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Marketing David Bowie

Marketing David Bowie — It’s been difficult to get people to understand the artist’s latest works

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David Bowie will always live in our collective memories. But how about in real life? It’s been nearly 20 years since Ziggy Stardust tripped the light fantastic. Is today’s Bowie a star — or a has-been?

Both, really. Live, he can still be a monster; as recently as 1987 he demonstrated that he remains a part of that extremely select group of rock & roll royalty who can make playing stadiums pay — to the tune of $1 million per show. His 1990 greatest-hits tour didn’t sell out across the country, but it still grossed nearly $20 million.

But in the rough-and-tumble world of record sales, Bowie has been playing hooky from the best-seller charts for years. CD catalog sales of his most noted records — including Ziggy Stardust — are healthy, but his last platinum albums, Let’s Dance and Tonight, were released in 1983 and 1984. As his sales faltered, relations with his record company, EMI America, grew distant. The first album from his Tin Machine band sold little more than 200,000 copies, and retailers returned at least that many unsold records. ”It didn’t seem that his output, qualitywise, had lived up to his legend or his ability,” says EMI senior VP for marketing Jim Cawley, ”and actual sales seemed to bear out our assessment.”

Bowie himself, Cawley says, felt the material was strong; the star and label parted ways last year, and Tin Machine II is now the first release from a new label, Victory Records, formed by electronics conglomerate JVC. ”We’ll have to wait and see,” Cawley says with a shrug. ”If he puts out several platinum records in a row, then we were wrong.”