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Bowie, innovator and disruptive entrepreneur in sound & vision

January 18, 2016

Even at 69, David Bowie was a bit different. Though he arrived in the 1970s, he was restless and creative to the last, Blackstar created in the knowledge he did not have long left and released two days before he died, is exploratory, unsettling, the work of someone still minded to take inspired risks.

The achievements of what is now Bowie’s last album informed the almost perplexed response to his death: how could an artist be in apparently full voice again, just as he was taken away?

But in much of what has been said, there has also been a clear sense of something historic and the marking of time in the passing of one of the most pre-eminent members of a golden generation, confirming that no matter how much we hang on them, they are now leaving us, at speed.

The Beatles’ and The Stones shattered the commercial music landscape in the 1960s into a new paradigm, but six years after these two groups reached their commercial peak, Bowie embodied something even more profound: when he played Starman on Top of the Pops, a self-expression so radical, starting his lifelong journey of ideation, innovation and regeneration. And let us not forget, it was 1972.

To say Bowie was a cultural pioneer and icon is an understatement from a man who constantly, restlessly reinventing himself while always staying icily cool, colourfully flamboyant and iconic. From Aladdin Zane to Ziggy Stardust to finally just Bowie, stripped back, he changed the face of music forever as the overwhelming flood of tributes show.

I was too young to witness that Starman moment but I can vividly recall the raucous defining, opening guitar riffs of Rebel, Rebel, the mesmeric lyrics of Heroes and the heady video of Ashes to Ashes. He had a defining place in my music collection.

This brilliantly talented, outrageously creative glittering chameleon of a man, a master of reinvention who smashed down so many barriers in music, fashion, film and art, I felt the same palpable sense of shock and loss when Curtis, Lennon and Strummer passed, all uncompromising, ferociously charismatic and singularly individual characters. I just know, like so many of my generation, that at every stage of my life, Bowie’s tunes have been lurking somewhere in the background.

What fascinates me about the musicians of the 1960s who shaped our culture is where did it all come from, what was their catalyst? The details of Bowie’s early life speak volumes about the historical circumstances that made him and others. He was born only 17 months after the surrender of Japan, to parents whose adult lives had been defined by the Second World War. His father served in Europe and North Africa, his mother was a waitress, and after the war, his father worked for the children’s home Barnardos.

My thoughts are that the 1960s was the age of curiosity and possibility, in which a new sense of individuality replaced the idea of meekly taking one’s place in the masses and conforming. The political left looks back at this period as one of revolt and rebellion; it is equally true to say it spawned the modern individualism so beloved of the right.

Whatever, it was the dawning of the age of the entrepreneur, go out and make it happen, for yourself by yourself. Be different. Be disruptive. Chose your attitude. Have big hairy audacious goals – this was the decade we put a man on the moon, the decade, which shaped people like Steve Jobs. The point is if you were in the right place, everything seemed to be in a state of ferment, and for a few extremely talented people, the stage was set.

There are lots of words to describe David Bowie, but there are two that consistently pop up at the mention of his name: innovation and reinvention. Ziggy Stardust, Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Ashes to Ashes; if there’s one thing Bowie did well, it was staggering reinvention.

But how exactly did his passion for reinvention and transformation manifest itself, and what did it teach us? He showed endless possibilities. He extended out into the new spaces, metaphorically and physically. That man could move. Bowie the entrepreneur, the disruptor, the instigator, the craftsman of his own self, manifesting uniqueness and original thought.

What were the traits of the audacious showman that we can reflect upon as genuine entrepreneurial genes? Here are my thoughts.

Open mindedness Bowie’s work has always drawn from a huge range of influences – dance, fashion design, film, literature, contemporary art, and of course from music of all genres. His uniqueness was often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely his own, with a prowess for uncovering hitherto unknown artists, throwing them together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.

Restlessness Bowie never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra. At the height of the success during the Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane eras he killed off his character and pressed the eject button, and re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

Novelty Bowie’s passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation was a constant presence in his music and vocal style. For example, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti rigged up a ‘multi-latch gating system’ to record Heroes, consisting of three microphones set up at increasing distances away from the singer- one microphone nine inches away, one twenty feet away and the last fifty feet away. The microphones were turned on and off to create a rippling effect of reverb and ambience. It was this spirit of innovation that kept Bowie’s output fresh, even when it was critically maligned.

Collaborative & co-creative Spanning five decades, Bowie has worked with many musicians, artists and performers. He recorded with Freddie Mercury, Jagger, Arcade Fire, Annie Lennox and Bing Crosby to create wildly different outputs. He had the ability to spot the right talent for each project and bring out the best from each collaboration. Some of these have been for the duration of a single project, whilst other relationships have endured – such as with Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and producer Tony Visconti. Bowie was apparently also really easy to work with, described as mild-mannered, patient and open to hear other people’s ideas. He listened, he read, he viewed, he engaged, and as a result he constantly evolved.

Staying relevant by creating your own future Musical tastes change, new artists emerge – your market can move in a new, unexpected direction. For a while in the late 1970s the emergence of punk pushed Bowie to one side. Before his last record on his last birthday, Bowie had released no new material for a decade. But he stayed relevant. The unexpected was, after all, Bowie’s modus operandi. His 26th album as a solo artist was an incredible feat of subterfuge, recorded unnoticed over the past two years in New York. Bowie was destined to be that most elusive type of rock icon who can continue to command the world’s attention, even as he begins to draw his pension. Of course, the legacy now replaces the future.

Presence His Top of the Pops performance of Starman on 6 July 1972, one of the most inspirational, influential live performances, broke boundaries not only in music but also in fashion – that red hair and jumpsuit, what’s not to like? – and must have had mums and dads shouting at the television. Bowie understood the power of mass communication and he liked to control his profile, persona and message. Because he was so self-aware, Bowie knew that his relevance depended on something less tangible than new record sales or chart positions. I don’t know where I’m going from here, he once declared, but I promise it won’t be boring.

He was a Futurist In 2002, when most of us were filling boxes with CDs and a year before Apple launched iTunes, Bowie foretold the future where he saw digital formats being available. Some six years before this, Bowie made history by releasing a new song, Telling Lies, on the Internet – and nowhere else. The move made him the first major artist to send fans who want to hear his music to the web instead of the record store. It was a success, with Telling Lies selling more than 300,000 downloads. In 1997, he live-streamed a concert from Boston online, again a world first.

There are to great examples of where Bowie disrupted the commercial and customer engagement with his market that are examples of true innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.

Bowie bonds Seeing that the future did not look friendly for the wallets of recording artists, Bowie decided to lock in his future earnings. In 1997, he sold the rights to future royalties from some of his biggest hits for $55m. The securitised royalty streams were dubbed Bowie bonds and they sparked a financial trend known as esoteric asset-backed securities – basically the rights to future payments from unconventional sources.

BowieNet In 1998, one of your options if you were looking for an ISP was BowieNet, which combined features of an ISP, a fan website and a social network. Users got a BowieNet email address, access to an iTunes predecessor offering downloadable music for sale and access to David Bowie fan content. They also got 5Mb of space online, with users encouraged to create their own websites and chat with each other in forums. Bowie saw interacting and collaborating with fans online as an extension of his art in addition to a business venture, way ahead of others.

Blackstar is the final chapter in a decades long history of innovation. I bought it on iTunes when released out of curiosity. I knew there would be some gems on it. Now it has an almost unbearable lightness of being and pathos that makes it tough to listen to. It is all the more poignant because of the speculation about Bowie’s awareness of his pending mortality when making it. Such a mournful record now marks witness as his musical swansong, a final statement of epic genius.

As a musical entrepreneur, he made clear statements of identity, a proud and profound declaration of autonomy and expression. It might have been over the top, but it never seemed unnatural. He simply made his mark – the Heteropoda davidbowie is a bright orange huntsman spider from Malaysia, not Mars.

The poignancy and synchronicity of space exploration, for me the most outrageous statement of human endeavour and entrepreneurship and a consistent backdrop to Bowie’s music, played out as he left us. His introduction to the world was the single Space Oddity, the spooky, ambiguous tale of the fictional astronaut Major Tom was the soundtrack to the BBC coverage of the 1969 moon landing, and just these past few weeks we’ve had Tim Peake playing out his own personal Major Tom adventure.

The generation of music entrepreneurs that challenged life and shaped us are now being embraced by death. They are coming thick and fast and our high decibel tears are burying them. David Bowie has gone. Another of the founding fathers has departed. He was never past. Always present.

This most sublime of English artists hankering around innovation even at the end. Still dislocated. Still embodied in the music. That door. He unlocked it. For me, for you. For us. He gave us everything. He gave us ideas above our own imagination, a truly disruptive entrepreneur. Forever in my mind he will always be the eternal beautiful Ziggy, vibrant in Sounds and Vision. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYEOlxcirX0

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