Article: Cyberspace Oddity by Robert Levine

Below is an article from the March 1997 issue of “The Web” magazine, which featured an interview with Robert Levine and David Bowie. Pictures and transcribed article below:

The Thin White Duke Plays with New Music, Net Singles, and Online Identities.

“If anybody comes up on the net and says ‘It’s David Bowie here,’ you know it isn’t me,” laughs the real David Bowie. It’s not that Bowie doesn’t go online; he just doesn’t use his own name when he gets there. Little surprise, then, that his new single – released on his Web site months before the album hit record stores – is called “Telling Lies.” On album, on film, and now online, the protean rock star revels in identity games, reinventing himself to suit the times.

The mid-90’s Bowie is remarkably cyber-savvy, equally comfortable discussing his online antics, electronic music’s influence on Earthling, his new album, or the Net’s effect on the future of the music business. Of course, as the biggest star to ever post a song on the Web, Bowie is helping to steer that future by validating the internet as a vehicle for delivering music. And thousands of downloads can’t be wrong.

Your new album is influenced by the drum ‘n’ bass sound coming out of England. When did you first hear that kind of music?

Around 1992 was when I got hip to drum ‘n’ bass, or jungle, as it was called then. I just knew that it was something I wanted to get involved in myself… When I get excited about a new rhythmic form or a new dance form – whether it was in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s with rhythm and blues, or soul music which I had gotten into in the mid-’70’s when it was happening in Philadelphia, or when I got to Germany and fell under the spell of the sounds coming out of Dusseldorf and Munich – I often find it a real trigger for a new wave of writing.

This album and your previous one, Outside, share a futuristic film noir aesthetic and a cyberpunk edge. Is that intentional?

Yeah, as much as my stuff ever did acknowledge a cyber-punk kind of thing. So much of that comes from William Burroughs, who was always a huge influence on me and really a mentor as far as how to write in a late-20th-century fashion. The great lesson I learned from him was how one can pass information on through fragmentation… The idea of the discontinuation of dialog – how jumping from one thing to another actually can give you quite a bit of information. And I guess I’m moving further back into that way of writing again as much as I ever did with things like Diamond Dogs [1974] and even things I wrote for Heroes [1977].

Was it your idea to put that first single up on the Net?

I’ve wanted to do something like that, but the provocation came from Nancy Berry, executive vice president of Virgin Records. I think it was extremely courageous of her. Putting material on the internet is a dangerous move for corporations to make. For me and for people like Prince who have an overwriting dilemma, I thought it would be a perfect way to unload material [that the record company won’t release].

So you’ve given some thought to putting B-sides and leftover tracks on the Net?

I have indeed. I’m waiting for the moment when downloading [at CD quality] can happen in real time. It would be so cool to have a ten-minute piece of music that you could download in ten minutes… I’m thinking of putting up stuff that my record company would consider too esoteric, or too left-field, or too avant-garde for their own needs. I think the Internet would be a great way of disseminating that kind of material… The most frustrating thing about being an overachiever in terms of writing is that you have all this stuff and nobody gets a chance to hear it.

You’re probably the most popular artist to put a song up on the Net so far. Do you think other acts will follow?

Oh, I think it’s inevitable. In a year or so, it will be a traditional thing for new material. I’m certainly going to do it again, without a doubt.

Do you foresee a time when someone like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince says, “Forget the record company; I’m going to release this on the Net myself?”

Without a doubt, that’s what will happen.

Do you think that makes the major record companies nervous?

I imagine it would make them shit-scared, yes. It would make a lot of record shops and distributors scared as well, because it points to a time when the shop really becomes the middleman. The Net is about taking away the middleman; it’s about one-on-one confrontation between the artist and the listener.

How do you feel about that future interaction?

I see it as something to look forward to. That’s one thing I have to confront with my own record company: I really wish to put out the pieces that they don’t have the heart [to release]… Those of us signed to labels obviously have to be very wary of the legal entanglements we can get ourselves in, but we need to have an honest dialogue. What kind of material do you as a corporate company want to handle, and what don’t you want to handle? Let’s then resolve the fact that stuff you don’t want to handle I can disseminate the way I wish.

Do you go on the Net yourself?

I’ll tell you what I found. The greatest blessing for an artist is the immediate feedback one gets on anything one does. Out on tour, rather than reading one critic’s point of view, we would look at the [fan] pages every day to see what people thought of the show the night before. That was really helpful to us to know if we should maybe lose a song or try something else.

Do you check out anything else on the Web?

I check out other artists’ sites to see what they’re doing, see what the rumors are. I’ve looked at U2. I want to keep my eye on those boys, see what they’re up to.

What do you think of the David Bowie fan sites out there?

It really is overwhelming. Some of them are OK. A lot of them are kind of goofy, but there’s some good stuff out there. You have to have a lot of patience, and you have to have a lot of time.

You put together a CD-ROM called Jump a few years ago. What do you think of it now?

I didn’t have much input into that. It was really laid out for me as an example of what could be done. They wanted to get something out there to just be ahead or something. There are aspects of it that I quite like, but it was only OK in my mind.

Do you think you’ll do another new media project in the future?

I’m quite into the idea of producing a CD-ROM situation that’s not game-oriented and doesn’t have a finished objective. I’d rather have less information on the disc and maybe fewer orders – so that the interaction comes between the viewer and the keyboard and the screen – rather than going for the fewer options you’re generally given with a CD-ROM.

You launched “Telling Lies” on the Web with a unique chat, in which you answered questions truthfully while two bogus Bowies “told lies.” Audience members then voted on which one they thought was you. Was this your idea?

Ted Mico [of Virgin Records] dreamed that one up, and I loved it. It was about anonymity, and “what is personality?” and “what are the characteristics of anybody?” and “do we really know public figures that well?”

I heard you came in third. How does that make you feel?

Kind of left out of things. I was answering as honestly as was necessary or appropriate. I guess a public figure is anybody you want to make him. Obviously I’m not the figure that people think I am. So it was kind of gratifying.

Was chatting directly with fans on the Net different from doing a traditional interview with a journalist?

Yes, it’s different because the questions don’t have a personalized subtext to them. With a journalist, when you’re sitting there looking at him and you’re hearing his questions, you’re always kind of thinking, “What does he mean by that?” rather than taking the question at face value. When you’re having that kind of dialogue on the internet, you tend to depersonalize the questions. They don’t have an agenda attached to them. So you respond to it just for what it is, rather than thinking, “Why did that person ask that?” Online conversations probably get to the truth a lot quicker, although [he laughs] I’ve gone online anonymously and fucked with people, kind of disagreeing with that they have to say [about me]. I’ve actually chatted with people [who claimed to be David Bowie], and that was fun. It can become quite surreal.

One thought on “Article: Cyberspace Oddity by Robert Levine

  1. My interpretation of this is that Bowie waited until internet speeds were fast enough to release CD-quality music in order to release the Leon suites, but by the time that happened he either forgot or the novelty of the internet wore off. That’s pretty disappointing, but understandable.


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