Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

by Stephen McCrossan / BIG

6th February 2013

Stephen McCrossan, BIG account director, looks at David Bowie’s stealth approach to PR for his latest album.

As a long-term fan of the musical genius that is Mr David Bowie I was chuffed to bits when he re-introduced himself to the world in January via the online release of his new single ‘Where Are We Now?’

My first exposure to the song (an excellent world-weary ballad for those of you who haven’t heard it and his first new release for a decade) came when my radio alarm, as it insists on doing, woke me at 6.45am.

The launch of a new single by an artist some people would regard as a musical dinosaur – or ‘heritage act’ as the broadsheets would put it – wouldn’t normally be newsworthy enough to merit three minutes of discussion on Five Live Breakfast.

But the difference this time, of course, was that, according to those supposedly in the know, Bowie had retired from music due to ill-health, lack of inspiration or the fact that he’d become a recluse, speculation that only increased when he turned down an invitation to take part in the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics.

Suggestions that Dave likes being at home because he is unfeasibly rich, generally contented and has a very tidy wife that he enjoys spending time with can, of course, be discounted.

As soon became clear, however, Bowie had just chosen to record his new album over a period of two years and, other than the musicians and producer involved, had chosen not to tell anyone.

As we all now know – even those who have no interest in Bowie and all his works – the result of this stealth approach to PR was that the media in all its guises went absolutely tonto for the next two or three days.

Acres of newspaper space, TV and radio airtime and internet chatter were devoted to Bowie, the newly-released single and general discussion of why the great man remains so culturally significant in an entertainment world dominated by a succession of dullards unearthed by musical Satan Simon Cowell.

In short, he covered the media waterfront, whether that means trending on Twitter or prompting chin-stroking musings by pointy-headed cultural gurus on Radio 4’s Today programme, where the song was played first following its unveiling on Bowie’s own website.

Alongside the generally positive feedback for ‘Where Are We Now?’, the most common response initially from the media and from everyone else was surprise that he’d been able to keep the project a secret until it suited him to announce it.

Considering that he gave precisely no interviews and offered no comment on his motivation or his future plans, the whole exercise was a PR triumph leading to a veritable ocean of positive coverage, increased sales for his back catalogue and a high placing for the single in the iTunes chart.

And, as the media tsunami showed no signs of abating, a few commentators pointed to the fact that the timing of all this PR malarkey might not be entirely unconnected to the fact that a major retrospective of Bowie’s career at London’s V&A kicks off in March. Oh, and his new album comes out that month.

I don’t know if Bowie still bothers to employ a PR adviser but, if he does, then whoever it is deserves a pat on the back and a half day off on Friday. If he does his own PR, then he’s clearly not just a musical genius but he knows his way around the communications industry.

However, the most important aspect of this whole affair is that, in the week the song was released, I managed to get a request for my wife’s birthday played on 6 Music’s Radcliffe & Maconie show.

And the tune they played for her was, of course, ‘Where Are We Now?’

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