Life on Mars – Reinvention Lessons from David Bowie

by Peter Cook

Life on Mars – Reinvention Lessons from David BowieCompared with all the ‘one hit wonders’ in music, David Bowie has reinvented himself several times AND taken his audience with him.  The parallel lessons in business innovation are that of changing what you do, keeping your customers AND gaining new ones.  What can we learn about reinvention from David Bowie?  Read on.  Before we start, let’s look at a Bowie classic – Life on Mars:

Bowie Business Lesson # 1.  Find your focus

David Bowie began performing music when he was 13 years old, learning the saxophone while he was at High School and began playing in a number of mod bands.  All these bands released singles, which were generally ignored, yet he continued performing. The following year, he released the music-hall styled ‘Laughing Gnome.’ Upon completing the record, he spent several weeks in a Buddhist monastery. Bloody good idea in my opinion, although I should be so lucky to have written this song in spite of its cheesiness!! Once he left the monastery, he formed a mime company – a non-obvious career move. This was short-lived, and he formed an experimental art group in 1969.

Bowie Business Lesson # 2.  Get the right people

As necessity is the mother of invention, Bowie needed to finance the art group, so he signed a record deal. His first album featured ‘Space Oddity,’ which became a major hit single in the Britain. He began miming at T.REX concerts, eventually touring with Marc Bolan’s, bassist / producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Mick Ronson. The band quickly fell apart, yet Bowie and Ronson continued to work together. The next album, ‘The Man who Sold the World’ did not gain much attention. Following the release of ‘Hunky Dory,’ featuring Ronson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, Bowie developed his most famous incarnation, ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Bowie quickly followed Ziggy with ‘Aladdin Sane’. Not only did he record a new album that year, but he also produced Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer,’ the Stooge’s ‘Raw Power’ and Mott the Hoople’s ‘All the Young Dudes,’ for which he also wrote the title track.  Lest we forget this great song:

Bowie Business Lesson # 3.  Re-engineer the Business

Bowie unexpectedly announced his retirement from live performances during his final show in 1973. He retreated from the spotlight to work on a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, transforming the work into ‘Diamond Dogs.’ The album was released to generally poor reviews, yet it generated the hit single ‘Rebel Rebel.’ Bowie supported the album with an American tour. As the tour progressed, Bowie became fascinated with soul music. He subsequently refashioned his group into a Philly soul band and revamped his image in sophisticated, stylish fashions. The change took fans by surprise. ‘Young Americans,’ released in 1975, was the culmination of Bowie’s soul obsession, and it became his first major crossover hit, peaking in the American Top Ten and generating his first U.S. number one hit in ‘Fame,’ a song he co-wrote with John Lennon and guitarist Carlos Alomar.

Bowie Business Lesson # 4.  Challenge industry sacred cows

Once in Berlin, Bowie began painting, as well as studying art. He also developed a fascination with German electronic music, which Brian Eno helped him fulfil on their first album together, ‘Low.’ Released early in 1977, Low was a startling mixture of electronics, pop and avant-garde technique. It received mixed reviews, but was one of the most influential albums of the late ’70s, as was its follow-up, ‘Heroes’:

We’ll continue this blog through several other ch, ch, ch, changes in Bowie’s career.  Feel free to post your views on what Bowie’s contribution to innovation and reinvention has been.

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Peter Cook is Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.  He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy or Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisation Development and Business Coaching. and  You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock

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