Billboard JANUARY 23, 2016 - by Robert Levine


Nearly as inventive in the boardroom as onstage - remember "Bowie bonds"? - the singer was savvy, fearless and forward-thinking.

David Bowie learned about the music business the hard way - from a notoriously bad deal with early manager Tony Defries that reportedly gave him half the singer's earnings. After they parted ways, in 1975, Bowie took control of his own career, managing himself with the same adventurous, even visionary, spirit that he brought to his music.

Defries made one decision that helped Bowie: He negotiated Bowie's RCA deal so the two would own his recording copyrights, a provision almost unheard of at the time. In 1989, Bowie licensed most of his albums - 1969's Space Oddity though 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) - to Rykodisc, then an independent label focused on CD reissues. "He wanted to control where and when his music was used," Bill Zysblat, who has been Bowie's business manager since 1982, tells Billboard. "It was never about money - it was always about doing the newest thing, doing the coolest thing."

In 1990, for his Sound+Vision Tour, Bowie became one of the first artists to commit to having one promoter handle an entire tour. All of Bowie's tours since have been promoted by Arthur Fogel, now chairman of Live Nation's global touring division. "Having one person with a global view, compared to individual promoters only worried about their local markets, is invaluable," Bowie told Billboard in 2005.

After the Rykodisc deal ran its course, Bowie licensed his albums to EMI Music for a reported advance of $30,000,000. As part of the same 1997 deal, Bowie also acquired Defries' share of his recordings and issued $55,000,000 in bonds backed by royalties from album sales and publishing rights, which the singer also owned. (The rights to all of his albums except for the last four are now licensed to Warner Music.)

"He understood the concept in a split second," says David Pullman, who put together the bond deal, among the first to securitise copyright royalties. "He never complained, and he wasn't afraid to fail." All of the bonds were purchased by the Prudential Insurance Company of America and paid off in 2007. Around that time, Bowie became fascinated by technology. In late 1996, he became one of the first major artists to release a song online when he made three versions of the single Telling Lies available on his official website. The following year, he "cybercast" a Boston Orpheum concert.

Bowie also launched several online ventures. In 1998, with the company UltraStar, he started the dial-up online service provider BowieNet, which offered subscribers their own @bowienet email address. Although UltraStar didn't last as an Internet service provider, the company became an online fanclub business that went on to work with The Rolling Stones and Madonna. In 2006, Live Nation bought it.

"David was very involved in the direction of UltraStar - he attended meetings and got involved in artistic decisions," says Ron Roy, a partner in the venture. "Once exposed to the power of direct online communications between artists and fans, David realised that music was about to change forever." Bowie soon began to talk about a time when artists would no longer need labels. "I don't even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years because I don't think it's going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way," he told The New York Times in 2002. "I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in ten years, and authorship and intellectual property [are] in for such a bashing." Around that time, he started his own label, Iso, which was distributed through Sony Music.

"He saw how the digital age would affect copyrights and record companies," says Zysblat. "The world doesn't know how brilliant he was - not only about music but about history and technology."