Pretty much everything about this story will seem old. Maybe laughably so. Let’s get that out of the way. Technology is in a perpetual state of relentless, preposterous forward motion, and we’re constantly reminded that we’re already somehow living in the future, today. But I'm talking about an older future. I’m talking about Aerosmith. I’m talking about Internet connectivity that charged by the minute. I’m talking about a time when AOL blew people's minds.
Twenty years ago, on June 27, 1994, Geffen Records made history when it released the first major label song for exclusive digital download. The song was Aerosmith’s “Head First,” an unused cut from the Get a Grip sessions. Ten thousand CompuServe subscribers downloaded it in eight days. It is three minutes and 14 seconds long. It took 60 to 90 minutes to download. “Head First” was a trial, a marketing ploy, a flash of the future, an iceberg for a titanic industry, and 4.3 megabytes of riffs and double entendres, available as a WAV file.
Offering a song for digital download was a tech experiment, carried out both for its industry-altering potential and for the hell of it. It was the brainchild of three fairly new Geffen employees: Jim Griffin, Robert von Goeben, and Luke Wood. They brought the Internet to Geffen—not just the computers, but the fledgling culture. Griffin grasped the technology, von Goeben knew CompuServe, and Wood understood where the industry was headed. Together, they helped trigger a watershed moment for the industry, helping to draw the lines between supporters and critics of digital music distribution and launching an as-yet-unresolved debate about copyright, royalties, distribution, and listener access.
Years before Spotify, iTunes, or even Napster were a twinkle in some programmer's eye, controversy was brewing, but so was optimism about the options for listeners looking for new music, artists looking for new fans, and labels looking for new business opportunities. For an instant 20 years ago, as it is now, digital music distribution was still the future, getting carved out of the present.
Compuserve ad, circa 1983
In 1994, the Internet was a primitive version of what we're familiar with today. The World Wide Web, in all of its alliterative glory, made up just 1 percent of all Internet traffic. URLs and HTML, the things that let you find and read shit on the Internet, didn't even become standardized until 1991 and 1994, respectively. Early versions of content-sharing tools like email and file transfer protocols existed, but the Internet was basically a collection of isolated local networks, intranets used by researchers or the military, and an already outdated MySpace. Going online was hard, slow, and expensive. Academic and government users had little interest in branching the Internet out past specialization: Through the late 70s, the technology remained out of reach for consumers.
CompuServe started to change all that. It was the first commercial online service, rising to prominence in the mid-80s with early iterations of email, tech support, and online gaming. The dial-up service was basically Google and AT&T rolled into one; not only did it help dictate how people actually used the Internet, it set the cost ($10+ an hour). CompuServe also offered popular Forums, where users gathered to discuss current events, entertainment, and whatever else. It was these enlightened mid-90s symposiums that would evolve into Yahoo Answers and YouTube comments sections. CompuServe users could probably be excused for misreading things, though. They communicated using a command-line interface, which requires users to enter text commands, one line at a time, in order to do anything. It looks challenging to the uninitiated.
CompuServe game/command-line interface
It was older technology that brought Jim Griffin to Geffen, though. Selected to steer the company through the age-old Mac versus PC debate, he became Geffen’s chief technology officer in 1992, under fairly unpromising conditions. “I was warned [tech] wouldn’t be a priority,” he recalls, by decree of Universal, Geffen’s parent company. He fixed his department's sights on the long game, getting a PC out of inventory—”to avoid the politics and bureaucracy,” he says—and installing the operating system Linux on it. It was Hollywood’s first web server.
Money was another matter. As Geffen’s tech framework grew, Universal’s legal council fretted about the rising costs of Internet use—for example, they worried sending long-distance emails would be more expensive. Griffin had to convince the legal team that emailing Russian contacts wouldn’t blow up the budget. Nonetheless, some expenses were astronomical—at one point, Geffen was shelling out $2,400 an hour to connect to Universal’s mainframe. To Griffin, it made sense to make a real investment in their Internet setup, like debuting a single by a popular band.
According to his peers, Griffin had the clearest vision of what digital music distribution could become. Although he maintains he was merely the “enabler” of von Goeben and Wood’s dream, von Goeben disagrees: “Griffin saw exactly where things were going,” he recalls. “Only a couple of us saw that it was giving a glimpse of the future.”
Robert von Goeben started in Geffen’s graphic arts department early in 1993, but he soon created Geffen’s online services division, the first such presence in the music industry. At first, the department was basically just von Goeben working nights and weekends on his Mac. He created websites for the label’s bands, which included Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, and Beck. His budget was $300 per site.
The main hindrance to website production was amusingly simple—no one really knew what to put on one. “The biggest challenge was getting info to make it interesting,” he says. “There was really no knowledge or interest in websites because no one had Internet access.” You could argue that after years of countless dumb quizzes and pointless articles, the question remains unanswered, but, just for perspective, that's where things were.
An early Geffen website
Von Goeben was also a big CompuServe user, joining in 1990 to trade stocks and look up weather data. He suggested that Geffen establish a presence on CompuServe. It became the first record label on CompuServe’s Music Vendors Forum, which a 1993 Orlando Sentinel article helpfully informs us was “a cyber space for labels to promote products and answer questions from consumers.” Fans could also download 30-second clips of songs from Geffen’s catalog. These forays showed von Goeben and Griffin that digitally released music had a potential audience.
Connecting with listeners impressed another early CompuServe server—Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton. “I found it exhilarating to talk directly to Aerosmith fans,” he says. He entered chat rooms to speak with fans and occasionally correct misconceptions about Aerosmith legends. One time, two fans were discussing the infamous incident that precipitated the band’s 1979 breakup, in which Joe Perry’s then-wife, Elyssa, threw a glass of milk at Tom’s wife, Terry. Tom felt compelled to dispel the too-perfect “spilt milk” metaphor—it was actually grapefruit juice. The fans launched into a debate about whether it was actually him.
Universal was uneasy about what Geffen was doing. There were too many unknowns, most of them portending dim prospects for Universal’s future. At the time, the label's technology plans were more focused on "Vid Grid," a music video/video game hybrid that required users to solve a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that played pixelated music videos from artists like Peter Gabriel and Van Halen. It had 500 degrees of difficulty, and it was kind of like trying to play Scene It? while hammered. When “Head First” was finally released, coverage was shoved in the sidebar of a 1994 Billboard article concerning Universal's foray into the world of CD-ROM-based interactive gaming.
However, the rest of the record industry was catching up with online technology. Warner Brothers followed Geffen to the Music Vendors Forum, and Geffen was no longer the only music company with a web server. Griffin and von Goeben knew they had the technology to release a song, and they knew they should just do it, even if there was little chance of making a convincing business case. On the other hand, with the right marketing, the cause of innovation might be enough.
Luke Wood preceded both von Goeben and Griffin at Geffen, arriving in 1991 and becoming the director of marketing in 1993. Griffin and Wood recognized how their areas of expertise could converge: “Jim and I became fast friends, and he really pushed everyone at the company to see how technology was going to change the face of the industry,” Wood says. From a financial perspective, there was little need to alter Geffen’s course. But the trio realized that releasing the song could be a different sort of marketing effort. The song’s debut could be kind of a commentary on itself, as well as on the self-fulfilling prophecy of digital music distribution.
Although Universal offered little support, the three got David Geffen’s blessing. Geffen understood that the music industry wasn’t going to emerge unscathed from the oncoming Internet, even if Universal and the other record companies wanted to pretend otherwise. He told them, “If you can figure out how to kill the industry before my enemies do, I’ll live,” Griffin remembers. It was prescient, comprehending the need for a business model that would willingly cannibalize the past for a shot at the future.
Von Goeben talked to CompuServe about releasing the song through the Music Vendors Forum. He asked them to waive the $10-an-hour usage fee. CompuServe balked. It didn’t want to give away so much free time and didn’t even really see the point, von Goeben says. “There wasn't really anything cool at all about them, and while they seemed to know music was a big interest area, they really knew nothing about it.” That AOL could be considered the “super cool” (to borrow von Goeben’s description) upstart that trounced CompuServe shortly thereafter is a reminder of how immediately impressive yet existentially stagnant much of tech “progress” actually turns out to be. It's not entirely unclear why the same debates about music and technology are still going on today.
Finally, CompuServe relented, while Aerosmith agreed to forfeit all royalties. Griffin digitized and compressed “Head First” as WAV file, which would play on most PC audio outputs. The quality wasn’t record-player perfect, Griffin says, but it didn’t have to be perfect—just good enough. Playback, of course, depended on the computer actually having stereo speakers, which were still at minimal, pimp-my-computer levels of adoption.
The song was made available to CompuServe’s 2 million users on June 27. Steven Tyler had the money quote in the press release: "If our fans are out there driving down that information superhighway," he said, "then we want to be playing at the truck stop.” Users could access it through a line command, by typing “GO AEROSMITH.” Downloads took 60 to 90 minutes, depending on whether the user had a 9,600 bps modem connection or 14.4 kbps, lightning quick by comparison. There were worries about the servers crashing, but everything went smoothly.
In a New York Times piece published the following week, Wood spoke to the label's multiple purposes: "We did it because it can be done and is cool and is fun," he said, "but also to show there's these other issues involved, like how do you collect copyright fees?" Critical reactions were mixed. In the same article, Tim Nye, operator of alternative music service SonicNet, blasted Geffen for the long download times, arguing that it was a devious attempt to demonstrate that digital music distribution wasn’t viable, pointing out that the download should have taken 40 minutes at most. Several publications hysterically bemoaned the end of the record industry. Others championed new possibilities. And then—nothing. Geffen never debuted another song this way.
“Head First” was recorded during the 1993 Get a Grip sessions but ended up not making the final cut. On Grip, Aerosmith refined its 1990s/early 2000s mix of hard rock reaffirmation and doctored stabs at rock stylings du jour. In that vein, “Head First” unfolds as a proto-grunge song, awash in swirling guitars and haunting oohs that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Sonic Youth record, before plunging into meaty chords and Steven Tyler’s scenery-chewing yowl. Lyrically, Tyler treads familiar winking ground, describing what he’d like to give (head, first) to a woman he remembers fondly and dipping into his bottomless store of venereal puns (“I’m so hungry for love / I’ve been lickin’ off all my fingers / Oh yeah, you got to learn to / Take the bitter with the sweet”).
Getting Aerosmith on board, says Wood, was a testament to the band’s, and manager Tim Collins’s, willingness to subvert convention. “They had a great attitude and a desire to push the business, and they showed no fear,” he says. “Giving us an unreleased song from an album that huge shows you they were committed.” It also may have had something to do with rebuilding the band’s shaky public image amid label complications and criticism for working with outside songwriters.
Weirdly, though, the song may have actually seemed like too much of a novelty, especially for fans so used to album cycles that they viewed anything that wavered from the format as defected, or a mere leftover. Tepid response, at least from the fans, had an impact on how Hamilton perceived his ability to judge his own music. “The fans’ lack of interest in [“Head First”] made me question my own interest,” he says. “We were so used to knowing that songs we liked were songs that fans would like.”
They worried about the same issues then as we do now. Although we have a better idea of what to put on websites, and we've become really good at sharing music online, many of the basic business questions were never satisfied. Record companies didn't figure out how to replicate the sales performance of physical CDs with digital albums, how to target alternative means of distribution, or how to derive any advantage from piracy. It's still not clear how labels might be able to give fans what they want.
For the artists, it's easier to get their music out. As Hamilton says, the ability “to start in the morning and have something that sounds like a song” at the day's end, compiled on a computer and ready to send out, is electrifying. Today, anyone can do by themselves what took a massive, coordinated effort back then. But even the people and companies that have confronted the questions, from Spotify's all-in-one plan to the Pirate Bay's free content anarchy to Bandcamp's suggested donation albums, haven't really produced an answer that is satisfactory to all.
At least they're trying. The record industry is a master class in avoidance, and Universal was a case in point. In 1995, David Geffen's contract with Universal (it had bought Geffen in 1990) ran out, and he departed. Universal quickly scaled back the digital music distribution effort that Griffin, von Goeben, and Wood had developed, via analog corporate death knell—the memo. Since then, Universal became part of an ongoing game of musical clusterfuck with the rest of the record industry, as companies acquire, absorb, merge and otherwise manufacture alliances to stay afloat. This dwindling connection struck a lasting blow to the industry. With their music filtered through distribution services, labels lost their identity. To an industry lifer like Hamilton, that matters. “The record companies stood for something when I was learning to play,” he says. “The fans looked at [digital music distribution] like you’re taking money from the big bad record companies. But shit rolls downhill.”
Aerosmith today, photo by Ross Halfin
Von Goeben departed Geffen midway through 1996 for the Silicon Valley venture capitalist life. The industry’s self-inflicted paralysis opened the door for iTunes and Spotify, he says: “Somewhere between $16 for a CD and $10 all-you-can-eat is a fair price, but we missed the opportunity for a fair price.”
Griffin stuck around until 1998, and he has since established a reputation as an authority on digital music distribution, testifying for the Senate Judiciary Committee on file-sharing and music licensing. In keeping with his focus on the future, he chides the industry’s feigned ignorance: “Those who were alarmed by what’s happened over the past ten years don’t quite get it.”
Only Wood has remained squarely on the business side of record industry, contributing in part to its trajectory. After stints at DreamWorks and Interscope, he became the president and COO of Beats, a business that some people, at least, believe may finally have some answers for online music. He sums up the mindset that drove the trio: “[We] saw the promise, opportunity, and risk of digital distribution, and we were just trying to learn.”
When I asked each of them the same vague question you ask misbehaving children or murderers—“Why’d you do it?”—I expected to hear about the complications, past, present, and future. The three harbored concerns about what downloaded music might mean for an industry that may always be a big old mess, but, in talking to them, their excitement, the “why the hell not?” of it, really resonated. It would be a few years until digital music distribution took off in earnest, but for a moment they prodded the present into the future. “We didn’t screw up the music industry,” Griffin says. “We pushed it begrudgingly forward.”
Devin Schiff is a writer living in Chicago who still buys CDs. He's on Twitter - @devinschiff
Aerosmith heads on tour with Slash this summer. You won't find much information about it on CompuServe, but there's a full list of dates here.
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