Under Pressure – Reinvention Lessons from David Bowie

This article finds me in Athens, contemplating the talk I am to give at the 7th international HR Leadership Conference.  My theme is to be that of reinvention which is extremely apt for the business world in Greece and more widely.  Compared with all the ‘one hit wonders’ in music, David Bowie has reinvented himself several times and taken his audience with him.  The parallel lesson in business is that of changing what you do, keeping your customers and gaining new customers.  What can we learn about business from David Bowie?  This is the second article in the series – to catch up with the story so far check out ‘The Laughing Gnome to Heroes’.  Before we start, let’s look at another Bowie classic – China Girl:

Bowie Business Lesson # 5.  Perpetual change

In 1983, he released ‘Let’s Dance.’ Bowie recruited Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to produce the album, giving the record a sleek, funky foundation, and hired the unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan as lead guitarist. Let’s Dance became his most successful record.

Bowie Business Lesson # 6. When change is over, change again

Bowie’s next project was less successful. He formed a guitar rock band called Tin Machine. They released an album to poor reviews and supported it with a small tour, which was only moderately successful. Tin Machine released a second album, Tin Machine II, which was ignored. Time to change again …

Bowie Business Lesson # 7. Form innovative partnerships

Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno to produce ‘Outside’ and went on tour, co-headlining with ‘Nine Inch Nails,’ to lure a younger audience, but his strategy failed. In 1996, he recorded ‘Earthling,’ an album heavily influenced by techno and drum’n’bass. Earthling received positive reviews, yet it did not attract a new audience. Many techno purists criticised Bowie for exploiting their subculture. It seemed that his attempt to cross demographic and culture divides was not going to work on this occasion. Since then, Bowie has formed partnerships with a number of artists including Placebo and reinvented himself as a brand for a US online bank 🙂

The main learnings from this dramatic series of reinventions include:

1. Make radical changes even when your current strategy is successful.

2. Hire and work with the best people you can find, especially if they are better than you.

3. Read the environment and engage with new movements when they are more than fads.

4. Learn from failure and quickly move on.

What else do you consider that David Bowie can teach us about business?  Share your thoughts here.

Finally, let’s catch another Bowie classic.  Under Pressure:

If you enjoy this you will love my new book “The Music of Business” – Acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk


11 responses to “Under Pressure – Reinvention Lessons from David Bowie

  1. David Bowie is one of the great inventors of camp, Glamour Rock, androgynous style, outrageous looks for the time he invented it (the 70s). I shall never forget as a teenager hearing “Rebel, Rebel” “Suffragete City”, “Space Oddity” and having the music literally stop me cold in whatever I was doing at the time, because it was so different.
    Because of Bowie and other great artists of those eras, that I do believe, will never, ever be replicated again. I have a website devoted to Glamour Rock
    I had not viewed the China Girl video before…and wow, fantastic. Bowie was and is a true genius in the music world.
    The music of today is nothing but trash, most of it…and I do not give it any credence. So thanks for your posts on what is still enduring.


  2. From Linkedin

    THOMAS AW • Peter, they just do their bon bon, without regards to what you Think, SURPRISINGLY everybody likes it.

    Success required you to have the GUTS to DO IT, even when people considered it as stupid in the beginning. By being different, you are acting out what most people want to do “secretly’, yet, too timid to do it themselves. So, they see the Rock Stars as their own manifestation of True Self, thus rushing to buy up the latest songs.

    Who is Clever now ?


    Peter Cook • Thank you Thomas – we live in a world confounded by research and information, and if I read your comments correctly you are saying that intuition and a ‘just do it’ approach are just as valuable as an analytical approach.


  3. Pingback: Three Things David Bowie Can Teach You About Music Marketing

  4. n 1975, Bowie achieved his first major American crossover success with the number-one single “Fame” and the hit album Young Americans, which the singer characterised as “plastic soul”. The sound constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees. He then confounded the expectations of both his record label and his American audiences by recording the minimalist album Low (1977)—the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno over the next two years. This so-called “Berlin Trilogy” albums all reached the UK top five and received lasting critical praise.



  5. Pingback: Life On Mars – Reinvention Lessons From David Bowie | Leaderonomics.com

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