Monday, December 6, 2010

David Bowie, "Telling Lies", And The First Digital Single

If you're anything like us, you have a hard drive loaded with thousands upon thousands of mp3s, and the idea of a "digital" single is something you take largely for granted. Well, we here at HAD are hear to tell you that wasn't always the case (okay, you know already, we get it) and a little story about the man who (as always) was the one to break the ice.

In the fall of 1996, the internet was just getting its teeth, most home users were logging in by 28.8 modem, and branded ISPs (AOL, Compuserve, etc.) were the norm. What's more, the mp3 barely existed, and the concept of a digital music player was nil. People were still making mix tapes - real ones.

It was in this environment that David Bowie decided to be the first "major artist" to release a digital single, and it was unquestionably an uphill battle. To start with, no one had decoders for the digital files, so they had to be educated on how to get their hands on one. On top of that, the mp3 had yet to become standard, so formats were a complete tossup. Finally, very few users even truly "got" the internet yet, so education was needed just to explain the concept.

Never one to turn down a challenge, Bowie took things head on. He encoded 3 remixes of the brand new track "Telling Lies" over three weeks, and distributed them on the web site. They were encoded as "mp2" files (mp3's redheaded older sibling), and available (along with a decoder) for free download. Needless to say, as insatiable Bowie fans, we were "surfing the net" the second we got wind of the whole orderal.

Needless to say, issuing 3 obscure drum n' bass remixes of your new single isn't the best strategy. On top of that, the mp2 encoding was mediocre at best, and offered compression artifacts that made you question what was accidental and what was an intended studio effect. In short, the concept was there, but the technology still had a little more distance to cover.

Nonetheless, the track was later released as a physical single (cover above), and then reissued on the two disc version of Bowie's Earthling (mp3 below). None of that, however, changes how we will remember the excruciatingly slow download on the night we got our hands on the first digital single.