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[whitespace] David Bowie Internet Duke: Web fans can now keep track of the pop icon online--for a fee.

David Bowie's now an ISP. But is it a bold new move or another way to fleece the faithful?

By Zack Stentz

HOW MUCH DO you like David Bowie? The wily old rocker is betting that fans' fond memories of singing along to "Suffragette City" or making out while "China Girl" played on the stereo will translate into a willingness to buy Internet access from the Thin White Duke. An early embracer of computer technology and the Internet, David Bowie recently became the first rock star to morph into an Internet Service Provider, with the launch this September of BowieNet, an ISP created in conjunction with the Cupertino-based Concentric Network Corp.

"This came about through his management company, and we were very excited to be working with an artist of Bowie's stature," Concentric marketing vice president Scott Eagle says. "In a situation like this, our partner brings the content, while we supply the network that gets used." In the case of BowieNet, the content includes basic ISP service, a davidbowie.com email address, chat rooms, exclusive audio and video clips, vintage music videos and links to Bowie's own favorite sites.

"Basically, it will provide the user with a personal relationship to the artist," Eagle assures me, lest I think that an ISP connection is a relatively impersonal way to relate to my favorite pop icon.

The site in its present form presents an attractive but not exactly mind-blowing assortment of biographical material, video and audio clips and chat areas where Bowie fans can meet and converse. Surprisingly, the potentially most lucrative aspect of an artist-based ISP--an online catalog and merchandise-ordering system--has yet to be activated.

Concentric executives say that response to BowieNet has so far been strong, though they decline to provide specific membership numbers. "On September 30th, David participated in a private chat session for members of the service, and we had over 150 participants," Concentric director of engineering Mike Ganley boasts. "We're very pleased with the response so far, and we have some new features we'll be adding soon that we can't discuss yet."

Priced at a competitive $19.95 a month (comparable to big ISPs like AOL or Netcom)--or $5.95 for Bowie content without the ISP access--BowieNet is the first in an expected wave of smaller, "boutique" ISPs associated with a recognized name.

"We're in talks with a number of other parties as well," Eagle says. "Sports teams seem especially interested in the concept, because they like the idea of providing a private area for hardcore fans and a way for them to order merchandise directly."

In other words, if BowieNet succeeds, expect @sjsharks.com and @sf49ers.com email addresses to start popping up as well. As a tool for nurturing the fan base, building brand awareness and providing an online catalog, branded ISPs seem ideal. But despite media interest and an initial membership surge, success on this very first attempt at a boutique ISP isn't a foregone conclusion.

On the UseNet group alt.fan.david-bowie and in numerous Bowie-oriented Web sites, reaction from the online community of Bowie true believers is decidedly mixed. True, at least no one accused Bowie--who has already turned his song catalog into a bond issue--of selling out, and nearly everyone interviewed relished the reinforcement of the perception of Bowie as an innovative risk-taker ("It doesn't surprise me that Bowie is the first with this, as he is always on the cutting edge," says one).

Some followers, however, wish that Bowie would spend a little less time in his various business ventures and more making new music. "I would rather see him use his energy on the great gifts God gave him with his talents than on the frontiers in his business," says Teresa, who already posts to the Internet under the Bowie- inspired moniker ohmytvc15.

"More time, money and energy focusing on making Bowie material and information available to all Bowie fans, regardless of their online carriers, seems to make the most impact on me," she adds, expressing concern about the fate of the fans not signed up with the service. "My choice of server should not decide my fate as a Bowie fan."

OTHER FANS worry that the new service will compete with and squeeze out the thriving community of fan-based Bowie Web sites, chat rooms and discussion groups. "As webmaster of Teenage Wildlife, I have particular interest in this question," says Evan Torrie, the Menlo Park-based webmaster whose site is one of the best and most popular Bowie destinations on the Internet. (In fact, Bowie himself admitted in interviews that he and the band logged onto the site to look at fan feedback from the various dates during their recent Earthling tour.)

"My feeling is that the official BowieNet will be both enhanced and constrained by their official status," Torrie says. "They'll be the only ones who are able to put the copyrighted audio and video files officially on the Net, and of course they'll probably pick up a lot of visitors who just want that. But on the other hand, they won't be publishing rumors, unflattering news or irreverent looks at Bowie, which is what a lot of the Bowie fan sites (including mine) like to touch on."

For their part, the creators of BowieNet say the last thing they want is to alienate existing online Bowie fans, whom they see as forming the core audience for the new ISP. "We really feel that what we're doing will complement the existing content on the Web," says Robert Goodale of Ultrastar, the New York-based company that's handling the content end of BowieNet. "And we'll make an effort to make the existing people who are already online want to be here."

"As a webmaster, I think the competition is a good thing," Torrie admits. "There may be areas where the existing Bowie content on the Web will be superseded, but on the other hand, it inspires the creators to enhance and direct their content into areas which BowieNet won't touch."

LIKE MOST of the Bowie fans interviewed, Torrie plans to go for the $5.95 option of getting BowieNet's additional content while sticking with his current ISP. He echoes the sentiments of Half Moon Bay Bowie fan Joey Alexis, who says, "Having a davidbowie.com address is not a good idea for me, as I use my email for business as well as personal. It's kind of like wearing a Bowie T-shirt 24 hours a day. I love Bowie, but that's not the first thing I want people to know about me."

Most fans seem to share the mixed feelings of Dara O'Kearney, a Dublin, Ireland, computer consultant, music writer and frequent contributor to Bowie discussion groups.

"I think most people have the vague feeling it'll be a good thing," O'Kearney says, "because it's pitched at a competitive price [relative to their current ISP], and if they get more Bowie for their buck, that's a good thing. On the other hand, a lot of people have the nagging feeling that this is just another way to get a few bucks out of the faithful, and Bowie has shown himself to be elusive in the past--in fact, his whole appeal is largely based on being inaccessible--so people wonder whether we'll really get more access or just 'the same old thing in brand-new drag.' "

Goodale of Ultrastar, though, promises that Bowie will be directly connected to the venture. "He's very interested in all of this, and he'll be extremely involved with the development of the service," he says.

"David has over 30 years of material with a lot of potential to be adapted to the Web," Ganley adds. "He sees this as another creative outlet, not just a way to make money."

Still, the man who ditched glitter rock for ersatz Philly Soul for Berlin electronic experimentation for user-friendly dance music in the course of a decade is one of pop music's most mercurial figures, and some fans worry that this Internet infatuation will be another passing fancy for Bowie.

"I think there's a big question mark over Bowie's length of commitment to this project," Torrie says. "He's had a history of tending to get very interested in something for a couple of years, and then leaving it and moving on to something else. So it's entirely possible that the same may happen with BowieNet. It will get a lot of attention over the next year to two years, and then slowly start becoming neglected."

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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