Yes, he failed. A lot.
Especially in his early days.
Did you know the following about David Bowie?
- In the 1960s he released nine singles which failed to chart before Space Oddity made it into the top five in the UK.
- Those singles were with 3 different bands and he sang with several others during this time.
- In 1965 his band, The Lower Third, auditioned for the BBC. They received the following scathing feedback:
“Routine beat group. Strange choice of material. Amateur sounding vocalist who sings wrong notes and out of tune. Group has nothing to recommend it. I don’t think the group will get better with more rehearsal. The singer is a cockney type but not outstanding enough. Singer is devoid of personality.”
- Even after Space Oddity his next six singles didn’t hit the charts. Changes was one of these, despite it later becoming one of his best-known songs.
- Even though Space Oddity was his break through single the album the album initially flopped. His previous and first album, David Bowie, also failed to chart.
- His next two albums after Space Oddity (The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory) sold badly on release.
- He played Glastonbury in 1971 and was given the 5.30am slot. Despite only having a small audience to begin with, gradually people woke up their friends and came and listened. This was a turning point for him in doing gigs and he thanked the audience for listening because he had died a death in so many of his early performances.
Success doesn’t just happen
It usually follows a lot of failure, experimentation, persistence and most of all, grit.
David Bowie was an experimenter and was influenced by everything from Broadway songs to Led Zeppelin. By his own admission it took him years to find his own voice and sound. In the 1960s he also studied and performed mime and dance, often to empty venues. At one point he had a job cleaning kitchens as he needed work that was flexible to allow him to go to auditions if one came up.
What can we learn from this?
Failure is inevitable. We have to work hard at our art. We have to keep developing our unique voice and we do this by continually producing work even when our work isn’t received in the way we would like.
Imagine if David Bowie had given up after his first record had flopped or if, when he received that feedback from the BBC, he decided he had no future in music.
He had belief in himself and kept going. He had belief that he could be a world class act even when events didn’t suggest that.
As artists we must learn from our failures and keep producing.
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