by Chris Singleton
Music has come a long way since David Bowie’s legendary 1972 Top of the Pops appearance – the one where he flung his arm casually and camply around Mick Ronson, and proceeded to blast out one of the catchiest songs about a gay alien (Starman) you are ever likely to hear. Yes, things have changed alright. We have (nearly) abolished ‘physical’ music; we’ve shut down HMV; and we give away music for free not for people's listening pleasure but in order to make databases.
Yet amidst all these sad developments, with the surprise announcement of the release of new album The Next Day, Mr Bowie has managed to make a comeback that seems almost as arresting as his 1972 Top of the Pops appearance. And there is a hell of a lot that today’s young musical whippersnappers can learn from it; read on for a few lessons from the still-quite-thin, 66-year-old white duke.
1. Silence is golden
In this instant-communications era of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and whatnot, it is incredibly tempting for today's bands and artists to say something online every five minutes. Whether constantly imploring people to buy their next album or letting their Facebook fans know what they've just had for lunch, bands – both unsigned and established – never seem to shut up (a sin that I, whilst wearing my musician's hat, have been guilty of too)
Contrast that with Bowie, who kept 100% mum for 10 years regarding what he was up to musically, meaning that when he actually had something important to say ('hi guys, I've got a new album out') it was said with maximum impact. Now admittedly most artists are not rock legends like Bowie and simply being quiet for ages and then suddenly issuing a press release is not going to shock the music world to remotely the same extent as Bowie’s surprise comeback. However, there is still a huge amount to be said for the ‘less is more’ approach to communicating music news; and, as mentioned previously on this blog a bit of enigma (read silence) can occasionally do your band the power of good.
The key thing for bands to remember is to use that new arsenal of social media tools judiciously. Ensure every status update is genuinely interesting; don’t hit your mailing list with e-newsletters every week; and only send press releases to journalists and bloggers if there is an absolute need to. The way that Bowie announced the release of his new album was a classic example of quality of communications trumping quantity; and you will note that in his first message about his music in 10 years or so, he didn’t mention that he had a chicken kiev for lunch.
2. Live up to the hype
I still haven’t forgiven the international community of rock critics for persuading me to purchase a copy of Oasis’ Be Here Now album back in 1997, so I’m not quite ready to buy their unanimous conclusion that Bowie’s new album is as good as Ziggy Stardust or whatever. However, even after only a couple of listens it is clear that there are some very strong songs on the album – it’s fairly apparent that Bowie has done enough here to (largely) live up to the hype that the dramatic announcement of the record’s existence generated.
Again, few (if any) bands will ever find themselves in a situation where their next release is accompanied by as much hype as The Next Day, but nonetheless, some artists who have yet to release anything will find themselves in a position where they are starting to get feted by some very cool people indeed (Instagram-food-snapping dudes with a slight tendency to overuse the words ‘subtle’ and ‘textures’ when discussing music). The natural reaction to being talked up by such types is to seize the moment and rush out a half-baked record. This is always a bad move. It is far better to bide your time and concentrate on putting together the strongest album you can rather than release something that fails to live up to the hype. For nothing offends a fashionable champion of your band more than a mediocre record that makes the aforementioned champion look a bit silly. And, if it’s a mediocre album, the average music fan isn’t going to like it anyway.
3. Work with interesting people
Most bands these days have a laptop and a copy of Pro Tools or Logic, which means (in theory) that they have a state of the art recording studio at their disposal. Having this studio on tap often leads these bands to think that they can ‘do it all themselves’ without involving producers, arrangers and engineers (the financial implications of involving such professionals also puts them off). But working with really good people can do wonders for an album, in two ways: firstly, it can seriously improve the quality of the results, and secondly, if the producer / mix engineer etc. constitutes a ‘name’, this can add a dash of kudos to the project and help generate mediate interest around it. Bowie’s choice to work again with the legend that is Tony Visconti certainly didn’t hurt this release; nor did getting Tilda Swinton involved in the video for single The Stars Are Out Tonight; or letting long-time collaborator and guitar hero Earl Slick noodle all over his songs again.
Your band might not be able to get these sort of high-profile dudes on board that easily – but that shouldn’t stop you trying to get talented people to contribute. Even getting a decent mix engineer to do your final bit of knob-twiddling could pluck your record straight out of the amateur division and transform it into something that, sonically at least, could give The Next Day a run for its money.
4. Write / record significantly more than you release
I’ve always believed that whilst music-making involves a lot of artistry, skill, effort and so on, sometimes you just get lucky and a good song seems to pop along out of thin air (Yesterday by McCartney being a case in point – he just woke up one day with it going round his head). Simply put, the more you write, the greater the odds become of this kind of musical serendipity popping up and slapping you round the face (maybe this is because the more practice you get at doing something, generally speaking, the better you get at doing it).
Now, if the good contributors at Wikipedia are to be believed, Bowie recorded 29 tracks for this album – but how many songs made it on? 14: less than half. If the ‘record way more than you need’ way of doing things is good enough for Bowie, I suggest you investigate this approach too. Or think of it as an argument in favour of editing your album heavily: try to make it all killer, no filler; leave out the self-indulgent numbers. This has always been sage (and obvious) advice, but in an era where people can download individual tracks from an album and skip the dodgy stuff, it makes no sense to put duffers on your record.
Can Bowie learn anything from today's bands?
Finally, I think there’s something that Bowie could learn from us er, ‘modern’ musos. Frankly, he needs to improve his website, which is currently more of a brochure than a tool for selling music. There’s three simple things he could do to make it better:
- Capture data in exchange for songs (Dave, think about the HUGE database you could have ended up with simply by giving away a download of Where Are We Now? in exchange for an email address)
- Add a few social media icons – a few Facebook followers can’t hurt
- Add a blog: nothing generates repeat visits to a well-known artist’s website like the occasional blog post which comes straight from the artist’s er, keyboard.
Maybe Bowie and/or his team feel that employing the above sort of tactics would make him less mysterious (the way that he shrouds himself in mystery is of course an enduring part of his appeal); or perhaps he just didn’t hire Prescription PR to build his website. Maybe, for all of today’s emphasis on online marketing, you just don’t need a database or even a website when your single is on Radio 2 every 5 minutes.
Anyway, who am I to tell Bowie how to do things? He has staged a remarkable re-entry into the music industry and showed other musicians – yet again – how it’s done. So much so that I’m now off to plan my own comeback. My fans will be very excited. (That’s you, mum.)