A couple of years ago I wrote an article referencing the late, great David Bowie who had surprised us all with the release of an unannounced new album after many years in the musical wilderness. A planned follow up to this in early January arrived two days before the shocking announcement of the artist’s death, news that sent shockwaves across the globe. In a world where the term ‘legend’ is applied to so many, Bowie is truly worthy of the title. Yet for the many fans he has left behind, it is worth reflecting on exactly how he achieved such status.
In short, he ‘knew different’.
Not only knew but acted positively to make the changes that would stand him apart from the rest of us, often taking substantial but calculated risks to do so. Bowie struggled to make a real impact until he launched his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on an unsuspecting public in the early 1970s – but what an impact! The music was great but, just as importantly, the image was otherworldly and this combination acted as the launch pad to Bowie’s future, dizzying heights of success.
However, despite now starting to enjoy the fruits of his labour, Bowie wasn’t afraid to ditch Ziggy mid-flow, changing his musical direction and style to embrace something new altogether, and at the same time risking alienating his hard-won fan base and career. It was a risk but one that worked and was repeated again and again throughout his life. He wasn’t afraid to stand out and take the path less travelled.
Bowie constantly changed and by doing so altered people’s perceptions of him along the way. Never afraid to take chances, he was a leader in so many ways, constantly innovating and at the forefront of technological advancements in an ever changing World. In 1996 he became the first major artist to distribute a new song as an online-only release, selling over 300,000 downloads of the track ‘Telling Lies’. He was a true visionary and explored with vigour the capabilities of the internet to communicate and market his music, culminating in the launch of his own ISP, @Bowie Net, in 1998. Not everything worked and even Bowie may have underestimated the impact the internet was to have on the music industry. However, he foresaw the need and the opportunity to change and took intelligent risks to be a part of the future and to hedge against complacency. His influence on today’s culture cannot be under-estimated.
Of course, there will only ever be one David Bowie and emulation would be impossible and counter to all that he came to represent: individualism, thinking outside the mainstream, embracing change, and celebrating different as having inherent value. Nevertheless, I like to think that, of the many things I and my generation learnt from him, these principles are amongst the most important and that some of us have applied them in both our personal and business lives.