David Bowie passed away on Sunday. To say he was an innovative guy - would be the largest of understatements. He created, imbued and embodied multiple music personas - reinventing himself over and over again. He parlayed his multiplicative rock music success into fashion icon status - and numerous Hollywood and Broadway gigs.
All of which barely touches on his inventive approach to the business of being David Bowie. He was an avant-garde entrepreneur - who saw around the curve of the Earth just a little bit further than most people. He created out of whole cloth ways to make being David Bowie even more highly lucrative - and allow others to share in the earnings. And he intuitively understood how technological advances would help - and hurt - the business model of music and all things intellectual property.
Did you want to invest in…all things David Bowie music? Bowie made that not only possible - but profitable. And in the process lock-down-protected his music rights.
Bowie and his financial team dreamed up a revolutionary way to make millions from his extensive song catalog in the 1990s - and to secure the rights to all of his intellectual property in the process.
The rocker put up his entire catalog of 25 albums and 287 songs recorded before 1990 as collateral for $55 million in “Bowie Bonds” that were bought by the Prudential Insurance Company of America in 1997.
He forfeited 10 years worth of royalties from his records (including “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and “Let’s Dance”) to generate the cash flow that secured the Bowie Bonds’ 7.9% interest payments — a 1.6% better return than U.S. Treasury notes at that time.
Bowie’s banker David Pullman has claimed this marked the first time a musician sold intellectual property rights through a bond. The move inspired other cash-poor artists such as James Brown, Ashford & Simpson, Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers to secure their own musical catalogs.
“Genius” is a descriptive far too frequently thrown around. I think true genius is creation - a successful way of thinking about or doing things never before conceived. Bowie Bonds were…genius.
And it was creative genius that wouldn’t have been possible - without a way for Bowie the Creator to protect his Creations - his intellectual property, his songs.
There are those who say intellectual property isn’t the same as physical property - and doesn’t deserve physical property’s legal protections. Bowie, I’m quite sure, would have laughed at such utter foolishness. While waving his well-paying Bowie Bonds in their faces.
Bowie unleashed his intellectual-property-protection-reliant Bonds in 1997. In 2002, he correctly predicted how technological advances would do harm to things like Bowie Bonds - and all things intellectual property.
“The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.
''Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.”
Bowie was absolutely right - intellectual property is currently suffering a terrible bashing. At the hands of thieves - whose thievery is made exponentially easier by the technological advances of which Bowie was thinking. But just because it’s now nigh effortless to steal - doesn’t mean it isn't stealing.
Bowie was able to create and innovate - music, movies, Bowie Bonds,… - because he was able to protect his intellectual property. So here’s hoping he was wrong in one respect: That the ability to do what he did with intellectual property isn’t now as he predicted - a dead-letter-relic of a bygone era.
If we want to allow for and foster the next David Bowies (if that’s even possible for which to hope), we’d better do our very best to ensure that the things they create - they can protect from technological banditry.
The technologies will change - the principles absolutely should not.