Twenty years ago, on June 27, 1994, Aerosmith opened up Pandora's Box, so to speak, releasing the first song available for commercial download in Internet history.
But the impact of that track was fairly negligible.
That's because many years before Internet companies like Spotify provided fans with free music streams, before iTunes rendered trips to the record store unnecessary, and even before Napster went to war with Metallica, the Interweb was still uncharted territory when it came to transferring songs. In fact, in 1994, the idea of high-speed cable and DSL seemed about as ridiculous as time machines.
Computer owners used dial-up modems to access the Internet, and the wait times to get online just to check email were interminable. AOL was the giant back then; the other major providers in the early '90s were Prodigy and CompuServe. (Compu-what?) And it was actually CompuServe that had the vision and connections (if not the bandwidth) to offer the first-ever free song download.
It wasn't a song by an electronic giant like Aphex Twin, a forward-thinking veteran such as David Bowie, or even an industrial monster like Nine Inch Nails. The first Internet download CompuServe posted online was Aerosmith's "Head First," an outtake from the rock legends' 1993 album Get a Grip. "If our fans are out there driving down that information superhighway, then we want to be playing at the truck stop. This is the future — so let's get it going," Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler said in a press release back in '94.
At the time, AP reported that Aerosmith's then-label Geffen and CompuServe admitted the move was a "not-for-profit experiment [that] reflects the promise of digital delivery of entertainment but also the current limitations of technology." Said Luke Wood, of Geffen's marketing department: "We've been providing 30-second song samples for some time and said, 'Why not a whole song?' Now the technology's caught up with the idea."
Well, not quite. Only CompuServe subscribers could download the track, and they had to have "multimedia computers that featured stereo speakers and a large hard drive." The file consumed a then-whopping 4.3 megabytes of space, and even at the fastest speed CompuServe offered (14,400 bits per second), it took users an hour to download the three-minute, 14-second track. The slowest modem speed with which users could access "Head First" was 9,600 bps, which amounted to about 90 minutes of download time. The real problem was that most CompuServe users were connecting to the Web through their telephones, at speeds between 300 and 2,400 bps — hardly fast enough to download a song snippet, let alone watch a YouTube video (if YouTube had existed at the time, that is).
Moreover, the Boston Globe noted that it was almost impossible for anyone to download the song and transfer it to another medium. "Don't even think of shifting it to a floppy disk to give to a friend unless you have compression software," the paper wrote. "If you do use commercial or freeware compression products, figure on filling at least three discs."
CompuServe waived its connect time charges ($9.60 per hour) for users who downloaded "Head First." In addition, Aerosmith waived their royalties for the song. There is no data to indicate how many users accessed the track, but it probably wasn't a computer-freezing number. The agreement between CompuServe, Aerosmith, and Geffen was a nice gesture, but as the SunSentinel.com observed, it would be "unrealistic" to expect fans to spend an hour waiting for a single song to load on their computers — what with all the NSFW content that was starting to become available.
Still, the paper noted that "purchasing music through on-line services is one of several alternative music delivery systems taking shape." They added that local cable providers, phone companies, and "in-store recording booths where buyers [could] create their own customized albums" were excited about ramping up for the future of the World Wide Web.
If they only knew what they were getting into.