The Ziggy Stardust Guide to Social Media Superstardom

image of ziggy stardust

Some are born famous, some achieve fame easily, and some work out how to make fame happen.

David Bowie’s career hit lightspeed when he became Ziggy Stardust, but it was anything but a fluke or an overnight success.

In the seventies, Ziggy was futuristic. We are now living in the future — where news guys tell us earth may well be dying, and our brains hurt like warehouses from information overload.

Back then, fame was for the chosen few. Now, it’s part of the job if you want to leverage the internet to find an audience for your art, subscribers for your blog or customers for your business.

Here are 7 tips to help you shine, based on the glittering example of Bowie’s space-age alter-ego.

1. Some rock stars are made, not born

Ziggy wasn’t Bowie’s first attempt at stardom. It wasn’t even his sixth.

Before he hit the big time, David Bowie had been knocking on fame’s door for a decade, as sax player and then singer with a succession of bands. At one stage he even gave up music in frustration and joined Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe.

We know him as a legendary singer-songwriter-performer. But to begin with, neither his singing nor stage presence were particularly compelling. And he was anything but a natural songwriter:

I didnโ€™t know how to write a song, I wasnโ€™t particularly good at it. I forced myself to be a good songwriter, and I became a good songwriter. But I had no natural talents whatsoever. I made a job of work at getting good.

~ Bowie interviewed by Paul Du Noyer for MOJO

Takeaway: If you’re born with a fully-formed, effortless talent, good for you. But if not, don’t despair — apply yourself with passion, ingenuity and persistence and you may be surprised what you can achieve.

2. Be worldly and otherworldly

There’s a rich vein of fantasy running through Bowie’s early work, from the childhood whimsy of his first album, through the wide-eyed sci-fi of Space Oddity, the phantasmagoria of The Man Who Sold the World and the kookiness of Hunky Dory, to the alien persona of Ziggy himself.

Listen to his music, he sounds like a star-gazer.

But listen to those who knew and worked with the young Bowie, and recurring themes are his single-minded focus, ambition, work ethic, and an ability to turn on the charm for the right people at the right time.

Neither of these sides to his character would have been enough on its own. There are plenty of starry-eyed daydreamers who never get their work in front of an audience. And ambition is boring without the vision and talent to back it up.

It was Bowie’s ability to switch between the different facets of his character — characteristic of many outstanding creators — that made him more creative, productive, and successful than either the daydreamers or wannabe rock stars.

Takeaway: Don’t put yourself in a box. If you’re an ‘artistic’ type, don’t let it stop you learning professional skills — such as networking, marketing and presenting — that could help you realise your creative ambitions. And if you’re good at the business side of things but have never seen yourself as ‘creative’, give yourself permission to explore your weird side (I know you have one). ๐Ÿ˜‰

3. There’s more than one real you

Before he was Ziggy, he was Major Tom, David Bowie, Davie Jones, and originally David Jones.

Soon after Ziggy, he became Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, and The Thin White Duke in quick succession.

In hindsight, the transformations of the ‘chameleon of rock’ look brilliantly creative. But at the time he was taking a big risk. Authenticity was desperately important in late sixtes/early seventies rock (which was a bit of a challenge for white kids from Britain trying to follow in the footsteps of blues legends from the Mississippi Delta).

Bob Dylan spoke for many when he told Bowie bluntly at a party: “Glam rock isn’t real music.”

But authenticity isn’t about expressing a single “real you” — as if such a thing existed. You’re much more interesting than that. You have many different facets to your personality — each of which is a potential character with his or her own story to tell.

Bowie realised the artistic potential of authentic storytelling — focusing on one aspect of your personality (or company, or brand) that has particular appeal to your audience, and projecting it to them in vivid words, visuals and/or sounds.

Takeaway: Who can you be now? Is there a hidden facet of your character, company, or brand that you can usefully place center-stage? And is there another one that should be gracefully retired?

4. Talent borrows, genius steals

Ziggy was a magpie creation, assembled from rock’n’roll, science fiction, music hall, mime, kabuki, and multi-coloured pro-wrestling boots.

His next album, Aladdin Sane, incorporated Jazz piano, before he moved onto American funk and soul, and later the electronica of German ‘krautrock.’

Bob Dylan was missing the point when he said Bowie’s music wasn’t the “real” thing, as were those who looked down their noses at his “plastic soul.” Bowie himself seemed to deliberately court such criticism:

The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from. I do think my plagiarism is effective.

~ Bowie interviewed by Cameron Crowe, Playboy September 1976

What made Ziggy (and his other collage works) interesting wasn’t where the parts came from, but what he made of them — the original, flamboyant, creative twist he gave to his source materials, that made them unforgettably his.

Takeaway: Who are your heroes? What do you admire in them? What if you “stole” from them by taking some of their core principles (not their finished works!) and applied them to your own work. Don’t worry about being original — if you do it wholeheartedly, your originality will shine through, probably in ways you don’t realise.

5. Work with the best

Mick Ronson, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury, Peter Frampton, Nile Rodgers, Brian Eno, and Bing Crosby — these are just some of the big names Bowie has shared a stage or recording studio with over the years.

Even when working with lesser-known musicians, he often gave them extraordinary freedom to express themselves in the studio, so that many of the albums with the name “David Bowie” on the sleeve incorporate the creative input of disparate talents.

Apart from improving the finished product, this kind of creative collaboration is a sign of confidence. Either Bowie wasn’t afraid of being upstaged, or he surrounded himself with stellar talent to keep himself on his toes.

Takeaway: Look at roles that need filling in your next project. Who would be the best — the very best — people you could think of to fill them? How could you persuade them to get on board?

6. Leave them wanting more

Many people (including his backing band) were amazed when Bowie announced from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon “this is the last show that we’ll ever do.” It looked like career suicide, not just the rock’n’roll variety.

But confident creators don’t worry where their next big idea will come from. They know there’s plenty more where the last one came from. And great showmen know when to leave the stage — with the audience clamoring for more.

Takeaway: Look at your biggest success to date. Does it still excite you, or is the magic starting to wane? Supposing you killed it off and started something new — where would you begin?

7. Always read the small print

Apart from his musical collaborators, Bowie’s drive for success was spearheaded by the man he believed was his business partner, Tony DeFries.

I say “believed” because the contract between the two men actually described Bowie as an “employee,” giving DeFries’ company, MainMan, ownership of his record masters and a percentage of royalties until 1982. Bowie was blissfully unaware of these conditions for several years, having either not read the contract or not grasped its implications.

When the situation was explained to him, he was horrified to discover that he did not in fact own 50% of MainMan, nor even the rights to his own music. Several years of legal wrangling ensued, and Bowie paid dearly for his naivety.

Later he would learn enough about the business side of things to effectively manage himself, negotiating his own signing to EMI in 1983 for a groundbreaking $17 million advance. Later still, he issued innovative “Bowie Bonds,” earning him $55 million in securities against his future royalties — a hefty chunk of which was used to buy back his music rights from DeFries.

Takeaway: Contracts and spreadsheets aren’t the most inspiring things in the world. But ignore them and you could end up living with terms that crush your creativity. Make it your business to understand your business — so you can make smart decisions that bring you the rewards you deserve.

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Reader Comments (52)

  1. says

    Even though I have not heard David Bowie much I enjoyed this article for its take away. Really insightful.

    I would add further to the Talent borrows, genius steals point. That start with imitating the masters. Copy them so well that it becomes second nature. Then go ahead improve the masters. One day someone else will copy you, and that day you become a master yourself.

  2. says

    I could not help but smile as I read this Mark, “Talent Borrows and Genius Steals” quite controversial but very thought provoking indeed. Actually the wisest man who ever lived said that they is nothing new under the sun, I love the concept of stealing the core principles of the people I do admire, am actually doing it. Someone I admire wrote me and said the best writers are the best thieves, how truer can this get?

  3. says

    What a creative case study, Mark. I don’t know David Bowie well but I am crazy in love with Elton John and have been for years. His stardom, his fame, and his ability to rise and keep rising and his brilliance with the piano and the music just keep mesmerizing me. One day, I hope to pick up his biography and get even closer to him, although I always see him as a unique exception, a product of an age that only happens to very few …. but when I read Celine Dion’s autobiography – another woman I adore – I learned SO much about her amazing self-discipline …. So, thank you for sharing a star’s journey to the top and relating it to our lives. Enjoyed this.

  4. says

    I would add this about Bowie. When I started out in the recording world I was called a general assistant (or tea boy as they say in U.K.) at Right Track Recording in NYC. Many great artists were coming through the studio at this time (early Eighties) Some of the ones who were just getting their shot had a lot of attitude and treated the studio staff like the help. Bowie came through to have a listening party and came out to ask for a few extra chairs. He was the epitome of the English gentleman. I had just seen him do the Serious Moonlight tour at Madison Square Garden. Maybe he knew implicitly that you never know who someone you meet in a given role may become one day and that you may want to stay in good standing with them by treating them with respect. I took this with me through life.

    And to the creative process and borrowing or stealing from greatness, I think fim maker, James Jarmusch put it best:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And donโ€™t bother concealing your thievery โ€” celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: โ€œItโ€™s not where you take things from โ€” itโ€™s where you take them to.โ€

    Great article!

  5. says

    I’ve always found #1 to be true about writing. Yes, some people are born with an innate ability to write and to convey thoughts effectively through the written word, but for most of us, it’s something we can always endeavor to do better.

    I don’t know that much about Bowie, but I do appreciate the insight here. A lot of what you shared is very applicable to the process of building a following and fame online.

  6. says

    “But authenticity isnโ€™t about expressing a single โ€œreal youโ€ โ€” as if such a thing existed. Youโ€™re much more interesting than that.”

    I think too many of us forget that. We try to be so “real” that it comes off as bland, or worse, as faked. You shouldn’t have to feel like you are trying to be you; you are and that’s enough.

  7. Jayney says

    What an outstanding article! I am a huge Bowie fan and read much here that I did not know about. I completely love they way that you have looked at this exceptional man’s career and ideas and created lessons for your readers. Marvelous work! Thank you so much x

  8. says

    As a music critic and visual artist who works in the Internet marketing world, I found this article quite exciting. Good points fer shure from the Leonardo Davinci of Rock….wait, that was probably Brian Eno. How’s about Bowie as the Michelangelo of Rock? Yes indeed, wam bam thank you ma’am. I really like Mr.McGuinness’s second point about creatives tapping into business and organization and vice versa – good stuff, man.

  9. says

    I had no idea that David Bowie spent 10 years trying to crack it before he finally did. I far prefer the stories of persistence and perseverance to the ones of overnight fame and fortune.

    As a solo-preneur, I try to remind myself daily to roll up my sleeves, pound the pavement, churn out my best material, leverage my connections – and go through the steps that I know to be right and good and productive – to realize my dreams. It will happen….

  10. MSM says

    Mark – this was a great article! Very insightful and inspiring.

    But why, oh why, can’t I e-mail it? So frustrating to only have FB, Twitter and Google Plus as options. If I want to send it to my business account, or someone who isn’t on Facebook all of the time, I can’t.

      • MSM says

        No cutting and pasting! haha :) Thanks for looking into something quicker. I’m pretty happy with AddThis as a social sharing tool.

  11. says

    This is amazing ๐Ÿ˜‰ I love how you connected being passionate about music & Mr David Bowie with creating the article about various tips and tricks… Instead of being bored from reading another ‘you-can-do-it-you’re-awesome-just-remember-to-blahblahblah’ I want to read more such articles! (Especially those connected with music ๐Ÿ˜‰ Great job!

  12. says

    I fully agree with Bowie. Talents borrow and genius steals. The wonderful strategy “Use light ammunition first and then the cannon” yields to victory. I being beginner in the field will love to follow these guidelines.
    Haider Jafari

    I will appreciate if someone guide me to the websites looking for the copy bloggers.

  13. says


    Very interesting read. Like many before me, I was not a Bowie fan. But I can respect him for his creativeness and gumption.

    As a blogger and aspiring online marketer I see all the points well laid out above except for #3. How do you brand yourself and/or you company a certain way to then change it all up over and over? Wouldn’t this confuse clients and readers?
    Or are you saying to take a portion of personality each time and gear it to different aspect of business or for different situations?
    Or am I really off?


    • says

      Good question!

      Let’s stick with Bowie for a moment. It’s very telling that his fans were happy for him to switch between different characters and identities during the seventies, but a lot of them were disappointed when he stopped doing this and reverted to ‘David Bowie’ in a suit in the eighties. So you could say his brand was built on (ahem) ch-ch-changes.

      For an example of a company doing this – I’m on the editorial board of the magazine Magma Poetry, which has a different editor for every issue. So each issue has a different colour and cover, and showcases a different taste in poetry. But this ‘difference’ is a key part of Magma’s brand.

      An online example might be Benny Lewis of – every 3 months he learns a new language, which gives a different flavour to his online presence as he absorbs and writes about his current language and related country/culture.

      So that’s one way of doing it, where change is integral to the brand. Another way would be to refresh or redefine your identity as your company evolves. Copyblogger has just undergone a major overhaul of the site, which is the latest of several as the site evolved from Brian’s blog into the InterGalactic Empire – ahem, Copyblogger Media. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Still another option is the one I think you’re suggesting – having several micro-brands under the umbrella of your overall brand. So to take Copyblogger Media again, there’s itself, plus Scribe, Premise, StudioPress, Third Tribe, Teaching Sells – each of which has its own identity and culture, but is also aligned with the overall Copyblogger ethos.

      Or to use personal example, in addition to my two business blogs, I have a poetry site with a completely different look and feel, and a completely different audience. It represents aspect of what I do, and by having it separate to my other sites, it means each one has a much more distinctive identity than if I tried to lump them all together or sacrifice one in favour of the other.

      Make sense?

  14. says

    Just finished reading an article about Steve Jobs by Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker, talking exactly about the same concept of stealing and then tweaking to make it fit your idea and vision โ€“ much the same as described here about Bowie (and others). It’s a concept that makes sense, and I’ve certainly read often that all the great painting masters seriously copied to learn how others worked and to perfect their own style.

    I’m a huge David Bowie fan and understood quite a bit about his early struggles and career transformations โ€“ it’s all a key reason as to why he is so loved as a performer. You’ve noted a number of strong and clear points by using Bowie as an example regarding social media and networking strategies โ€“ something I’m in need of! Thanks for the post Mark.

    • says

      Yes, originality is a relatively modern aspiration. Back in the Middle Ages, the idea was simply to do the best job possible – which, everyone knew, meant learning from the masters. Originality was a side-effect.

  15. says

    Hi Mark,
    thanks so much for this post. I am working on my internet startup which revolves around living out an aspect of my personality. I have just adopted a portion of your post as my mantra, possibly even my mission statement (not to be published of course, for my eyes only).

    You wrote, “realized the artistic potential of authentic storytelling โ€” focusing on one aspect of your personality (or company, or brand) that has particular appeal to your audience, and projecting it to them in vivid words, visuals and/or sounds.” which I have translated into: “I realize the artistic potential of authentic storytelling โ€” I focus on one aspect of my personality (or company, or brand) that has particular appeal to my audience, and project it to them in vivid words, visuals and/or sounds.”

    I love changes and evolutions in personalities-I think that is why Madonna has such staying power. I am constantly reinventing myself. I love the idea that what I am going to be doing in my next venture will allow me to express all the different aspects of myself. As I evolve and express this evolution “in vivid words, visuals, and/or sounds”, possibilties become inevitabilities-they are no longer just dreams. Working from the point of view of storytelling makes complete sense to me-you have given me another missing piece to my puzzle.

    I too have learned the hard way in my history of entrepreneurship. I will not have to learn these lessons twice.

    Gratefully yours,


  16. Chris Bryer says

    I know David Bowie very well. Have loved him since the 70’s and still consider him one of the musical greats of this time or any, for that matter. I love how you were able to weave Bowie’s career and history into a case for how to market online. Nice bit of writing!

  17. says

    Love Bowie and love this article! :)

    I think there’s a certain nerdy subset of the “creative” personality type that tends to get obsessed with the need to be ORIGINAL.

    I’m one of them. Cookie-cutter formulas are the devil. Redundancy drives me nuts. I try my damnedest to avoid repeating myself, like ever. So much so, that during one songwriting phase, I wrote lyrics that had no chorus. If someone had pointed out that I still had a repeating musical section, I probably would’ve nixed it as well.

    Realizing how much this obsession had been holding me back, I had to learn that there are other ways to be creative where copying is actually encouraged. Whereas I’d always looked down on “crafters” who enjoyed following recipes and instructions, I discovered that I did really enjoy reverse engineering and copying audio equipment… and eventually gave into the joy of just photocopying the circuit boards and reprinting them for my own use. So much easier!

    But still, as I went along experimenting with different ways of expressing myself, I found it hard to escape the inner judgment of imaginary and real-life friends harshly criticizing me for “stealing” and trying to “rip off” other artists. Were my friends REALLY so judgmental? Well, in some cases, yes! But in most cases, it was just my imagination, fueling a constant anxiety that someone would notice that some little detail was actually a little trick I pulled from another artist I found on the internet… And how FURIOUS they would be!

    Effin’ nerds. Can’t go anywhere without running into a hundred of them and their snarky comments. Unless I turned off the internet, but why would I do that?

    Suppose I need to get me some therapy. Gonna go copy some sh!t and enjoy it this time.

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