Toasting the 20th Anniversary of the First 'Exclusive' Digital Download

Thank Aerosmith. Yes, fucking Aerosmith.

Jun 29 2014, 11:14pm
Image: CompuServe ad

Let it be said that corporate music didn't always get technology wrong. For a brief moment in 1994, Geffen Records saw the future, offering the Aerosmith outtake "Head First," a cutting room scrap from the album Get a Grip, for complimentary download. One adorable newspaper writer heralded it as such: "If you've been feeling a little left out lately, what with all this talk about cyberspace, internets and info-highways, it's time to get a grip.

"Today, the veteran rock band Aerosmith offers the first-ever computer-released song, available only at your desk, provided you have a PC (with sound card) and a subscription to the on-line service CompuServe," explained the Sun Sentinel's Deborah Wilker. 

The three-minute WAV file took users 60 to 90 minutes to download, filling 4.3 megabytes of space in consumer hard-drives that, at the time, would've been not much larger than 100 MB in capacity total. CompuServe was even kind enough to wave its $10/hour connection fee for the event, while technology thinkers cried conspiracy, with SonicNet (a proto-sharing site) founder Tim Nye telling the New York Times that Geffen's move was really just a ploy to try and convince internet users that "net" technology was still too shitty for media downloads to be practical, and thus stave off the inevitable: sharing. 

The history and context of that first download is even deeper still and not quite so easily brushed off as a corporate ruse. Devin Schiff at Motherboard's sister site Noisey went longform on an event that may be remarkable in large part for what it didn't accomplish.

Schiff writes:

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. 

You can (and shoud) read the whole thing here.