 years, you should heed what the iconic musician had to say in his 1996 chat. He was discussing touring with Trent Reznor, but the lesson learned could have applied to the streaming world that lay ahead.

“I just wanted to move away from the preconception of what an artist of what my so-called standing should be doing,” he said. “I often plunge myself into the deep end of a situation just to see what happens. I find that the positive results of any experiment outweighs the negatives. Always put yourself in a situation where you’re slightly out of your own depths.”

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