“I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.”
There are so many quotes that encapsulate the astonishing creativity of David Bowie, pop music’s greatest polymath, but for the purposes of this tribute that’s a perfect start.
His death at the age of 69 from cancer, days after the launch of his final album Black Star and the release of his knowingly prescient single, Lazarus the video of which is now truly haunting, is a reminder that he was one of the most gifted – and restless – innovators in popular culture.
That desire to always do something new was, he once said, the result of an ‘attention deficit disorder’ and it made him not just one of the most gifted musicians of the last 50 years but also one of its most prescient businessman.
Because he was not just ahead of the curve musically. He started his own internet service provider, Bowie.net, which subsequently became davidbowie.com, launched his own radio station and, in 1999, even his own bank. In 1997 he pioneered an entirely new investment vehicle when he created Bowie Bonds, asset-backed securities of current and future revenues of his catalogue of more than 300 songs and 27 albums. The collection was worth $55m and investors received interest of 7.9% when his music was, for instance, bought by companies such as Microsoft to be used in its advertisements.
In tributes, Bowie has been called someone who was so much more than a rock star. In fact, he was more of a businessman than all of his contemporaries and led the way for future generations to take advantage of the internet age. Just as he demonstrated his ability to stay ahead of the curve by cherry-picking cultural influences and refashioning them (the avant-garde, androgynous identity, science fiction, German minimalism, soul, blues, punk, and the New York underground) into his own work, so he understood how the tools of business could be utilized for his own benefits.
He gave an astonishing interview in 1999 with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, at a time when the internet was in its infancy, when no one understood what its effect would be on popular culture and the relationship between creative artist, consumer and business. This is what he said:
‘Rock and roll is now a career opportunity, and the internet carries the flag for the subversive and rebellious, chaotic and nihilistic…the monopolies do not have a monopoly [anymore]. 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.’
What the interview demonstrated to anyone not already familiar with his extraordinary ability to reinvent himself was that David Bowie understood – like the greatest business leaders – 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.
The music was just the beginning for Bowie. In everything, he was always trying to push himself, to do something new, to take ideas that might be untested or unusual and drag them into the mainstream. David Jones, as he was christened, was born in 1947 and raised in South London and even at school he had a noted gift for his ‘unique’ singing and dancing styles. Having failed his exams, he studied design at college and sought a career in advertising but the rebel in him was drawn to pop stardom and by 1967 he had embarked on his first reinvention, calling himself David Bowie. Who then became Ziggy Stardust, who metamorphosed into the Thin White Duke, who turned into a new romantic and garage band rebel, fashion icon, Wall Street hero, etc etc.
A recent exhibition of his fashion at the V&A museum revealed not just that he had a unique ability to understand how eye-catching creations and personas could transform his career and indeed popular culture. It also showed that Bowie permeated our world – including the business world – to a greater degree than any other pop star has, or perhaps even will.
His ability to innovate, take risks, understand the consumer, predict the path of popular culture and how technology could influence it – these skills made him not just a great musician but a great businessman too.
He might not have known quite where he was going but when he got there he was normally way ahead of everyone else.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com (contributed by Grant Feller)