Aerosmith’s ‘Head First’: The First Music Download in History

When Aerosmith released “Head First” as a free digital download on June 27, 1994, the technology team at Geffen Records aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of digital distribution. This moment became a key milestone in the development of the digital music industry.

Jim Griffin, who joined Geffen in 1992 as their first Chief Technology Officer, was excited about this project. A longtime hard rock fan from Park Forest, Illinois, Griffin was thrilled to work with a label that produced music from bands he admired, including Aerosmith. He described “Head First” as a proof of concept for digital music, signifying a major step forward in the adoption of new technology within the industry.

“Head First” was an outtake from Aerosmith’s recording sessions for their 1993 album Get a Grip. It had previously been released as a B-side on the European single for “Eat the Rich.” While the band members were not directly involved in the decision to release “Head First” digitally, their management and band associate John Kalodner oversaw the project to ensure it was executed properly.

In 1994, the internet was dominated by service providers like CompuServe and AOL rather than websites. Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton was an early user of CompuServe, frequently engaging with fans in chat rooms and correcting inaccuracies about the band’s history. At the time, CompuServe had over two million customers, and around 10,000 of them downloaded “Head First.” Entertainment Weekly covered the event, noting the song’s strong rock elements and predicting a future where fans might pay to download Aerosmith’s music.

This milestone paved the way for other artists to explore digital distribution. Three years later, Duran Duran sold a digital single online with 1997’s “Electric Barbarella.” David Bowie further embraced the digital age by launching his own internet service, BowieNet, in 1998 and selling his album Hours digitally in 1999. He also live-streamed the recording process of one of his songs, showcasing the potential of the internet for music distribution and fan engagement.

Jim Griffin, who later became a prominent voice in digital music, was one of the seven witnesses at the Senate’s Napster hearings in 2000. Reflecting on the release of “Head First,” he shared memories of the pioneering efforts at Geffen. Despite resistance from the parent company, Universal Music, Griffin and his team pushed forward with their innovative plans.

At that time, Geffen’s operations were primarily analog, with little emphasis on computer technology. Griffin’s approach included implementing the world’s first intranet and challenging traditional I.T. norms. This forward-thinking mindset often clashed with Universal’s more conservative views, but David Geffen supported Griffin’s initiatives, emphasizing the importance of innovation over conformity.

Releasing “Head First” as a digital download posed several challenges, primarily legal concerns about how artists and rights holders would be compensated. Questions about the definitions of sound recordings and songs, and the various standards for payment across different countries, required careful navigation. These issues fundamentally changed Griffin’s career, shifting his focus to the global conversation about digital art distribution.

The choice to use a WAV file format for “Head First” was driven by practicality. At the time, WAV files were easily recognized and played by Windows computers without requiring additional software, simplifying the process for users who were mostly on 14.4 modems.

Although Aerosmith’s involvement was limited, Griffin selected “Head First” from a collection of recordings, choosing it for its shorter length to minimize download time. This decision underscored the practical considerations that shaped early digital music distribution efforts.

Ultimately, the release of “Head First” marked a significant moment in music history, demonstrating the viability of digital downloads and paving the way for the digital music revolution.