20 Years Ago: Duran Duran Make Music History by Selling ‘Electric Barbarella’ as a Digital Single
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Duran Duran are music video pioneers thanks to their elaborate ’80s clips and the way they leveraged the cutting-edge medium for promotion. But the U.K. new wavers are also online music pioneers: In 1997, they became the first major label artist to sell digital downloads of a single.
The Duran Duran tune in question was the electro-shocked “Electric Barbarella,” the lead single from the band’s LP, Medazzaland. Articles touted that on Sept. 9, 1997, fans could buy a radio edit of the song for 99 cents, and an exclusive remix of the song dubbed the “Internet Only Mix” for $1.99, via Capitol Records’ website. In what would soon become an extremely contentious point, “Electric Barbarella” wasn’t yet going to be available in brick-and-mortar stores; the online sale preceded its arrival at retail by two weeks.
According to keyboardist Nick Rhodes, the idea to make internet history was the band’s idea. “It started with us and our management,” he told Bruce Haring in Beyond the Charts: MP3 and the Digital Music Revolution. “We’d been talking about it for a very long time. We’d be waiting for the right opportunity to come along to be able to download and sell music through the Internet.” Rhodes added that their forward-thinking idea was “met with considerable resistance from Capitol Records” at first. “But much to their credit, they did finally come around and realize the potential. As with a lot of new technologies, it’s fear, more than anything else, and politics.”
Duran Duran and Capitol partnered with a then-nascent company called Liquid Audio to deliver the “Electric Barbarella” audio to buyers. The digital song was of CD-caliber sound quality, and could be burned to disc. The song file could not be duplicated, however, as Liquid Audio had copyright-protecting features built into its technology. Speaking to Billboard, Liquid Audio VP of Marketing (U.S.) Scott Burnett considered the partnership “a great opportunity for the music industry to see how downloadable singles for sale can help their business. This is about creating additional revenue—not about taking away established revenue streams.”
Capitol also viewed the “Electric Barbarella” download as a win-win situation for all parties involved, especially because it would raise awareness and encourage discovery. “This is a promotional effort that will ultimately help us sell the album,” Robin Bechtel, senior director of new media (U.S.), said in the same Billboard article. “It is one more way to introduce music to consumers. This helps build a buzz on the internet and drives interest in the record.” In fact, Bechtel pointed out later that “most people who find out about music on the Internet do go down to their local retailer to make a purchase. This will help to generate more sales at retail.”
Despite reassurances, traditional retailers weren’t exactly excited about the pioneering promotion—and didn’t quite see the financial glass as half full. As senior VP of Capitol Records sales Lou Mann put it in Beyond the Charts: MP3 and the Digital Music Revolution, “a few of the retailers were very concerned, primarily because it wasn’t completely, fully explained to them, and saw this as us being in competition with them.” That “Electric Barbarella” was available online first before landing in stores was another major sore spot.
That was a common mindset back then. The front page of Billboard‘s Oct. 4, 1997 issue featured an article titled “Music Retailers Criticize Label Sales on Internet” that contained some rather choice words from retailers and industry figures about leveraging the internet to sell music.
The “Electric Barbarella”-related comments were particularly harsh. “If they sell Duran Duran early on the Internet, not only will Trans World not carry the new title, but it also won’t carry Duran Duran catalog,” Bob Higgins, president of Trans World Entertainment, told Billboard. “If they give an advance to the Internet, then it’s not in our best interest to support that artist.” Another unnamed retailer at what Billboard calls “a midsized chain” told the publication, “If the labels market product on the Internet that is available elsewhere, fine. But if it is exclusive, I have a problem. Why should we support a manufacturer that is heading off our customers before they reach our door?”
These threats were serious enough that Capitol changed course. “We basically altered our promotion so it was consistent with their timetable,” Mann said. Instead of being available on Sept. 9, the digital music would arrive the same day the “Electric Barbarella” single hit stores: The radio edit would be sold online from Sept. 23-30, while the remix would be available to buy between Sept. 23-Oct. 14. (Medazzaland‘s release date, Oct. 14, remained the same.)
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However, the promotion was hardly a failure. No amount of skepticism or sales blockades could stop the internet from becoming a dominant force in music commerce. In fact, the label was lauded for its trailblazing efforts. “In retrospect, Capitol’s move was a critical early attempt to establish a legitimate alternative to a then-little-known phenomena of music piracy through the unprotected MP3 format,” Brett Atwood wrote in the July 17, 1999, Billboard story “From MTV to MP3: Witness to the Multimedia Revolution.” As time has shown, music piracy caught many in the industry off guard, making the resistance Capitol Records faced an ominous portent of looming digital music battles to come.
Duran Duran, meanwhile, was unfazed by the negative reaction and kept innovating. In 1998, the limited-edition Night Versions CD featured a CD-ROM bonus disc with an extended remix of “New Moon on Monday” that was accessed by visiting Duran Duran’s newly minted website. By 1999, the band’s website was promoting its “virtual reality content.” And Rhodes himself sounded like a psychic sage in a conversation with Billboard in September 1997, as he correctly envisioned how the internet was going to change people’s lives in the very near future.
“Over the coming years, I’m sure that the Internet will find its way into most people’s living rooms,” he said, noting he has “always regarded Duran Duran as a multimedia band” anyway. “The technology is developing at such a remarkable rate [that] I can only imagine the incredible possibilities which will actually become reality. It is truly an inspiring medium for artists, and I am certain that our future work will increasingly involve the internet.”
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