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15 Years Ago: David Bowie Records The First Cyber Song

David Bowie
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1999, David Bowie launched a unique contest: a chance for a fan to collaborate on a song with him. Fans were instructed to submit lyrics to a song that was already in demo form, had a chorus, and an instrumental that served as a guide for the vocals.

In an interview about the contest, Bowie told Internet Tonight correspondent, Liam Mayclem, that the contest had over 200,000 entries and voters (later in the same report, it was mentioned that only 80,000 people sent in lyrics). Out of the submissions, 20-year-old Alex Grant from Ohio won the contest because Bowie said Grant’s lyrics were, “impertinent…it scanned well, and it was easy to sing.”

The recording session for the song, ‘What’s Really Happening,’ was streamed live using a special 360-degree camera, created by Lucent Technology, on BowieNet, Rollingstone.com, and Tunes.com. Moreover, anyone who logged in to any of the participating sites would not only get to see the recording of the song, but also “…[be taken] through the rehearsal…and mixing of the song.” Visitors could also chat in real time with each other during the recording session. Not surprisingly, the chat room was filled with snarky-to-gushing comments about what Bowie smelled like, why the song was was taking so long to record and complaints about the live stream having technical problems.

The Cyber Song contest was very much like the radio and MTV-type contests of the past. Grant was feted with an all expense paid trip to New York City to witness the recording sessions, a $15,000 publishing deal (which Grant said he would use to fun his college education), a $500 gift card to CDNow, and subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine. The added twist to the contest and event was the level of fan participation – which combined collaboration, real-time viewing and the ability to comment on the action. And while that may not sound like a big deal in the age of Twitter and Facebook ‘insta-reactions,’ one has to remember that BowieNet was one the first of its kind to use Internet technology in this way – he even won an award in 2000 from Yahoo! for being an online pioneer.

Moreover, the recording session may have netted Bowie more customers to BowieNet (which was an Internet Service Provider from 1999-2006), and help to spur sales of the album, ‘Hours…,’ which featured ‘What’s Really Happening.’ Most notably, however, was the Cyber Song contest demonstrated that Bowie was still an innovative singer-songwriter, au courant when it came to the Internet and ahead of the curve in dissolving the boundaries between artists and fans.

Watch David Bowie’s ‘What’s Really Happening’

Next: Top 10 David Bowie Songs

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