Two things were offered for free in 1999… music and Internet access. Only one offer lasted.
Sneaky Feelings were smart bright people making music on their own terms and completely oblivious to the storm of fashion working against them. In the south, the norm was for black wollen jumpers, whereas theirs were made of hues which in essence screamed “non-conformist”. Nonconformity can take many shapes and Sneaky Feelings fought to advance their own vision of what was good in music and took that vision around the world before most had found the northern motorway out of Dunedin. “ Husband House” is one of their finest moments. - Roger Shepherd
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Track of the Year by Records
Just as we became comfortable with allowing technology into our inner lives, a sour note sounded with the impending arrival of the new millennium. The Y2K bug, we were told, had the potential to wreak havoc on our lives.
But rather than scaring us off the Internet, we were further seduced by the promise of yet more free stuff. The MP3 format had actually been around since 1993, but the difficulty in converting CDs to it, the computer power required to play them, the bandwidth required to distribute them and the lack of an easy way to locate new ones, gave the music industry a few years of grace. Sadly for them, they didn't take this opportunity to preempt the explosion of piracy that would happen when Napster was launched in 1999.
Launched by homophonically named varsity pairing Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster provided the first user-friendly interface to find and download music from the Internet. It was a democratic application that allowed us to download music shared by others and easily share our own collection if we were feeling generous. Unlike BitTorrent, which would have a similar game-changing effect on the movie industry a decade later, there was no requirement to share your files in order to enjoy the download spoils. Which suited New Zealanders and our slow Internet connections just fine.
Suddenly music was available gratis at the click of a mouse button. With portable MP3 players such as the iPod several years away, there was a corresponding surge in local sales of CD writers for computers, as we downloaded songs and then burnt them to plastic for playing offline and sharing with our friends and family.
The timing could have been much better for several new online businesses. Flying in the face of all this free stuff, 1999 was the year that paid music site Amplifier launched. Their business model at least offered MP3 downloads – unlike the ‘clicks and mortar’ online store from high street retailers Sounds, also launched that year, who betted that shipping CDs around the country would be a viable business. Sounds reported that sales were up 300% on expectations for the first month... but no one expected or could compete with the millions of tracks downloaded via Napster in the following three years.
Bands and live music fared better than CD sales over the next few years. Labels like Flying Nun that had always enjoyed a strong cult following overseas, had early web presences from the mid-‘90s to save on the cost of mailing catalogues and fan information around the world. And punters enjoyed better access to news about live gigs with sites such as Lava launching in 1998 and starting a race to be the definitive place for event guides. A race that would climax 10 years later with multi-million dollar government portal NZLive being folded in favour of a partnership with private player EventFinder.
Online sale of CDs never turned into a goldmine but 1999 was the start of one local e-commerce success story. It hardly burst out of the gates, with a mere 155 users registering in the first week. Trade Me however would grow from humble beginnings to having more than a million New Zealanders registered by 2007 when it was sold to Fairfax for $700 million.
It was also the launch of one of our more notorious and high profile Internet flops. Our predilection for tall poppy syndrome came to the fore when Pacific Retail Group, Whitcoulls and e-commerce company Advantage Group launched the unfortunately named ‘Flying Pig’. Designed to be our first ‘Internet super site’ and join the dotcom boom being enjoyed overseas by the likes of Amazon.com, it drew immediate derision for its ridiculous name, flashy campaign and generally poor execution. The pig plummeted to the earth just two years later, showering journalists in headline gold.
What were criticised for several years after the dotcom crash, home and abroad, as being fanciful ideas have since proven to have simply been ahead of their time – the much smaller online audience not yet mature enough to engage online with businesses in ways they now are. Some characterise it as being a 20-year journey that many had expected to take 20 only days.
Little did we realise, but in 1999 the new Sky Tower – which Aucklanders were slowly coming to embrace as their own – was to become as essential to our Internet as it was to the city skyline. National ISPs agreed to use the location as neutral ground for a meeting of the network equipment so that traffic could move between them. To this day, no one can explain why it was set up at the top of the tower rather than the base.
Claiming the stability of its telephone network is at risk from Internet users, Telecom gives ISPs until 1 August 1999 to divert customers to its new IPNet through an 0867 access number or be charged two cents per minute.
More and more traffic was moving around the nation as penetration grew ever higher and Telecom's much lusted-after ADSL broadband finally launched under the name Jetstream. The stingy monthly traffic limits of 600 MB could be used in the first few hours of each month if we weren't careful, incurring expensive additional charges. So we had something new to worry about – not how long we surfed, but how much we downloaded.
Some form of compensation arrived for mainstream surfers when our largest ISPs Clear and Xtra introduce flat-rate dialup - four years after Ihug had delivered all-you-can-eat Internet to New Zealand.
But there was no competing with a new phenomenon – the free ISP. Trying to capitalise on a regulatory loophole, which meant Telecom had to pay them for every minute a customer was connected, the legitimacy of free ISPs would spend longer being debated in court than their two-year existence. In those two years they provided a digital onramp for many who previously couldn't afford access. The downside would be the death of many smaller ISPs who couldn't compete - leaving only the largest players left by time the dust settled.
The year ended with no sign of the predicted Y2k tech-pocalypse - some say thanks to the hard work by many techies in years prior, otherwise say it was over-hyped. On 1 January, at around 12:05am however, we heard that New Zealand Internet exported more data than it imported for the first time as the world knocked on our virtual doors to see if the first country to see in the new millennium had survived unscathed. We had.
Tomorrow: The technology stock bubble finally bursts in the USA seeing billions of dollars disappear on paper and whole companies disappear in the digital dust. In New Zealand the fall-out is much less dramatic, and at any rate we are distracted by our new found love - the cellphone.