How David Bowie liberated the talents of his musicians.
A borrowed copy of Aladdin Sane got me hooked on Bowie. In 1983 I was at Milton Keynes Bowl to witness the Serious Moonlight tour. It’s the only time in my life my breath has been taken away by the appearance of one of my heroes.
He is considered one of the most influential rock artists of all time and has had multiple worldwide platinum albums and generated a net worth of $230 million.
This is how he did it.
1. Choose the Cast
“His genius was almost like a great casting director. He knew who to pick to work with, and he knew if he got out of the way and let them do their thing, he’d get the most out of them.” Mike Garson, Keyboardist.
2. Communicate the Vision
“He always had a vision, but he never micromanaged,” MG. Bowie would often tell a story about each song to set the boundaries and even encourage a new style by asking the musicians to play a combination of styles such as “Imagine baroque mixed with trip hop".
3. Provide Context
"David's modus operandi would be to throw a bunch of chord changes and a bunch of ideas in a very loose structure at the band” Tony Visconti, Producer. This would give the band something to immediately work on and great riffs often came from this method, for instance Robert Fripp’s high wailing guitar parts on Heroes.
4. Liberate the Experts
"He wanted you to behave like an equal, that’s an incredibly generous way of working with someone, to make them feel that they’re wanted for what they bring to the table.” Guitarist, Gerry Leonard
As well as empowering the band to come up with the groove and licks, Bowie was expert at bringing out people’s truth and individual talents. For instance after a couple of takes he encouraged a keyboardist to ditch the blues solo and play some of the wild jazz David had heard him play in the clubs in New York. The keyboardist asked if he was sure that was what he wanted because that’s exactly why he wasn’t working when he met him!
Read how another famous creative leader – Film Director Martin Scorsese – brings out the best in his actors here
5. Hydrate the seeds
“The first time we worked together he said, ‘Maybe you could build German gothic cathedral architecture out of guitar’. “Other times it was, ‘This should be like Jackson Pollock,’ or ‘This should be like Salvador Dali, but with melting guitars instead of melting clocks. - Reeves Gabrels, Guitarist
This quote clearly demonstrates Bowie’s ability to use imagery as a tool to spark imaginative contributions from his team.
6. Melt Fear
“The lack of fear that he showed, that’s something that went through his whole musical life,” Ken Scott, Producer. Bowie was never afraid to change his persona which strongly modeled courage. This encouraged his musicians to take risks as well that led to some extraordinary music.
7. Leave a Legacy
“We had our glory years. It’s something I look back on with such fond memories. The way David trusted me to help him achieve his dream is just astounding.”KS
“I called him the Picasso of Rock and Roll" Nile Rodgers
“David had a profound effect on my life, and I can see that now. He was a master and I was an apprentice and I learned a lot from him.” GL
Bowie was so effective at leading his musicians that they contributed magnificently to his achievements and were profoundly grateful for the experience.