Some are born famous, some achieve fame easily, and some work out how to make fame happen.
David Bowie’s career hit lightspeed when he became Ziggy Stardust, but it was anything but a fluke or an overnight success.
In the seventies, Ziggy was futuristic. We are now living in the future — where news guys tell us earth may well be dying, and our brains hurt like warehouses from information overload.
Back then, fame was for the chosen few. Now, it’s part of the job if you want to leverage the internet to find an audience for your art, subscribers for your blog or customers for your business.
Here are 7 tips to help you shine, based on the glittering example of Bowie’s space-age alter-ego.
1. Some rock stars are made, not born
Ziggy wasn’t Bowie’s first attempt at stardom. It wasn’t even his sixth.
Before he hit the big time, David Bowie had been knocking on fame’s door for a decade, as sax player and then singer with a succession of bands. At one stage he even gave up music in frustration and joined Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe.
We know him as a legendary singer-songwriter-performer. But to begin with, neither his singing nor stage presence were particularly compelling. And he was anything but a natural songwriter:
I didn’t know how to write a song, I wasn’t particularly good at it. I forced myself to be a good songwriter, and I became a good songwriter. But I had no natural talents whatsoever. I made a job of work at getting good.
~ Bowie interviewed by Paul Du Noyer for MOJO
Takeaway: If you’re born with a fully-formed, effortless talent, good for you. But if not, don’t despair — apply yourself with passion, ingenuity and persistence and you may be surprised what you can achieve.
2. Be worldly and otherworldly
There’s a rich vein of fantasy running through Bowie’s early work, from the childhood whimsy of his first album, through the wide-eyed sci-fi of Space Oddity, the phantasmagoria of The Man Who Sold the World and the kookiness of Hunky Dory, to the alien persona of Ziggy himself.
Listen to his music, he sounds like a star-gazer.
But listen to those who knew and worked with the young Bowie, and recurring themes are his single-minded focus, ambition, work ethic, and an ability to turn on the charm for the right people at the right time.
Neither of these sides to his character would have been enough on its own. There are plenty of starry-eyed daydreamers who never get their work in front of an audience. And ambition is boring without the vision and talent to back it up.
It was Bowie’s ability to switch between the different facets of his character — characteristic of many outstanding creators — that made him more creative, productive, and successful than either the daydreamers or wannabe rock stars.
Takeaway: Don’t put yourself in a box. If you’re an ‘artistic’ type, don’t let it stop you learning professional skills — such as networking, marketing and presenting — that could help you realise your creative ambitions. And if you’re good at the business side of things but have never seen yourself as ‘creative’, give yourself permission to explore your weird side (I know you have one). 😉
3. There’s more than one real you
Before he was Ziggy, he was Major Tom, David Bowie, Davie Jones, and originally David Jones.
Soon after Ziggy, he became Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, and The Thin White Duke in quick succession.
In hindsight, the transformations of the ‘chameleon of rock’ look brilliantly creative. But at the time he was taking a big risk. Authenticity was desperately important in late sixtes/early seventies rock (which was a bit of a challenge for white kids from Britain trying to follow in the footsteps of blues legends from the Mississippi Delta).
Bob Dylan spoke for many when he told Bowie bluntly at a party: “Glam rock isn’t real music.”
But authenticity isn’t about expressing a single “real you” — as if such a thing existed. You’re much more interesting than that. You have many different facets to your personality — each of which is a potential character with his or her own story to tell.
Bowie realised the artistic potential of authentic storytelling — focusing on one aspect of your personality (or company, or brand) that has particular appeal to your audience, and projecting it to them in vivid words, visuals and/or sounds.
Takeaway: Who can you be now? Is there a hidden facet of your character, company, or brand that you can usefully place center-stage? And is there another one that should be gracefully retired?
4. Talent borrows, genius steals
Ziggy was a magpie creation, assembled from rock’n’roll, science fiction, music hall, mime, kabuki, and multi-coloured pro-wrestling boots.
His next album, Aladdin Sane, incorporated Jazz piano, before he moved onto American funk and soul, and later the electronica of German ‘krautrock.’
Bob Dylan was missing the point when he said Bowie’s music wasn’t the “real” thing, as were those who looked down their noses at his “plastic soul.” Bowie himself seemed to deliberately court such criticism:
The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from. I do think my plagiarism is effective.
~ Bowie interviewed by Cameron Crowe, Playboy September 1976
What made Ziggy (and his other collage works) interesting wasn’t where the parts came from, but what he made of them — the original, flamboyant, creative twist he gave to his source materials, that made them unforgettably his.
Takeaway: Who are your heroes? What do you admire in them? What if you “stole” from them by taking some of their core principles (not their finished works!) and applied them to your own work. Don’t worry about being original — if you do it wholeheartedly, your originality will shine through, probably in ways you don’t realise.
5. Work with the best
Mick Ronson, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury, Peter Frampton, Nile Rodgers, Brian Eno, and Bing Crosby — these are just some of the big names Bowie has shared a stage or recording studio with over the years.
Even when working with lesser-known musicians, he often gave them extraordinary freedom to express themselves in the studio, so that many of the albums with the name “David Bowie” on the sleeve incorporate the creative input of disparate talents.
Apart from improving the finished product, this kind of creative collaboration is a sign of confidence. Either Bowie wasn’t afraid of being upstaged, or he surrounded himself with stellar talent to keep himself on his toes.
Takeaway: Look at roles that need filling in your next project. Who would be the best — the very best — people you could think of to fill them? How could you persuade them to get on board?
6. Leave them wanting more
Many people (including his backing band) were amazed when Bowie announced from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon “this is the last show that we’ll ever do.” It looked like career suicide, not just the rock’n’roll variety.
But confident creators don’t worry where their next big idea will come from. They know there’s plenty more where the last one came from. And great showmen know when to leave the stage — with the audience clamoring for more.
Takeaway: Look at your biggest success to date. Does it still excite you, or is the magic starting to wane? Supposing you killed it off and started something new — where would you begin?
7. Always read the small print
Apart from his musical collaborators, Bowie’s drive for success was spearheaded by the man he believed was his business partner, Tony DeFries.
I say “believed” because the contract between the two men actually described Bowie as an “employee,” giving DeFries’ company, MainMan, ownership of his record masters and a percentage of royalties until 1982. Bowie was blissfully unaware of these conditions for several years, having either not read the contract or not grasped its implications.
When the situation was explained to him, he was horrified to discover that he did not in fact own 50% of MainMan, nor even the rights to his own music. Several years of legal wrangling ensued, and Bowie paid dearly for his naivety.
Later he would learn enough about the business side of things to effectively manage himself, negotiating his own signing to EMI in 1983 for a groundbreaking $17 million advance. Later still, he issued innovative “Bowie Bonds,” earning him $55 million in securities against his future royalties — a hefty chunk of which was used to buy back his music rights from DeFries.
Takeaway: Contracts and spreadsheets aren’t the most inspiring things in the world. But ignore them and you could end up living with terms that crush your creativity. Make it your business to understand your business — so you can make smart decisions that bring you the rewards you deserve.