If you read our Sandbox guides or our country profiles, then you’ve read the work of long-time Music Ally writer Ben Cardew. Ben’s excellent new book, Daft Punk’s Discovery, is being published this Friday, 3 September – a “homage to a fascinating, troubled beast of an album that casts a huge shadow over the 21st Century.”
Chapter 5 of the book covers Daft Club, the French duo’s innovative online fan club which was launched alongside the album in 2001, and helped pioneer online music in a pre-streaming, pre-iTunes era.
We’re very happy to publish this exclusive extract below – and you can order the full book here.
Short Circuit – Discovery, Daft Club and the demise of the music industry
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”– Arthur Schopenhauer
In 2001, when Discovery was released, there were about 458m internet users globally, or 7.6% of the world’s population, with the vast majority of these on slow and unreliable dial-up connections. Many of the people who accessed the internet did so in public libraries or universities, often queuing up for an allotted half hour that would go past oh-too-quickly, as the next person in the queue looked nervously over our shoulders.
Broadband, on the whole, was a thing of our dreams. In the US, early adopters caught onto the technology in 1999, with broadband reaching 4% of households in 2000. But it wouldn’t make a leap into the wider public consciousness until several years later, when telcos started to market heavily to the still-fresh internet public.
Early 2001, coincidentally, was also when Napster reached its peak, two years after its launch theoretically brought filesharing to all. But downloading a song via dial-up was such an expensive pain in the technological bottom that few people, other than university students, really bothered with it. At its height, Napster had just 26.4m registered users, a thirteenth of Spotify’s user base today and a tiny fraction of the people who bought CDs at the time.
For all that the music industry fretted about Napster, the business was still in gluttonous boom territory in 2001, when Discovery hit the shelves. 1999 may have brought the peak of the global recorded music business, but 2001 was no slouch, bringing in $23.4bn in revenue thanks to the bloated CD market, a number that is still far ahead of where the music business is today. Digital was part of the music industry conversation in 2001 but the continued health of the business meant that genuine action in the field was conspicuously thinner on the ground.
“There were plenty in the [music] industry caring about digital then [in 2001],” says music business journalist Eamonn Forde, the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling The Pig. “The really big heads were actually awake to what was going on, [UK indie label association] AIM had set up RightsRouter [the precursor to Merlin, a digital rights music licensing partner for independent record labels], [indie labels] Beggars and Ninja Tune were really doing a lot digitally etc.
“But it was small. Legal downloads (on iTunes) did not happen until 2003 in the US, 2004 in Europe, and so digital was mainly seen as something that cost a lot to do – websites were costing tens of thousands to build, as not many companies could make them – but did not bring in money. So it was down the agenda in business meetings. CDs were slipping but were still bringing in lots of money, so there was no rush to speed up their irrelevance.”
To say that the Daft Club – Daft Punk’s online music service / fan club, which launched with Discovery – was ahead of its time, then, is to severely understate its importance. The idea of the fan club had been knocking around for decades. But the idea of a website where fans could go to download music, some two years before the launch of iTunes, or a digital fan club three years before Facebook, was almost unheard of.
“It felt like they [Daft Punk] were from the future,” says Orla Lee-Fisher, who was head of marketing for Virgin Records UK at the time of Discovery’s release. “They completely were ahead of every curve. Like the Daft Club: their ideas were outstepping the technology and capabilities of what they wanted to achieve. In very early digital initiatives, they were so far ahead of themselves, they were an education, working with them was an education.”
“The timing of this [Daft Club] in the context of broadband adoption was interesting,” says Forde. “In 2002, there were only 200,000 domestic broadband users in the UK but that shifted dramatically to 13m by 2006. So it arrived just as things were starting to take off.
“For most people, fast internet was only something they accessed at work or at university. The idea of spending time online at home was alien to most people. Plus the idea of going online while on the move was deemed ludicrous by many. That all changed, of course, with the launch of the iPhone in 2007. It was not the first smartphone but it was the one that made it mainstream. The idea of an online fan club in 2001 was the very definition of niche – both in terms of the technological means to access it and also in terms of fan interest in it.”
What’s remarkable is that Daft Punk were singing the praises of the internet as a delivery method back in 1997. “The net makes things more accessible,” Bangalter told Melody Maker in an interview that year. “You can have the same access on a small site as a big site. You can sell records without leaving your bedroom and you don’t need a set of big producers. You won’t need to go knocking on the doors of record companies, or A&R people or magazines with piles of tapes they never listen to.”
Dublin DJ and Daft Punk historian Conor Keeling says that Daft Punk had a comprehensive online presence via their official website even before Discovery was released. “They were obviously thinking about the audiovisual possibilities that the internet provided,” he says. “I remember for a while that their site, the Daftpunk.com website, had lots of really cool graphics of influences, like Kraftwerk and Ashley Beedle and the like.”
Simon Scott, now the co-founder of Push Entertainment, was working for InterTrust (the inventor of Digital Rights Management), in the US in 2000 when he was asked to meet Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and his father, producer and songwriter Daniel Vangarde, to talk about a new digital project.
Scott says that the idea for the Daft Club came from a desire from Daft Punk to “deconstruct the album” they had spent the last few years putting together. “They wanted to basically show that the thing that it ended up with, could have ended up being something else,” he explains. “They wanted to release original bits of music that they had discarded or commissioned especially, really just to lift the veil up.”
This process, Scott says, was facilitated by the fact that the band owned their own digital rights. “Thomas’s dad, Daniel… he was Thomas’s main guiding light on business,” Scott explains. “When Thomas signed their distribution deal with Virgin / EMI, they retained their digital rights. Because Daniel knew they were going to be important.” Scott’s job was to make this idea of deconstruction via The Daft Club a reality. “How do you provide the technology around that to make it happen?” Scott explains.