Today everything about music is digital (outside of us vinyl anoraks, of course) but 20 years ago it was the stuff still bordering on science fiction.
Because the recording industry was still making obscene amounts of money from the selling of plastic in 1997, there was little appetite or impetus for going digital beyond a standard CD. But Capitol Records needed a gimmick to revive the career of Duran Duran, a band that had come to pride itself on its futurism. They were about to release an album called Medazzaland, which featured a song that inspired a conversation that probably went something like this:
“What if we made the new single available for sale on the Internet?” someone said. “After all, it’s called ‘Electric Barbarella,’ which takes part of its name from a campy sci-fi movie.”
“Don’t forget that ‘Duran Duran’ was the name of a character in that same movie,” someone else said.
“Right. It’s settled. Now how do we do this?”
MP3s had barely begun to seep into the public consciousness, but there was no way Capitol was going to try to sell music on an unlockable digital format. They enlisted the people at the long-gone Liquid Audio to handle distribution, who then made the song available for sale for 99 cents.
At nearly five minutes, this song would have taken forever (up to an hour, if the connection help) to download over a typical dial-up modem. I’m guessing that Capitol made almost nothing from the experiment, other than claiming that this was the first-ever single to be sold over the Internet.
That claim is bunk, really, since music had begun whipping around the Internet since 1992. And then there’s the pesky fact that Aerosmith made a track called “Head First” available online via CompuServ in June 1994. But let’s give DD and Capitol props for their moxie.
In the end, though, the plan backfired. Record stores HATED the idea. “You keep doing stuff like this and we’ll all be out of business! We sell PLASTIC, not BYTES! We’re NOT stocking the album. Go to hell!”
Turns out those retailers were right, huh?
More on how this all came to pass at Billboard.