Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: remembering the innovation mindset of David Bowie

The weekend was poignant for Bowie fans. Friday would have been his seventy fourth birthday; it was the fifth anniversary of the release of his final album, Blackstar, and also the fifth anniversary of his death. I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring is a Bowie quote that encapsulate the astonishing creativity of modern music’s greatest polymath, and for the purposes of this blog that’s a perfect start.

Even though he arrived in the 1970s, nearly fifty years later 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. That desire to always do something new made him not just one of the most gifted musicians of the last fifty years but also one of its most prescient innovators.

Bowie was a pioneer of glam and electronic music, a creator of rock’s template, a restlessly curious, immensely skilled scout for new ideas at the fringes. His androgynous Top of the Pops appearance of July 1972, Starman is perhaps the most influential three minutes of music television ever. Bowie was really quite instinctual. Always one step ahead, visionary savviness ran through all Bowie’s enterprises.

He was eerily accurate about the internet’s emerging power. On Newsnight in 1999, Bowie flummoxed the uncomprehending Jeremy Paxman, saying: The internet carries the flag for the subversive and rebellious, chaotic and nihilistic. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying. The context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and provider will be so in simpatico it’s going to crush ideas of what mediums are all about.

In 1999, Bowie really understood the internet, that it was going to change everything, change the way we communicate, change the world forever. I don’t quite know how he could have known that. What the interview demonstrates was that Bowie understood that standing still and repeating the same mantra because it once worked, following instead of leading, being wary of innovation because of the uncertainty of what might happen, was anathema to success. Here’s the interview:

The Beatles and The Stones shattered the commercial music landscape in the 1960s into a new paradigm, they made a virtue of innovation and they made music an index of lifestyle. But in just a handful of years, they both reached their commercial peak. Bowie embodied something 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.

If your aim is to be original, you must end up looking and sounding highly unique. Striving for self-expression, you turn yourself into a mouthpiece. Bowie, knowing himself to be utterly singular, become a spiritualist for channelling the shifting spirit of the age. Along the way a succession of selves emerged, each of them novel and original. Bowie was a chameleon, reinventing himself to exploit the turns of the day. He became many people and at the same time remained himself. He followed Oscar Wilde’s advice: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

There are lots of words to describe David Bowie, but there are two that consistently associate with him: 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. His ability to innovate, predict the path of popular culture and how technology could influence it – these skills made him not just a great musician but a great entrepreneur too. In 1997, foreseeing the monetised economy, he sold $55m worth of ‘Bowie Bonds’ – securities that were backed by current and future revenues from the albums he had produced before 1990. The deal was possible because, unlike many musicians, he owned the rights to his songs.

Impose change on yourself. Keep exploring new avenues. Bowie said, I feel confident imposing change on myself. It’s a lot more fun progressing than looking back. 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 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.

Individual decisions about self-expression and identity In the creation of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie united the visual and narrative of science fiction and pop music in a way that had never been seen before, and allowed him to at once be and yet not be that invented character. Having gained an audience, it was then a business masterstroke to kill off this successful creation and to trust that his audience was now primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations and their associated musical genres.

This allowed Bowie to always be ‘himself’ while enjoying the licence that came with this appetite to pioneer to create symbolically unique personas he adopted to carry and complete his latest musical and visual change. The message is clear: innovators, be yourself, but be someone different too.

Staying relevant by creating your own future Musical tastes change, new artists emerge and the market can move in a new, unexpected direction. For a while in the late 1970s the emergence of punk pushed Bowie to be an outsider. 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 twenty sixth album as a solo artist was an incredible feat of subterfuge, recorded unnoticed over two years. Innovators focus on their own trajectory. Of course, the legacy now replaces the future, but Bowie rode out the trends and fashions by creating his own future, not trying to compete – a true innovator.

Collaborations spark innovation Many of his innovations sprang from his numerous collaborations. In the 1970s he worked with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. He subsequently teamed up with Bruce Springsteen. Bowie’s first US number one single, Fame, was co-written with John Lennon. In the late ’70s, Bowie moved to Berlin and worked with Brian Eno.

Bowie did not rely on his own genius, he constantly sought fresh stimuli by collaborating with different people. Most collaborations led to innovations in style and musical direction. He could easily have cruised along simply recycling his early hits. Instead he kept looking for fresh ideas. He showed the inner drive for relentless innovation and personal reinvention.

Be 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 great examples of where Bowie disrupted the commercial and customer engagement that are examples of true innovation and entrepreneurial thinking. As a musical entrepreneur, he made clear statements of identity and profound declarations 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. Innovators think then do what others can’t imagine.

Embrace experimentation 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 re-emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

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. Innovators continue to make it up as they go along.

Influence Visually as well as musically, Bowie’s influence shaped popular culture – there would have been no Human League, Scritti Politti or Joy Division without Bowie, but there also would not have been the type of ‘indie rock’ that traced its origins to the Velvet Underground and the art sensibility of Andy Warhol.

Bowie’s innovation mindset shows the desire to be a self-defining individual and the process of disrupting existing norms. This is what Bowie teaches us about innovation: the importance of the fight, the mission, of change. Reinvent yourself, yes, but keep your eye on the goal, because when you know where you’re going it all becomes simple. He knew what he wanted to do and he got on and did it. Beautifully, brilliantly, and all too briefly.

Bowie’s legacy is enormous and nebulous. Listen to 1977’s Low and let it guide you like a wave on the sea of your imagination. For me, his albums seemed like he had a destination, but each new release started somewhere different from where the last one ended. Like most innovators, he might not have known quite where he was going but when he got there, he was normally way ahead of everyone else.

The generation of music entrepreneurs that challenged and shaped my thinking – Lennon, Curtis, Strummer, Reed, Bowie – are now all embraced by death and our high decibel tears are bury them, but their mantra for change and lessons for innovation live on. Bowie is gone. Another of the founding fathers has departed. But he is never past, always present.

This most sublime of English artists hankered around innovation even at the end. Still motivated. Still embodied in the music. Still ch-ch-ch-changing. That door. He unlocked it. For me, for you. For us. He gave us everything. He gave us ideas above our own imagination, a true innovator. Forever in my mind he will always be the eternal beautiful Ziggy. Is there life on Mars? I don’t know, but life on Earth is poorer without Bowie. This a beautiful, moving version of Life on Mars, just Bowie and Mike Garson on piano.

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