David Bowie: The Ultimate Artist-As-Entrepreneur?

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June 2017 marks 50 years since David Bowie released his first album.

The title of this landmark record?

Somewhat unimaginatively, it was called:

David Bowie.

Ironic, because nothing else in Bowie’s extraordinary life was ever that predictable again…

The Ultimate Artist-as-Entrepreneur

As a long-time fan, I was recently struck by just how well some of Bowie’s significant albums have aged:

Ziggy Stardust, Low, Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, “Heroes”, Aladdin Sane…

Each one sounds captivatingly ‘of its time’ – but also outside of any sense of musical fashion.

This past year, amidst the tributes since he headed off to that great Space Oddity in the sky, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bowie…

And how, like the legion of musicians and artists who followed in his silver slipstream, marketers and entrepreneurs can also learn a thing or two from the great man.

Because David Bowie was the epitome of the artist-as-entrepreneur.

Creative, exploratory, determined, risk-taking, confident…

Like all great entrepreneurs, he resisted the obvious…

He rejected life on the payroll to take charge of his own fate…

And he paid close attention to both his brand AND his audience, without ever compromising his unique vision.

That sounds like something we should all aim for, right?

And, while your first step probably won’t be convincing your audience that you’re an androgynous alien rock star visiting from another planet…

Here’s how you can do as David Bowie did, and create unique, lasting and important work.

Embrace change

Unlike the vast majority of people, entrepreneurs don’t fear change.

They adapt, embrace and improve constantly while sorting through ideas, but always move forward.

Bowie famously shape-shifted through several fascinating incarnations:

Lithe hippy-poet…

Glam-punk starman…

Cigarette-thin white-soul-singer…

Germanic art-rocker…

Middle-aged jungle experimentalist…

And finally, universally-respected eccentric uncle.

via GIPHY

He constantly sought new challenges, never dwelling on past glories.

And Bowie never tried to just ‘fit in’.

In fact, he once revealed:

“All my big mistakes are when I try to second-guess or please an audience. My work is always stronger when I get very selfish about it.”

Hmm.

Driven to create by single-mindedness…

Polarizing audiences…

Successful despite not appearing to give a hoot what anyone else thinks…

Doesn’t that sound like a whole host of famous entrepreneurs and marketers?

From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs…

…Estée Lauder to Oprah Winfrey…

…even with top copywriters like direct response pioneer Gary Halbert and email copywriting don Ben Settle…

There’s a single-mindedness to all the greats that drives them to do great work.

(So, am I saying Ben Settle is “the David Bowie of copywriting”?

Can’t you just picture El Benbo in a catsuit and Ziggy make-up, belting out ‘Moonage Daydream’?)

Forget about ‘fitting in’

Bowie was often called “the chameleon of rock”, but rejected the label, saying:

“I’ve always felt bemused at being called the chameleon of rock.

Doesn’t a chameleon exert tremendous energy to become indistinguishable from its environment?”

Good point. There was really nothing chameleon-like about Bowie at all.

And that’s an essential way of seeing things for any entrepreneur, copywriter or marketer…

Change and transformation is something the ‘norms’ find hard to manage in their 9-5 lifestyle – so make the most of your entrepreneurial gift…

Keep moving. Stay supple in your thinking and your approach to your work.

Observe trends and developments in different niches, but don’t be a slave to fashion.

Try new things. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to screw up.

And if you’re writing sales copy, write to get your product noticed – not to blend in.

Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ concept/character was a huge gamble for a singer-songwriter on the verge of a breakthrough in 1972…

…but it got attention, and made a white-hot connection with a huge number of people.

He took an even bigger risk just a year or so later when he ‘killed-off’ the Ziggy character to try something totally different…

Doing that right at the top of his game left many listeners dazed and confused – and sent shockwaves across the music industry.

But people came with him on the journey because now they were desperate to know:

“What’s next?”

And that’s why today’s entrepreneurs should embrace ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (sorry) the way an artist would.

If you think there’s a desire – and an audience – for something different to your current service or product line, do some research and give it a whirl.

Take risks for the right reasons

Always aim to help – or at the very least, entertain – a subsection of people…

You can never please everyone, nor should you try.

Bowie never jumped on a bandwagon because he thought it would bring him more fame (“FAME! What you get is no tomorrow”) or fortune…

He always approached new styles out of a thirst for discovery and understanding.

To experience or to improve, yes – but never to undercut or exploit.

Start with something you’re totally nuts about, and do the right research

Figure out where there’s congruency between what you’re doing now and where you want to go, and focus on that.

Keep one eye on what the competition is doing, but then model only the single most essential common ingredient others are using…

…and ditch everything else.

Don’t be “another X”. Aim for more than just “Uber for Y”.

Then give it your best shot…

If it turns out more Tin Machine than Hunky Dory, don’t be disheartened.

Change again… learn from the experience… evolve. Keep moving.

Step outside your comfort zone

Outside music, Bowie famously dabbled in acting…

From cult classics like The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger, via his memorable pantomime villain turn in Labyrinth

He brought techniques from his on-screen experiences into his musical performances, and vice versa.

He was also one of mainstream music’s earliest adopters of the internet and digital technology.

At a time when Metallica were trying to stop a tidal wave of change using a leaky bucket made of angry lawsuits against mp3 users, Bowie was setting up his own ISP: BowieNet.

His interests in performance art, fashion, rave culture and literature produced a diverse range of work that broadened his appeal…

Keeping his creative instincts fresh right until the end, and his audience on their toes.

It’s good to obsess over your niche and deepen your knowledge of your specialist area, but don’t limit yourself…

Great ideas come from combining unlikely sources and experimenting with different mediums.

Collaborate effectively

John Lennon… Queen… Brian Eno… Mick Jagger (in probably the funniest music video EVER)… Iggy… Nile Rodgers…

…even Bing Crosby…

Bowie was renowned for interesting, sometimes unusual collaborations, remaining productive even outside of the pop industry’s standard album-tour-repeat cycle.

By joining forces with other distinctive artists, he was able to reach more diverse audiences, create a wider range of rewarding work and benefit from the talents of others…

Not to mention the networking skills he developed over the years.

So remember:

Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, even rock legends…

Be ready to capitalize on your successes in a partnership or JV opportunity with someone who’s on their way up.

Maybe now’s the perfect time to reach out to that whizz-kid designer, or that rising star copywriter (ahem), or to get on a call with the expert behind that inspiring online course you just took.

In fact…

Maybe they’re already dreaming of collaborating with you…

Perhaps they’d like to come and meet you (“but they think you’ll blow their minds”)?

Gotta be worth a shot, right?

After all, as David Bowie, artist-as-entrepreneur once said:

“I don’t know where I’m going from here…

…but I know it won’t be boring.”

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Pete Michaels
Pete Michaels
Peter Michaels is a Conversion Copywriter working with startups, businesses and entrepreneurs in tech, entrepreneurial and personal development markets. He writes website, email and landing page copy that converts, specializing in Ask Method funnels & Deep Dive Survey research to uncover your best customers’ buying triggers. You can read more of his articles on copy & conversion at www.rockandrollcopy.com.
Showing 2 comments
  • Kelvin Parker
    Reply

    I had to blast out “Space Oddity” while reading your excellent article … Bowie is a great role model for business and life. Thanks for pulling out so many insightful lessons from the master!!

  • Pete Michaels
    Reply

    Thanks Kelvin,

    Yep, he sure was the man for modelling after. A hard act to follow, and impossible to replace – but a trailblazer for entrepreneurs and artists alike. Glad you got some insights from Dame Dave!

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