The news that David Bowie was on the brink of leaving EMI, reported this week by the FT, marked the souring of a relationship between two of the behemoths of British popular culture. The troubled music group, which is now set to be split and sold to Vivendi’s Universal Music and Sony, could ill-afford to lose one of its most lustrous money-earners. For the past 15 years it has held the rights to one of pop music’s most prestigious back catalogues, comprising such classic albums as Ziggy Stardust and Let’s Dance.
As for Bowie, well, his literally glittering career has taught us to expect the unexpected. “Changes” was the name of one of his most charming songs, but it was also a life strategy. After the extraordinary social changes of the 1960s, it was Bowie who dominated the following decade with an intoxicating blend of flamboyance, fine art and consummate media manipulation.
His legacy has proved lasting. His mastery of shape-shifting and restless reinvention – a term he hates – cast the template for modern pop stardom. There would have been no Madonna, no Lady Gaga, without Bowie. No one made fame look more appealing, more glamorous.
Bowie dislikes the emphasis given to his identity games because he believes there has always been an intellectual coherence to his work. In 1969’sSpace Oddity, as the world celebrated the first lunar landing, Bowie struck a melancholy note: “Planet earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do”. A decade later, Major Tom’s lonely angst was still in Bowie’s mind. But in 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes”, he had become an alienated junkie, “strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low”.
In the intervening years, Bowie had experimented with a bewildering number of musical and fashion styles, from plastic soul boy to Mitteleuropean intellectual. But there was no mistaking the arc of gradual disillusionment discernible in those classic albums of the 1970s, more potent than any stricture issued by the International Monetary Fund.
Despite commercial success in the 1980s, nothing produced by Bowie since those febrile times has matched the quality of his early work. But he continued to mirror, if not forge ahead of, the times, and emerged as a shrewd business operator.
He formed his own management company and was one of the first pop stars to appreciate that playing live concerts could be as lucrative as selling records and CDs. A series of world tours were rapturously received and helped make him one of the world’s wealthiest musicians.
But it was in 1997, as he turned 50, that one of his business moves showed the same kind of radical turn that had made his early music so alluring. Bowie struck a licensing deal with EMI for his back catalogue giving the group the rights to release 25 albums from 1969 to 1990, and was guaranteed more than 25 per cent of the royalties from wholesale sales in the US.
Bowie used the deal as collateral for investors who bought his 10-year “Bowie bonds” in a move arranged by the banker David Pullman, using future royalties as securitisation. The bonds were sold for $55m, and the deal became the talk of the industry.
Analysts foresaw a sharp growth in so-called “celebrity bonds”, and Pullman went on to make similar deals for James Brown, the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye.
But times were ch-ch-changing faster than Bowie could imagine. By the turn of the millennium, CD sales were in sharp decline as internet distribution of music established itself. Suddenly those royalties looked less secure, and by 2004 Moody’s had downgraded Bowie bonds to one notch above junk. For once, Bowie’s timing was awry. These were the days when peer-to-peer services such as Napster looked set to blow a hole in intellectual property and copyright legislation, causing record companies and artists alike to fear for their future.
The companies fought back, finding ever more elaborate ways of repackaging old goods to make them appealing to affluent and nostalgic baby boomers. Just last year, Bowie’s Station to Station album from 1976 was released in a deluxe box set edition for £80 – with memorabilia, essays, exclusive mixes and even vinyl. Bowie’s golden years were being squeezed for every last penny.
But there comes a time when every piece of tatty tinsel from pop’s halcyon days has been unearthed, recycled and flogged off. As Amazon and Apple devise new pricing structures, and services such as Spotify forge new business models, the traditional music industry remains ever more embattled.
The success of Bowie bonds had also inspired Guy Hands, a master of securitising assets from pubs to motorway service stations, to believe he could do the same with EMI’s back catalogue. But he was caught out by the collapse of the credit markets, never managing to spread the risk of 2007’s £4.2bn takeover.
In many ways the arc of Bowie’s career mirrors what has happened to pop music itself: from uncertain beginnings in the 1960s, reaching its pomp in the 1970s, and exploiting its success through clever business deals in the 1980s and 1990s. But has something got lost on the way?
The clamour over Steve Jobs’ death shows the extent to which pop music is a fading force, compared with the beautiful machines that convey it to the masses.
But Bowie remains gloriously invulnerable to the demise of the art form he graced with such aplomb. He has proved his artistic mettle several times over, and settled into heritage status, nursing himself back to health after a heart attack, and making the odd cameo appearance on such cultural landmarks asSpongeBob SquarePants. He hasn’t made an album since 2003’s Reality.
His reasons for disenchantment with EMI are not clear, but we shouldn’t be surprised if he has another radical change of direction up his sleeve. No British cultural figure has so enjoyed confounding expectations, nor earned the right to go his own way.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson also contributed to this profile