Marketing Lessons Learned from David Bowie

This week the world mourned the passing of rock pioneer David Bowie from cancer at the age of 69. There are countless lessons music fans can learn from his iconic life, but the innovative elements of Bowie’s career also offer some unique marketing insights as well.

Differentiate Your Product

In the 1960s, Bowie struggled to find his own style, but he was also dealing with a popular singer having the same name. Bowie was born David Jones and early in his career was billing himself as Davy Jones (sometimes Davie Jones). The problem? In 1965 The Monkees hit it big, with many of the band’s songs being performed by another short British singer named Davy Jones.

Bowie took his new name from American frontiersman Jim Bowie (who also gave his name to a popular knife). Bowie released his debut album, “David Bowie,” in 1967. It wasn’t an immediate success, but it paved the way for classics like “Space Oddity” and “The Man Who Sold the World” that followed.

Change With the Times

Marketing lessons from David Bowie

Plenty of acts that hit it big in the 1970s saw their stars dim as MTV started to drive the music industry. Bowie dove into videos in the early days of the network with songs like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and others.

Change was the one constant of Bowie’s career. He could have ridden the “Ziggy Stardust” spaceman theme for years, quickly becoming a novelty act. Instead, he reinvented himself whenever a new muse struck. Instead of clinging to the past, he was future-proofing his career.

Take the 1986 film “Labyrinth,” in which Bowie played Jareth, the Goblin King. Just as fans from early in his career were starting to have their own kids, Bowie took on a project that would make sure his songs would worm their way into the brains of a new generation. And as those 80s kids have started their own families, the cycle has continued on.

In the 90s, Bowie started incorporating elements of hip-hop (“Black Tie White Noise”) and electronica/industrial (“Outside” and “Earthling”), always staying at the forefront of musical trends.

Work Well With Others

Some of Bowie’s most memorable material came from songs he did with other people. Take his collaboration with Queen, “Under Pressure,” which would have its baseline appropriated by Vanilla Ice on “Ice Ice Baby” a decade later.

How many musicians can say they worked with both Bing Crosby and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails? Bowie was just as at home with someone at the bleeding edge of his field as he was singing Christmas songs with a crooner from the 1940s.

Bowie also paid tribute to his influences, like Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground. Bowie (and his bandmate Mick Ronson) produced Reed’s classic 1972 album “Transformer.”

Every collaboration only furthered Bowie’s influence in the world of music, cementing him as someone who could recreate or reinvigorate an act’s sound and image.

Embrace New Ideas

While other artists were ignoring or fearing the internet in the mid-90s, Bowie embraced it. He released the song “Telling Lies” as an online-only single in 1996, the first ever downloadable single by a major artist.

In 1998 Bowie launched his own Internet Service Provider, BowieNet, offering high-speed internet for the time an easy option for fans to create their own websites. The result was an early example of social media, long before Facebook and Twitter existed.

In a 2000 interview with Jeremy Paxman, Bowie was extolling the potential of the Internet while other musicians were suing to shut down Napster.

"I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. We're on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying."

Bowie also found new ways to capitalize on his music. In 1997, he launched the “Bowie Bond,” raising $55 million by giving investors a 10-year-bond earning royalties from Bowie’s music. Similar deals were worked out for the catalogs of acts like James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Rod Stewart.

The changes the 2000s brought to the music industry meant this didn’t end up being a good deal for investors, but it did kick off a trend of “esoteric” bonds, backed by things like restaurant franchise, comic strips and race horse stud rights.

Capitalize on What Makes You Unique and Don’t Hold Grudges

One of Bowie’s more distinctive features was the permanently dilated pupil of his left eye. It looked unusual enough that many mistakenly believed Bowie’s eyes were two different colors.

The injury came about when Bowie and his school friend George Underwood got into a fight over a girl. In addition to the changed look, Bowie was also left with faulty depth perception.

The unique look of Bowie’s eyes was played up on album covers for “Hunky Dory” and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars.” The photos and artwork for those albums were done by Underwood.

While a disfiguring injury might end most friendships, instead it helped to create Bowie’s image. It paid off for Underwood as well, professionally and personally. Professionally, Underwood went on to create album covers for acts like Mott the Hoople and Procol Harum. And on the personal front, Bowie supported Underwood when the artist was going through his own battle with prostate cancer.

Clearly, Bowie has changed the world in ways that extend beyond his brilliant music. There are the business elements that apply directly to marketing, and many other aspects of his life that are applicable to many fields. We thank David Bowie for his contributions to our everyday lives, his music will be a part of our daily soundtracks for years to come.


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