Much has been written about David Bowie since his death. That he was prolific. That he was protean. That he straddled musical and artistic genres from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the Berlin era to Tin Machine.
But Bowie was also remarkable for three things in particular. First, his foresight; second, his willingness to learn from subjects well outside his comfort zone and third his signature hair styles. We take a look below at what David Bowie can teach any startup.
Scream Like a Baby
When Bowie signed his first recording deal in the mid-1960s, he negotiated a reduction in his advance on the condition his master recordings were returned within a shorter period than was the industry standard. At the time, this was unheard of – the studio was king and recording artists were glorified employees.
The parallel with raising funds for your startup is obvious. Bowie bet – rightly – that his records were his principal asset and that over time, his assets would increase in value. He did not see an advance – or angel investment – as the end goal. He understood that there was no need to cede control unless absolutely necessary.
While Bowie was nothing short of prolific in terms of his own musical output, he also produced two seminal albums of the 1970s: Lou Reed’s Transformer and Iggy Pop’s Lust of Life.
The phenomenon of the artist as the producer was relatively novel for its time, particularly an established, singular artist such as Bowie. Nevertheless, listening to, for example, Transformer, you cannot hear any trace of Bowie as his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona. Sure the album is flamboyant and sexually ambiguous, but it’s nevertheless pure Lou Reed and pure New York in the early 1970s.
The lesson for startups is clear: ensure you understand every aspect of the production process. If you don’t know how each discrete element of your business works – whether outsourced, in-house or otherwise – your end product will suffer. Do not be afraid to collaborate. Think widely and deeply about how you can apply your vision to similar products or services in the marketplace.
Because You’re Young
In 1994 the internet was in its infancy. In the same year, Bowie released a CD-ROM with his song “Jump, They Say”. So what? Here’s the thing. A listener could make their own music video of the song. In 1994.
Fast forward to 1997. Back then people thought Internet Explorer was amazing. Others seriously considered paying for 1 MB of storage on their Hotmail account. Google was just a twinkle in a programmer’s eye with bad teeth and a pimply complexion. Most people thought the Asian financial crisis consisted of getting a bad exchange rate on Thai baht.
Bowie knew that the internet was a game changer for music so what he did was look for new revenue streams. Where did he look? Not at selling more merchandise. Not at increasing his touring schedule. But high finance.
Bowie was the first musician to issue bonds to investors backed against future income from his back catalogue. The bond issuance was so attractive to investors that Bowie raised 35 million pounds for bonds paying 7.9% over ten years. While the bonds would ultimately be junk rated, the point remains – always look outside the square to see how to generate income from your asset.
It’s no Game (Pt 1)
To understand the internet’s possibility, did Bowie limit himself to its relevance to music? Obviously not. Who else do you think helped the New York Yankees – the Yankees! – develop their first ever website?
In fact, so enamoured was Bowie with the idea of the internet and its ability to transform the manner in which we consume music, in the late 90s he started his own internet service provider. On BowieNet, fans had early access to tracks, a discussion forum, behind the scenes footage – it was, in effect, a music focussed social network. Sound familiar? I’m looking at you MySpace, Facebook and Pandora.
If anyone understood customer/user experience, it was always going to be the Think White Duke. While BowieNet would ultimately slide into oblivion, Bowie knew better than anyone the importance of change and the impact of technology. In 1999, during his now-viral interview with BBC’s Jeremy Paxton, Bowie predicted internet culture’s rise, saying “What the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable”. No one has since spoken a truer word.
As a final point, let’s not forget that in the last 18 months of his life while battling cancer, Bowie released an album, shot video clips and premiered his first play. He probably also had a hand in lifting sanctions on Iran. His output was extraordinary and work ethic, unmatched – that, if nothing else, is instructive for all.
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