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David Bowie

5 ways that musicians can be inspired by the life and times of David Bowie

David Bowie tributes

David Bowie tributes

by Chris Singleton

The sad and unexpected passing of David Bowie has led to a huge number of tributes to the artist being made by the great, good and downright odd (Lewis Hamilton and David Cameron were big fans, apparently).

And rightly so: Bowie was one of those very few artists who managed to not only entertain us with music but fundamentally transformed the very nature of it. He was a member of an elite club of artists – comprising, probably, Elvis, Lennon and McCartney and Dylan – who wrote the script for the evolution of rock and roll.

It is no surprise that so many musicians – myself included – are profoundly influenced by him and his work; and for many of us in the business of writing songs, Bowie’s death this week has been felt particularly keenly. We are so used to incorporating him and his work into that very introspective activity of songwriting that his death robs us not only of a great rock star but something enormously personal too. A touchstone relied on or referred to during the creation of songs is gone; for many musicians, it feels as though they have not lost an influence but a dear friend or uncle.

The good news of course is that Bowie leaves us with so much to celebrate and enjoy; so this post I thought I’d share a few ways in which musicians be inspired to greatness by the Thin White Duke.

1. Persevere

Given his legendary status, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time Bowie was just a mere mortal and, what’s more, a struggling, unsuccessful musician (like the majority of us!).  He spent much of the 60s going nowhere with a variety of different acts – The Konrads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Riot Boys – before finally attaining success in the 70s. A huge part of his success was down to bloody-mindedness and a refusal to give up.

2. Be different

Thanks in no small part to Bowie himself, it’s next to impossible to be shocking in rock and roll any more. But it is still possible to be different – and more interesting than the average act. Whether it’s by putting on a quirky stage show, doing a band photoshoot that doesn’t involve a brick wall as a backdrop or wearing outrageous outfits for media appearances, there are still a lot of ways to differentiate your act from the average indie band or singer-songwriter. Theatricality and image were key to Bowie’s success – experiment a bit with both.

3. Appeal to head and heart

For me, all great music (indeed art) appeals to both the intellect and emotion; and Bowie was a master at getting his tracks to work on your head and heart simultaneously.

Think of ‘Starman’ as an example: it’s essentially a hifalutin’ concept-album / art-rock song about a androgynous alien, but despite these foundations, its pulls enormously on the heartstrings. This is because it’s not only a song about the an androgynous alien but a track with a wonderfully melodic chorus that cannot fail to lift the spirits (this may have something to do with the fact that said wonderful chorus has more than a little resemblance to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, but we’ll ignore that for now).

Same goes for another hugely popular Bowie track, ‘Heroes’ – a masterclass in experimental production techniques involving, amongst other things, pitched feedback, ‘multi-latch gating’ and low frequency drones…which somehow goes on to be a song that people walk routinely down the aisle to. Next time you find yourself being too cheesy or too clever in studio…well, try to be both.

4. Work with great people

It’s particularly tempting, in this day and age of ‘I’ve got a 128 track studio in my bedroom’ to try to do everything yourself.

Don’t.

Key to Bowie’s success was his respect for other musicians and producers – would Bowie’s music been remotely as good without the contribution of the likes of Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Nile Rodgers, Rick Wakeman or Ken Scott (to name just a few great people he worked with)?

5. Appreciate silence

The age of social media brings with it the opportunity for musicians to form direct connections and conversations with listeners. In many ways this is a good thing, but it also brings with it the potential for too much communication, to the point where there is no mystery about a musician left, and no distance between artist and fan.

Enigma and silence are powerful things and they can be used in an extremely impactful way, as Bowie demonstrated with the surprise release of ‘The Next Day’ in 2013. He used silence again to maximum effect with the timing of his last release, ‘Black Star’ which became far more potent/significant because it was issued immediately before a death that nobody was expecting.

As Visconti put it, Bowie’s passing was, in its own right, a ‘work of art’ – and this was all down to how Bowie used silence. It is just very sad that silence from Ziggy, Aladdin, The Thin White Duke and David Jones himself is now a permanent fixture.

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Four things today's bands can learn from David Bowie's comeback

Some David Bowie outfits

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 contemporary artists can learn from it.

1. Silence is golden

In this instant-communications era of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn and so on, 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.

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 a bit of enigma (read silence) can do your band the power of good, by adding an air of mystique to proceedings and generating intrigue amongst fans and the media.

The key thing for bands to remember is to use their 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 (largely Instagram-food-snapping types 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 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.

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Inbound marketing and what it means for musicians

Inbound marketing - a visual representation

Have you heard of ‘inbound marketing?’ A lot of my non-music clients are getting quite obsessed with it. And rightly so, as when employed correctly it is a powerful way of attracting and retaining new customers. ‘What the feck is inbound marketing then, and can it make me a pop star?’ I hear you mutter. All right then, I shall elaborate.

Inbound marketing typically revolves around the internet, and involves three key steps:

  1. Getting found (i.e., driving traffic to your site)
  2. Converting (capturing data and generating sales)
  3. Analysing (looking at site stats and sales data to improve steps one and two).

Although I think that inbound marketing probably works better for traditional businesses than musicians, there are still some big advantages to employing it as a tactic in the battle for rock success. So let’s break down the above three steps from a musician’s point of view.

1. Getting found

Getting found boils down to what content is on your site, how it is presented from a search engine optimisation point of view, and how easy it is for readers to share it. Interesting content is key here – and by ‘interesting’ I don’t just mean your music. Yes, it is good to have a wide range of your tracks available on your site, in a variety of audio and video formats; and ideally you should present your visitors with images and text related to your music too (for example, free downloads of posters and lyrics). But if we are honest about it, only people who already know about you will be searching for you – and to make new fans, you obviously need to start attracting people to your site who have never heard of you. The key to this is to create content which is not related to you, but of interest to an audience who might like your music.

Say your music is reminiscent of David Bowie’s and your latest album is called something like ‘Ciggie Sawdust’. Obviously therefore, you are most likely to sell your music to Bowie fans. But if you make your site exclusively about you and your music, you are unlikely to attract your target audience via search engines (as there would be little or no Bowie keywords on it). But if, for example, you were to write a blog post about what Bowie means to you, and discuss various aspects of his career in depth…well, from a Bowie fan’s point of view you are now of interest; and when they search for Bowie and Bowie-related keywords, you (and more importantly your music) have a greater chance of being discovered. Even changing your site title can have an impact – instead of calling your site ‘Official website of Joe Bloggs’ it is much better from a search perspective to use a title like ‘Joe Bloggs – camp indie rock music influenced by early 70s era David Bowie when he wore a lot of tights’. (For more information on search engine optimisation for musicians, and why site titles in particular are important, I’d check out our Prescription article on SEO for musicians.) The point is that is that there are millions of searches going on every second and by creating strong, keyword-rich articles about stuff other than your good self on your site - be they to do with art, politics, music or underwear - you can grab a share of those searches. (A key part of this really is having a blog – you can read our musician’s guide to blogging here.)

It is also worth remembering that anything you post on your site should be very easy to share - if your site or blog doesn’t have sharing buttons, you really are missing a trick. Most blogs have these by default but if you are stuck, you can install Addthis on your site very easily. Regardless of how your sharing functionality is set up, it must be there – your content will travel much further if readers can just click a sharing icon and whack your content up on Facebook or Twitter easily. This generates more traffic back to the site, which is all part of the ‘getting found’ process.

2. Converting

Now that your Bowie fan is on your site, reading your lovely Bowie-related article, what should happen next? Well, you should do a bit of converting. There are two main sorts of conversions – from site visitor to lead, or from site visitor to sale.

A site visitor becomes a lead when they have handed over their email address – or, in this era of social media madness, has followed you on Facebook or Twitter. Personally, I think that having a fan’s email address is still the best outcome, as you are in 100% charge of the communication process after that – i.e., you can email a fan whenever you want and are not dependent on a social network’s algorithm or that person being logged into Twitter / Facebook at a particular time for your message to be seen; you can also use the email address to invite somebody to follow you on social media anyway. Regardless of how you ask a visitor to your site to subscribe to communications though, you generally need to offer him or her an incentive in exchange for doing so. This could be a free track; a free ticket to a gig; or the promise of more interesting, Bowie-related articles. The key thing is to make the proposition overt and attractive. Spell out what you are offering and make it extremely easy for visitors to avail of the offer (i.e., use a  prominent data capture form on every page of your site; have clear calls to actions; visible social media buttons and so on. If using Facebook, try to employ a ‘locked content’ approach where fans have to like a page in exchange for content – to see an example of this in action, you might like to check out Chris Helme’s Facebook page, which we worked on recently to add 'download in exchange for a like' functionality).

Converting a site visitor to a sale immediately is extraordinarily difficult, particularly for musicians (as music is practically free now in this Spotify-era and people are even more reluctant than ever before to buy it!). It can happen though, and to 'give sales a chance' you need to ensure that your site is set up so that buying music is a very straightforward process – again, clear calls to action can help, as can prominent buttons, exclusive versions of products (i.e., signed CDs and merchandise) and a wide range of purchasing options (Paypal, iTunes etc.). But realistically most sales are going to come after somebody has been converted to a lead. The idea is that once the site visitor has become a lead, they receive a series of tasteful and useful email and social media communications from you, engage with you, and finally decide to part with cash.

3. Analysing

The final part of the process, the analysing bit, involves looking at what you are doing in the ‘getting found’ and ‘converting’ parts of the process, and continuously trying to improve them. In terms of analysing the ‘getting found’ aspect, you can use Google Analytics to look at what blog posts on your site are particularly popular – and create more of that kind of content; you can also use it to analyse the kind of searches that are delivering the most traffic to your site (or not) and optimise your site accordingly. You should also look at what sort of content from your site is being shared on social networks - tools like Addthis provide a lot of data on this.

As for analysing how you are capturing data, you can experiment with various propositions and see what works best. Is a download of a track a more attractive proposition than a stream? Does moving the mailing list form from the left-hand side of your website to the right-hand side generate more subscriptions? Does one type of social media icon work better than others in generating more follows? Does prioritising iTunes over Paypal mean more dosh? If you really want to go to the nth level, you could consider running some surveys via your email database about what made your site visitors take the plunge and subscribe to your mailing list – although I’m not sure how rock and roll that is.

Finally, since we’re talking inbound marketing, you could also use Hubspot’s free marketing grader tool. Hubspot coined the phrase 'inbound marketing' in the first place, and their tool looks at your site and makes simple recommendations as to how you can make it better from an inbound marketing perspective (it will score you on SEO issues, blogging frequency, social media activity and more, and then make a series of recommendations as to how you can improve things).

Whatever tools and methodology you use, the ultimate aim of the analysis is to make constant improvements to the ‘getting found’ and ‘converting’ parts of the inbound marketing process – to maximise the chances of somebody discovering your site and establishing an online relationship with you (ooh er, missus)...and eventually buying some music, gig tickets or a crappy t-shirt from you.

But…there’s a catch

Ok, so that is all great in theory isn’t it? And actually, for most of the business clients I work with when not wearing a Prescription hat, it works pretty well in practice too. There is a problem though: inbound marketing and the content creation that comes with it takes up a lot of your time – time that you could be using to write and record great music in the first place. Writing good blog posts can take ages; plodding through Google Analytics to work out if a blog post is attracting significant amount of traffic can also take a long time. But nothing in the music business is quick or easy, and as most of the music industry seems to be migrating online these days, I think it does make sense to devote some effort to understanding – and employing – this new-fangled inbound marketing stuff. It's a question of balance - making sure you are creating strong content for your site without it preventing you working on your music.

And finally...

Finally we'd just like to point out that if you're reading this Prescription article, our inbound marketing strategy is clearly working. Now may we suggest that you hire us to promote your music.

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