Business ventures

‘hours…’ was Bowie’s only studio album released between 1998 and 2001, an unusually fallow time for Bowie. Instead he turned his attentions to a series of business ventures which secured his financial future.

In 1997 he pioneered what became known as ‘Bowie bonds’, in which he used his pre-1990 back catalogue as security against a loan of $55 million. The money was to be repaid over a ten-year period, after which the royalties reverted back to him.

The bonds, which had a face value of $1,000, an interest rate of 7.9% and a maturity of 10 years, were all bought on the day of sale by the Prudential Insurance Company. This was one of the first instances of using intellectual property as collateral, and was followed by other artists including Elton John.

The success of the bonds issue allowed Bowie the financial means to buy out the publishing owned by his former manager Tony Defries. Bowie’s contract with MainMan had been signed in haste and regretted by the singer, who had for many years yearned to take back control of his songs. In 1997 he was finally able to do this, and later that year he resold his back catalogue to EMI for an advance of $28.5 million.

The EMI sale led to the reissue of 17 digitally remastered albums. They were originally intended to each have a bonus disc and an enhanced multimedia component, but delays in the schedule meant they were released as single disc editions without additional material.

In 1998 Bowie mixed the album, a souvenir of the Earthling Tour which was released in 1999. Bowie’s label, Virgin, was unenthusiastic about the album, and refused to release it. It was eventually given away in 1999 to subscribers of his latest big venture, BowieNet.

Bowie had become infatuated with the internet, and the emergent possibilities it afforded for distribution and communication. In 1996 he had released ‘Telling Lies’ online, becoming the first major artist to do so. He had also experimented with interactive CD-ROM technologies, and in 1997 had webcast an Earthling Tour show in Boston. His websites and launched in early 1998.

On 1 September 1998 he launched BowieNet, initially in North America for $19.95 a montyh, but soon expanding worldwide. BowieNet was an internet service provider promising exclusive information, photography, videos and interview, in addition to news and postings by Bowie himself. Subscribers were given an email address with the suffix By 1999 the ISP, which was wound up in 2012, was valued at £300 million.

BowieNet was part of Bowie’s internet company Ultrastar Internet Services. It was followed in 1999 by the David Bowie Radio Network, on the Rolling Stone Radio website, and the launch of BowieBanc, a partnership with which gave customers branded ATM cards, chequebooks, and one year’s membership of BowieNet.

Bowie and Ultrastar also ran websites for a variety of organisations including educational establishments and American sports teams – including the New York Yankees (Yankees-Xtreme) and the Baltimore Orioles (OriolesWorld).

We create little generic ISPs for different companies and universities and colleges and all that, so it’s actually quite a major company now.
David Bowie
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

These may have given Bowie financial security for life, but he was losing the musical momentum that had been building since 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, and which had given Bowie the confidence and artistic freedom to make the wildly ambitious 1.Outside and its equally experimental follow-up Earthling.

I believe that there should have been a follow-up Earthling-type album, much in the same way that Aladdin Sane followed Ziggy… an extrapolation of the previous album. The music had evolved, the band was playing great and the window of opportunity, time-wise, was there. David’s desire was to put together a live album, produced by him and me, of Earthling/Outside-only material, plus two new tracks – a song called ‘Funhouse’ – an amazing drum and bass/rock extravaganza – and a cover of Dylan’s ‘Trying To Get To Heaven’.

Unfortunately, Virgin refused to put it out after it was completed and submitted in late winder 1998. Aside from the obvious, the bad news was that, in the amount of time David, Mark Plati and myself spent compiling and editing, we could have written and recorded the Earthling follow-up album that I’d hoped we’d do.

Reeves Gabrels
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

The carefully planned business ventures stood in contrast to Bowie’s mid-90s efforts to connect with a younger audience, by touring with Nine Inch Nails, Placebo, his star-studded 50th birthday concert, and dabbles in new genres on 1.Outside and Earthling. Bowie, the great outsider and iconoclast, was in danger of appearing to have sold out.