David Bowie was more than a favorite musician to me. He was my creative shaman; a marketing mind reader who knew exactly what kind of audio atmosphere I required to produce some of my best work. He was a soundtrack companion that followed me from high school to art school and then into the working world as I pursued a path in creativity and marketing.
I was really sad to hear about David Bowie leaving this realm on Sunday, especially after I was so happy to hear about his new album Blackstar which had just been released on his birthday on Friday.
Bowie was one of the top-shelf personal brands in the entertainment world (Frank, Elvis, and Bowie) but he was my favorite because he could be singled out as a “living legend”. I was always excited and interested to see what he would do next. What concepts would he bring into being that could be adopted and adapted to anything I might be working on at the moment.
Here is an incomplete list of the marketing, creativity, and branding lessons I learned from David Bowie.
Changes was probably the first Bowie song I got hooked on. I was in my teens and everything was changing. It was an anthem for everything I was going through. As I grew into adulthood and traveled down my chosen path of living and working a creative life, it became a rallying song for everything I stood for. Change was good, Change was life. Change was inevitable. Turn and face the change.
2. Expand your area of expertise
Not long after I found David Bowie the musician, I discovered David Bowie the actor. Recently more people have seen him in popular and commercially promoted movies like his cameo as Tesla in The Prestige, or Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, the Goblin King in Labyrinth, or even as himself in Zoolander. I first saw him as John Blaylock in The Hunger and then as Major Jack Celliers in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (if you haven’t seen this dramatic WWII movie that takes place in a Japanese POW camp — you don’t know what you’re missing.) Seeing Bowie be so successful as both a musician AND an actor made me realize I didn’t have to be an “either/or” in my own career. I could be a combination of anything I wanted, was good at, and people would find value in.
3. Community is king
How many of you know David Bowie started his own internet service company? Back in 1998 David Bowie started his own Internet Service Provider company (like AOL or Compuserve) called BowieNet. It was the first really successful artist-focus online community and it lasted until 2006, but took another six years before it went completely offline. It was an insider’s club like no other, offering special access to unreleased music tracks, exclusive concert events, and the ability for members to create their own webpages. BowieNet earned him a Guinness World Record for being the first artist to create such a service. I desperately wanted to be a member of BowieNet, but they never offered it in my area. The lesson I learned was that you could create new services designed to promote and enhance your existing products, but the real value came from building and fostering a community of fans and insiders.
4. Your best stuff versus your next stuff
Bowie could have easily rested on his laurels and toured every five or six years, selling out stadiums by playing hits he’d written decades ago, but he didn’t. Every new album was an experiment and an exploration. Some would succeed. Some would fail. Critics would sing his praises one year and then trash him the next. Some work would initially be criticized at launch and then recognized as a ground-breaking success a years later. He famously announced during one tour that it would be the last time he played many of his most popular hits in concert because he wanted to focus on his new work. True to his word, the next tour featured only his newer work. The lesson here was to always try and top yourself. You can’t be considered “ground-breaking” for long if you let the initial ground you broke get overgrown with weeds and one-hit wonders.
5. Reinventing is better than resting
David Bowie will always be viewed as a rock star chameleon. He created so many on-stage personas (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc.) you’d be hard-pressed to name them all. What might have started as a promotional affectation continued to evolve into a legacy of envelope-pushing. Bowie committed to continually pushing his creative boundaries and quite literally kept publishing and reinventing himself and his work until his dying day. My takeaway is that you’re never done. There is always a new horizon to explore, a new land to discover, and new wonders to witness. Bowie’s body may have been laid to rest and his spirit may have moved to the other side, but his body of work will allow his spirit to live on as his legacy.
Can you say the same for the work you’ll leave behind?