David Bowie: the changeling and iconoclast who inspired a generation

As if pioneering glam rock wasn't enough, David Bowie was also the financial innovator behind Bowie Bonds.


David Bowie: a rock musician of rare originality

Just before the end of his life, millions of fans saw David Bowie lying pale and grey in a hospital bed in a staged version of his death for his new album Blackstar. It was the final act of "the merry dance on which Bowie led us throughout his life", says the FT. His death, following an unpublicised attack of cancer, was shocking. But while death always has the final word, "Bowie, true to form, shaped its final utterance".

A rock musician of rare originality and talent and also variously a producer, painter, film actor, art critic and astute multimillionaire Bowie endlessly manipulated his public identity. "My whole professional life is an act," he once said. "Eel-thin, with the face of a starved child and teeth of a pike," his appearance whether as Ziggy Stardust or later as the Thin White Duke ("a combination of Nietzschean superman and degenerate European aristocrat") was often shocking, says The Daily Telegraph. "He looked like a changeling or alien."

Bowie's inquiring mind saw him become a devotee of the occult. And he once suggested in the mid-1970s that Britain needed a fascist leader. But he combined these weirder traits with a warmth, a ready wit, and a reputation for kindness. "Seeing Bowie perform as Ziggy on Top of the Pops was a life-changing experience for a generation of pop listeners in glum 1970s Britain," says The Guardian.

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Born David Jones in 1947 in Brixton, Bowie moved as a child to Bromley. Undistinguished at school, he took up the saxophone and began honing a talent for publicity. Aged 17, he appeared on a BBC current affairs programme as the president of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men. In 1966, he changed his name to Bowie and released a stream of singles all ignored. His breakthrough came with the 1969 Apollo moon landing and the release of Space Oddity.

Bowie was a trailblazer of musical trends and pop fashion throughout the 1970s, says The Guardian. Having pioneered glam rock, he veered into "plastic soul" before moving to Berlin to create innovative electronic music. The cash rolled in, but he blew a lot of it on high-living and drugs. "Once I blew my nose and half my brain fell out."

Bowie learned to be financially astute (see below) the hard way, says The Times. "Rumoured to be almost bankrupt" after much of the profit from his early albums ended up "in the pockets of managers, middlemen and record companies", he wrested control by forming his own company, Isolar, in the mid-1980s, following his dramatic commercial comeback with Let's Dance.

But money was never the issue. Bowie was an iconoclast an artist who expressed himself through music, says The Times. "He was always breaking new ground, as if to stay in the same place was a kind of betrayal of the restless spirit of artistry." The extraordinary thing is that he took the world with him. "You gave your heart to every bedsit room," Bowie wrote in a tribute to Bob Dylan on his Hunky Dory album. The same was true of him.

Financial innovator who securitised his own music

"Just as he blazed a trail through the world of rock'n'roll, David Bowie gave financial markets something they'd never seen before," says Peter Campbell in the FT: "pop bonds". In 1997, he sold $55m of securities backed by current and future revenues of the 25 albums he recorded before 1990. The so-called BowieBonds were bought up by Prudential Insurance and promised a generous 7.9% interest rate over ten years. The mastermind behind them, the US financier David Pullman, went on to carve out a niche securitising the back catalogues of other stars.

"It was a good deal for Bowie," says The New York Times. He "got up-front cash" for a decade's worth of royalties without giving up ownership of his songs. But the decline of music sales due to the internet saw Moody's downgrade Bowie's bonds to just above junk status in 2004. An attempted delve into online banking with BowieBanc also flopped.

Even so, Bowie "produced a financial instrument way ahead of its time", said Alistair Osborne in The Times. A decade later Guy Hands "tried the same caper" with EMI itself, bidding £4.2bn for the business on the belief that its entire back catalogue could be securitised. That deal became "synonymous with 2007's boom-to-bust" making Hands truly "the man who fell to earth".