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The power of ch-ch-changes


Five great life lessons from David Bowie

Following David Bowie's death in 2016, I created a presentation which I delivered as a 20-minute ‘4Sight’ about the man and his music at various 4Networking meetings around the UK. It started out as a fanboy tribute but the more I presented it, the more I found life and business lessons from his career and his outlook on life.

I recently dusted it down and updated it and delivered it as an online Zoom-based networking presentation, and the lessons from his life seem as pertinent as ever. I mean, has there ever been a more fascinating rock star than Bowie?

In terms of lessons which can be learned from his life and career, here are five I have picked out:

Life lesson #1: If you start slowly, don’t give up!

To most of the world, Bowie was an overnight success in 1972, even if they could remember seeing him as a one-hit-wonder in 1969 with Space Oddity. When Ziggy crash-landed on Earth, with that iconic Starman performance on Top of the Pops and the Ziggy Stardust album, suddenly there was Bowiemania.

The thing is though, Bowie had been making music and been in bands ten years earlier in 1962, with Ziggy Stardust his fifth album. Some of the great albums he’d made before ZiggyHunky Dory in particular from a year earlier, then received the recognition they deserved. But it had been a long hard journey to achieve that success, and that might be the case for your own business. So, if you’re wondering if it’s ever going to come good, if you have real faith in what you do, then “You better hang on to yourself” as the song goes, and keep going, success could be just around the corner.

Life lesson #2: Be true to yourself

Even I, as a life-long Bowie fan, have stuff in my collection I never seem to play, or movies of his I never watch, because, well, they’re not very good. In a career spanning 47 years, between Space Oddity in 1969 right up to the amazing Blackstar in 2016, no-one can be an artist for that length of time and not produce some duff stuff along the way.

The interesting thing though, is that there is a pattern to his less good output. In general, it was produced when he was trying to be something different to his true self. With a chameleon figure like Bowie, it may seem surprising to talk about his true self, as at times this was wrapped in disguise or a cloak of enigmatic signs and hints.

However, his mid- to late-80s slump was when he was driven by money rather than his artistic vision. The financial debacle of his management deal with Tony Defries in the 70s (a fifty-fifty royalty split) had left Bowie surprisingly hard up at the beginning of the 80s. The genius of Nile Rogers helped to steer the 1983 Let’s Dance album (well, most of it) to some great heights and gave him his greatest mainstream success. And then, artistically, it all fell apart.  It would be another ten years before he started to make interesting and rewarding music again, with the nadir being his Tin Machine project, where he decided it would be a good idea to be just another band member, like that was ever going to work… it’s David Bowie! During this period also was the Glass Spider tour, an overblown and pretentious production with a massive set which couldn’t even fit into most venues on the tour. Also in the 80s, Bowie appeared in schlocky movies like The Hunger (which admittedly has its cult fans), again seemingly not comfortable compared with the roles he’d carefully chosen in the 70s, such as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, both fine performances.

So, be yourself, be true to yourself and don’t try to second-guess what you think people want you to be. People see through it and don’t like it.

Life lesson #3: Be a business innovator

While clearly a musical innovator, what is less well-known is Bowie’s track record as a shrewd trend spotter in digital and financial matters. Following his naivety in agreeing to that punitive royalties deal earlier in his career, in the 90s he created the clever new Bowie Bonds, a financial device since copied by various other artists. In 1997, Bowie sold asset-backed securities which awarded investors a share in his future royalties for 10 years. The securities were bought by US insurance giant Prudential Financial for a tidy $55m and provided a highly attractive fixed annual return of 7.9%. The deal committed Bowie to repay creditors out of future income, which he did; everyone got paid! Bowie used part of the $55m windfall to buy out Tony Defries and take back full control of his back catalogue.

The Bowie Bonds put him on a secure financial footing, to the point where, when he died in 2016, he left $100million in his will, and his estate is now estimated to be worth over $230million, with the surge in back catalogue sales since his death.

The second notable area of innovation for Bowie was on the internet. He pioneered the concept of a fan forum with BowieNet, launched in 1998, which was not just a website, but an ISP offering each user 5MB of webspace and a fully interactive experience. On the fan forum, he would not only answer fans’ questions but also troll his own site, with hilarious anonymous postings. In 1999, in a Newsnight interview, he foresaw the power of the internet before many others:

“The actual context and the state of content are going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment – the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”

The full fascinating story of BowieNet can be found in this article: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jan/11/david-bowie-bowienet-isp-internet

So, innovation is a key component of success; adopt Bowie’s questing attitude to find new approaches for your business.

Life lesson #4: Reinvent yourself

This is probably the most famous aspect of Bowie’s life and career, his ability to keep changing, not just to reflect cultural shifts but to influence and lead them. The run of albums 1970-1980 in particular is not only dazzling in its quality and inventiveness, but also in the range of music it covers. Aside from the Beatles, what other artist has achieved anything like this in such a relatively short period of time?

Two phases can be detected, the first, 1970-1975, pointing west to America and rock n’ roll, and the second, 1976-1980, turning attention eastwards to Germany and even Japan for influences. The surprisingly heavy rock of Man Who Sold the World switched to the classic singer-songwriter style of Hunky Dory. This then changed to the glam-rock genius of Ziggy Stardust and its more elaborate follow-ups, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. One of Bowie’s boldest changes followed, the soul album Young Americans. Then the beginnings of that turn east (“The European canon is here”) with Station to Station, an extraordinary album which Bowie doesn’t even remember recording, so acute was his drug habit at the time. He then fled L.A. and took refuge with Iggy Pop in Berlin, to get clean and to record startling new music in 1977, the Low and “Heroes” albums, which along with 1979’s Lodger, are referred to as the Berlin trilogy.  He capped off this decade run of reinvention with Scary Monsters which inspired the entire New Romantics movement, its opening track sung intoned in Japanese.

Whole books have been written about this, Bowie’s golden decade, so this is a highly compressed summary, but do check out every one of these albums. And from a business point of view, stay fresh by restlessly reinventing your business proposition in order to keep ahead (or at least in line with) business trends.

Life lesson #5: Keep challenging yourself

For the fifth point, I’m just going to leave you with one of my favourite quotations from Bowie, given in an interview in 1997:

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. When you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

So, not only did Bowie create some of the greatest music of the past 50 years, in his words and his deeds he has provided some inspirational lessons for us all.