To shed some light on how this ambitious tribute came to be, Billboard caught up with Alex Bodman, global creative director at Spotify, on the origins, aims and challenges involved in the David Bowie-themed MTA takeover.
David Bowie lived in SoHo for over two decades, from 1999 until his death. What was it about Bowie’s relationship with New York City that inspired this unique MTA takeover?
The entire project started with our sponsoring of the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. It felt like a great opportunity to enable an experience for his fans. The exhibition ended up documenting how the city had floored and inspired him. So, it felt like the right thing as a platform and as a brand. When we met with the museum and the estate, they mentioned that they would be really excited if we could find other ways to extend the exhibition or to promote around it, and we were humbled at that opportunity. They mentioned a subway station takeover we did last year for Prince at Union Square that they thought was really impactful.
So, we thought that was an incredible opportunity, and as we were talking to them about the exhibition and the way it’s traveled the world for the last few years, it was incredibly intentional that it would start in London and finish in New York. The thought was finishing in New York because that’s where he actually ended up living longer than any other city. As somebody who had experienced so many changes and had taken so many adventures in their life, he was quoted as saying that it surprised even him that he would end up finding a home where he wanted to settle -- and settle into one of the most creative periods and the most domestic period he ever had in the SoHo neighborhood.
So, that was our starting point. We had this inside of Bowie in the New Yorker, and it occurred to us that that was really interesting in a few ways. One, it could make Bowie superfans and people who love Bowie really proud in New York, to sort of relive his achievements and celebrate his legacy. But there were real-life events that even those with a passing admiration of Bowie, or people who might love a couple of his songs but might not be mega-fans, that they could just take a huge amount of pride in having an artist of that magnitude choosing to come to New York and to create here and to live here. So, we felt like there was something in it for everybody. To celebrate New York as a city that facilitates and allows for that experience and attracts people of such a vaunted calibre.
What was involved in negotiating with the MTA to turn a public subway platform into such an immersive tribute? Was that a complicated process?
Yes. We identified that the station was available during the exhibition period, and the Bowie estate was incredibly supportive and incredible partners in helping us to choose which stories of his time in New York were appropriate and which photographs or parts of the archive we could access to tell that story. We went to the MTA with our plan, and we weren’t interested in just buying out the station and running regular ad spots, because nothing Bowie did was regular. It didn’t feel like it would have the impact that we wanted to achieve with his fans through the exhibition. So, it started as a bit of a no, because advertisers have to establish ground rules, otherwise everybody wants special treatment.
But once they realized the extent of our mission and the fact that we really were treating this as a tribute, then it really was an exhibition. You look at the vast majority of the images in that space; we’re not even putting our own brand on it. It wouldn’t feel appropriate. So, they realized it wasn’t traditional advertising. We sort of didn’t have a marketing intent; it was more of a local platform to celebrate a New York icon. And at that time, they just became the most incredible partners in helping us to realize this vision.
How did those beautiful designs for the David Bowie MetroCards come about?
It was all created in-house. We have internal creative and design teams that create all the work on the brand. The imagery itself, the idea running through the five images on the ticket, was to celebrate the different sides and eras of Bowie. And then it became about getting the permission from the photographers he tended to work with, with whom he was loyal and had long-lasting relationships. We needed permission in order to do it, and we were very lucky that we got access to all the images in order to do that. Then, our design and creative team had to be very thoughtful about how they created new work for this exhibition.
For example, we wanted to tell the story of Starman landing in Greenwich Village, and there were no images, though Bowie had mentioned them in an interview. So, the only way we could think to talk about that story would be an illustration, and there was no way we were going to create an illustration with anyone who hadn’t collaborated with Bowie before. So, we ended up commissioning that illustration from George Underwood, who knows Bowie from his school days. So, that’s another example of how our design team and our creatives try to approach the exhibition in the light and the perspective of celebration.
Broadway-Lafayette was Bowie’s subway stop for many years. Was there a conscious effort to balance the public Bowie with his more ordinary, domesticated life? Were you trying to honor both sides of him?
That’s a very interesting question, and it points to a creative tension that we had to navigate as we figured out the right way to tell this story. Because there are so many interesting anecdotes about his time in New York. We were able to research and learn where he got his local sandwich and the book shops he’d go to. But as we pushed further, we should have realized that he was also a very private person. One might mention that in interviews, that may not be something he wanted writ large or photographed. It was really his art and his outsized creative persona that changed people’s lives and brought him that incredible fandom and acclaim that he achieved.
So, while we got into some of those things and we included quotes about his life as an everyday New York man, we decided to read more into how New York inspired his creativity and his art. We were also making sure people understood that this was his local subway station and he caught trains here all the time. It was very intentional that his art was being celebrated. It was a balance we had to achieve. We also purposely wouldn’t use any paparazzi photos, because that would be a poor way to talk about his life. He had people taking photos of him walking around SoHo, whether paparazzi or potentially well-meaning fans. We didn’t want that to weigh his legacy -- we’re celebrating him. So, we actually used original photography to find much more literal ways to talk about his life in New York.
Did it start to feel crucial then to keep Bowie’s sense of privacy intact?
It’s important to remember that his family still lives in the neighborhood. We saw Iman on Twitter posting some photos from the exhibition and celebrating, which, as you can imagine, meant a great deal to us. Seeing that was probably the most emotional moment since we launched the project. But we were always mindful of that balance between privacy and celebration.
How do you think David would react if he were alive to behold these tributes to him in person, including his subway stop becoming an explosion of him? Did that ever come to mind as you developed this project?
You know, I don’t think we even did go there. I think the most important thing to us is that we were able to honor his legacy as fans in a way that was respectful to those who guard his legacy and those who were close to him at the same time. Obviously, that would be a dream come true to think that he would be approving.
I do know that he was an exceptional artist in many ways, and one of the things that was exceptional about him was the way that he maintained his legacy and the archive that he kept. He was even known to find items online that somehow had managed to get out in the wild and purchase them, which is why that archive exists. Clearly, there was a degree of both control and care in the way he wanted his career preserved. We just took our cue as we worked and collaborated with the estate to do that respectfully. And when we got their approval for the final installation, we heard their excitement, and that was rewarding us.
It seems like there was also a conscious effort to keep the Bowie tribute as unconventional as the man was in person. Was that an aspect of the spirit behind the project?
Absolutely. The one challenge we set for ourselves as we took on this responsibility was that nothing could be normal or conventional, because nothing about David was.