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The History of the Music Industry’s First-Ever Digital Single, 20 Years After Its Release

In September 1997, Capitol Records made history by releasing Duran Duran’s “Electric Barbarella” as the internet’s first-ever digital single, heralding a massive shift in how the music industry operates

Twenty years ago this month, in September of 1997, Capitol Records became the first major label to sell and digitally distribute a single from a well-known artist on the internet, arguably one of the most significant milestones in the history of the music industry. Duran Duran‘s “Electric Barbarella,” the second single from the band’s Medazzaland album, sold for 99 cents in the long-forgotten Liquid Audio format. (Check out a screen shot of the original website right here.) But what hasn’t been forgotten is the impact it made on the music business.

The development kicked off a dizzying decade of fast-moving changes and disruptions to the core business model of the music industry. Former Billboard new media editor Brett Atwood reported on the event at the time, and recently revisited his original news coverage from 1997 and reconnected with the woman behind it all — former Capitol Records head of new media Robin Sloan Bechtel, who has since become a successful startup investor and founder of Bechtel Ventures.

Here, Atwood and Bechtel revisit the events leading up to and immediately following the groundbreaking initiative, the often-hostile fallout the label received from traditional retailers at the time and how, ultimately, the release of “Electric Barbarella” would go on the change the very fabric of the industry as a whole.

Brett Atwood: Let’s start at the beginning with your time at Capitol Records. What were you initially hired to do when you started in 1989?

Robin Sloan Bechtel: I’ve always loved music, so after graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, I knew that I wanted to be in the music business. I had recently moved to Los Angeles and was driving down the 101 South and saw the Capitol Records building from the freeway. The building…

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