Bowie’s YouTube Release: Where the Heck Are We Now?

After nearly ten years of pseudo-silence in his solo career, David Bowie, without spectacle, announced on his 66th birthday, January 8, 2013, the release of a new album. The Next Day was uploaded on iTunes the following month, for a limited period of free streaming. A music video for a single off of the album, “Where Are We Now” was released on YouTube on the same date. An established artist like David Bowie, whose prolific career as an international rock/pop star had spanned more than forty years, could certainly have afforded promotional and commercial hype for the release of a new album. Why then, release the album for free streaming on iTunes and the music video single (obviously, free for viewing) on YouTube?

It makes sense, to me, that Bowie—who has always had a remarkable ability to keep in touch with the times—would not emphasize the release of a physical album, be it vinyl or CD, in 2013. While we, as avid, professional consumers, who take our job of buying/disposing/buying very seriously, may purchase the physical manifestation of the work of our most cherished artists, we have moved whole-heartedly into the digital era. Save the dedicated collectors of older generations, most 21st century music fans are content to create digital catalogs of their audio library. Many of us, myself included, don’t actually own even a digital copy of the music, happy to stream our tunes from online applications like Spotify or Pandora. And of course, there are those—though I myself have usually been too paranoid about computer viruses to partake—who download their favorite songs illegally, obtaining their digital copy for free. After the period of initial free streaming, the album was available for download at cost, but I don’t doubt that Bowie was considerate of these circumstances when deciding to release his twenty-fourth studio album online.

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More interesting, I think, is the choice to drop his music video, “Where Are We Now”—the first in ten years—on YouTube, the holy grail of databases documenting the banalities of humanity. Anyone with access to the internet—literally, anyone—can upload a video to YouTube of anything—literally, anything. Sure, the site has a method by which users can report obscene or offensive content, at which point the video will be removed, but this does not stop the initial upload. Bowie’s own musyoutubedogic video for the title track “The Next Day” was temporarily removed from the site after being flagged for its satirical religious references. Because the removal of such reported content is executed by an automated system, the video was reinstated as soon as the oversight was brought to the attention of YouTube’s administration, though it now bears the word “Explicit,” and asks users to verify their status as a legal adult before viewing. But this system indicates my point: the democratic nature of such an open-source database. YouTube, by now one of the most extensive collections of information in human history, has truly become a cultural archive like no other. The site stores, shares and distributes audio-visual information with unprecedented proliferation, allowing users to communicate with millions of people across the planet for free. Because qualification to upload on the site is virtually nil, the type of content is not limited or curated, ranging from footage of the Presidential inauguration to dogs riding skateboards. YouTube, jumbled as it may be, represents one of the most extensive and unbiased documentations of 21st century global culture currently available.

When an artists chooses to upload their official music video among the millions of files on the YouTube server, they must consider how to differentiate their content from the masses. But when releasing “Where Are We Now” Bowie seems to pointedly neglect this task: he does not create much of a media campaign before posting the video, and the content of the video does not greatly distance itself from the homegrown efforts of smalltime YouTube users. Bowie commissioned contemporary video artist Tony Oursler to create the video for “Where Are We Now.” Consistent to Oursler’s style, the video combines high- and low-tech artifacts, featuring relatively sophisticated projection techniques and mundane materials like makeshift dolls or mannequins. Without minimizing the artistic vision of Oursler’s work, it serves to note that the technical aesthetic of the film does not distinguish it from the multitude of homemade videos found on YouTube.

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In posting his video directly to Youtube, Bowie was relying on his established fan base to utilize the democratic nature of such an accessible site to distribute and publicize his work without his direct involvement. In this way, Bowie allowed his audience, starting with his most dedicated fans, to essentially become a part of the work, when users reposted and shared the video to their own internet profiles. The reception of an unexpected album release after such a long hiatus could have resulted in numerous outcomes, and by permitting his listeners to determine the public reaction of his latest creation, Bowie avoided the potential embarrassment of an unsuccessful release, established his artist output as a priority over monetary success, and reaffirmed credibility with his fans.

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