In preparation for the launch, I’ve been reading Bowie’s biography – David Buckley’s “Strange Fascination”. It’s a great book regardless of whether you’re a fan or not. Half-way through reading I realized that DB’s life and career hold vital clues to achieving an artistic and commercial success for all of us.
Of course, it helps that Bowie is an unparalleled genius and the most beautiful creature to ever walk the Earth; but there are lessons to be learned from what he had done with his life that apply to anyone trying to make a living from their creativity.
The way Bowie created his records throughout the 70s was legendary. Come into the studio, play once, leave. Write a new album, repeat. “Prolific” was an understatement. Most of the songs on his most famous albums were first recordings, almost unedited; flying from his head like bullets from a machine gun.
The results of this approach were not all equal – they couldn’t have been, even coming from a genius. Not all songs are brilliant, not all albums hit just the right spot. But it didn’t matter. By the time Bowie got his first major breakthrough, his record company could flood the market with his back catalogue; the saturation was achieved. Throughout the 70s there was no greater star in the UK than Bowie, in absolute terms (sales, charts) – in no small part because there had always been a new Bowie record or single to buy.
One thing that shows throughout the biography is the speed and abruptness at which Bowie had been losing and gaining friends and acquaintances along his way to stardom. It may sound cruel in hindsight, but he always knew whom to pick at just the right moment. Musicians, producers, managers; they all worked for Bowie, no with him. Always chosen for the particular project, regardless of sentiments.
And he was not afraid to go back to old friends in need. If Tony Visconti was the right producer for what he wanted to record at that moment, he would be the only man for the job. Bowie accepts no substitutes; like all great commanders, from Alexander to Napoleon, he chose only the best generals for his armies, based only on skill and merit.
Bowie’s first single, “Lazy Jane” was recorded in 1964. He was 17 at the time. His first album came out in 1967. Two years later, he recorded “Space Oddity”. It sold well, but not enough to put him where he wanted. It wasn’t until 1972, five albums and eight years into his singing career, that he became a true star with Ziggy Stardust.
What it was like to fail or get “almost there” for eight years, always changing, always trying something new? Of these early recordings, no two songs are the same; already a chameleon, Bowie was trying hard to break through in any way possible, fully conscious of his talent. How many other Bowies were there who had not tried as hard, and vanished after a few years, returning to an office job?
There is one crucial difference between Bowie and dozens of other brilliant musicians who were equally – or more – talented, but never as famous. From the start, Bowie treated his career professionally.
It’s all well and good being a great artist; but unless you find a rich sponsor, without a business acumen you’ll end up starved and forgotten, no matter your talent. Bowie wasn’t maybe that great with money – bad contracts meant he sometimes ended a successful tour with an actual loss – but his sense of commercial was unlike that of any of his peers.
There had been many great artists coming out of the 70s prog/glam era, but Bowie (and Elton John, another master of balancing the thin line between art and commerce) is the one everyone will remember forever. Is he a better musician than, say, Peter Gabriel or Brian Ferry? That’s a matter of opinion. Is he more successful, while still retaining his integrity over the decades (and not having to, say, advertise clothes for H&M)? That’s a matter of fact.
This is of course the most important of Bowie’s life lessons. Never follow, always lead; don’t even follow yourself. The one time Bowie tried to repeat his own success, in the mid 80s, was the time of his artistic and commercial nadir.
He was glam before glam, punk before punk, New Wave before New Wave, dropping his costumes before they became trendy – the ultimate hipster. In his best years, nobody could catch up to Bowie. They could only follow in his footsteps.
All this makes Bowie an ideal all artists should aspire to. Always be in the avant-guarde – but not enough to leave your readers, listeners or viewers behind. Always be creative – but don’t forget about having to make money from what you create. Always use the best tools and the best men – but don’t be afraid to change your ways when the time is right.
David Bowie is 66 years old and has just released his twenty-fourth studio album – to wide-spread critical acclaim and, so far, commercial success (his highest-charting single in 25 years).
What have you done today?