2nd April 2013 Washington DC, USA
Why David Bowie is a Velvet Goldmine
On March 12, British living legend David Bowie released his first new album in almost ten years – “The Next Day”. The record has been met with a tremendous reception, both critically and commercially. Q Magazine crowned its release with a gold plated five star review. It entered the UK album chart at the number one position.
Bowie’s career really is astonishing. The run of classic albums he released between 1971 (Hunky Dory) and 1980 (Scary Monsters and Supercreeps) is almost without precedent in modern music – ten superb long players of original material, each one different from the last but equally exciting and groundbreaking.
Even in the last twenty years, at a stage in his life when most artists would be happy to rest on their laurels and just play ‘the hits’, Bowie has generated some brilliant stuff (2002’s well received Heathen and 1995’s criminally underrated 1. Outside are both well worth investigating).
That degree of accomplishment has to offer wider lessons and, as an economist, I found myself reflecting on that issue while enjoying the new Bowie album.
What lessons can we draw from Bowie’s phenomenal career for broader economic performance? I can identify at least three:
1. Rock and Roll With Me: David Bowie is the quintessential internationalist. He has lived and recorded in many cities around the world (three of his albums are classed as being his ‘Berlin period’) and his music is recognised globally. More generally, Bowie is a superb manifestation of transatlantic team work.
Many of Bowie’s records are infused with a strongly American flavour (e.g. 1975’s Young Americans) that, coupled with Bowie’s very gentlemanly brand of Englishness, make them powerful and unique works of art. And the number of American musical “heroes” that Bowie has played with is enormous: Iggy Pop, Nile Rodgers, Earl Slick, Stevie Ray Vaughan to name just a few. Oh, and the guys from Tin Machine.
So lesson number one is think internationally and grow internationally.
Right now, the UK and EU are keenly pursuing a trade and investment partnership with the US which will expand exports between the two areas – the US is already able to lap up musical artists like Bowie relatively unencumbered by trade barriers and the UK lays claim to over ten percent of the global music industry measured by sales.
Europe enjoys many fantastic American artists too like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Britney Spears. But there are many other industries and markets where there are barriers to commerce that we could dismantle and boost business on both sides of the Atlantic.
2. Ch-ch-ch-changes: One of the key things about Bowie is that he is always changing and transforming.
A chameleon comparison has been made from time to time such is the diversity of Bowie’s work. Bowie’s catalogue encompasses sixties pop, glam, new wave, soul, rock, garage and many more styles and genres. The man recognises that he doesn’t want to get stuck doing just one thing.
That is why he has transcended trends and ‘Fashion’ across six decades of popular music: always adapting, never putting his eggs in one basket and keeping himself ahead of the pack.
So lesson number two is diversity: modern economies need to be sufficiently diversified in terms of the industries and sectors on which they are based. In the UK, we have recognised our economy was too dependent on financial services and that – while financial services will continue to be hugely important – we need to establish a wider set of strengths.
Our economy needs be more like David Bowies classic work on the 1970s and to mirror that diversity.
3. Always Crashing the Same Car: For all Bowie’s achievements, he is the first to admit he has messed up a few times. Most of his releases from the 1980’s were woeful and he struggled to find his feet for a while after that. But he managed to come back strong and, as the reception to ‘The Next Day’ proves, he has been vindicated and forgiven for any 80s related misdemeanors.
So the final inference to draw is the importance of learning the lessons of the past. Economic policy making is similar – policymakers have often made mistakes that they are sometimes forced to learn from. Changing course can be necessary. That can be difficult but, in the long run, well worth it.
An important difference, alas, is that Bowie can pretty much ignore the regretful aspects of his past: should he choose to ever perform live again (unlikely apparently) he has no need to perform anything he recorded between 1984 and 1993. For mistakes in economic policy, the consequences cannot be forgotten so easily and can adversely affect the lives of millions.
Of course there is much more to it. We probably shouldn’t forget the role of excellent song writing (what economists what class Bowie’s skill set), a great voice (natural resources) and Bowie’s willingness to experiment (innovation). The list of economic principles goes on and on.
Finally, it’s worth just reflecting on how inspiring Bowie’s return is.
Here is a 66 year old artist, emerging from the wilderness with a fascinating set of songs that have, overnight, put him back at the centre of the musical map. Bowie had a heart attack in 2004 and was considered by many to be retired from show business but his re-emergence completely dumbfounds that theory. And a time of economic challenges, it’s worth remembering the spirit of the latest chapter in Bowie’s long story.
Never count out, or underestimate, a true living legend.