Last year during Grammy Week, Spotify promoted the return of Prince’s music to its service by blanketing New York’s Union Square subway station with purple logos and posters. It was cool and a pleasantly immersive advertising experience, and it was gratifying for fans to see one of the greatest musical geniuses of the past half-century get such a high-profile look in a public space not normally associated with such things.
But it’s dwarfed by the streaming giant’s sprawling David Bowie “Subway Takeover” in the city’s interconnected Broadway-Lafayette and Bleecker Street stations, which not only promotes the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum (of which Spotify is a sponsor) but is a deeply researched museum piece in itself, celebrating the artist’s relationship with New York throughout his career, in the SoHo neighborhood that he called home for the last two decades of his life. (The exhibit went up Tuesday and will remain until Sunday, May 13.)
The walls, turnstiles and, most remarkably, the rows of iron girders between the station’s floors are emblazoned not only with signage for the exhibition, but with photos — many of them rarely-seen — from watershed New York moments: 1970s performances at Carnegie Hall, Radio City and Madison Square Garden, stills from the 1973 “Space Oddity” video filmed at RCA Studios in Midtown and the “I’m Afraid of Americans” video in 1995 (where he’s chased around the city by Trent Reznor), a shot of him working at the nearby Magic Shop studio late in his career. There is also original artwork made with the cooperation of his estate, fan-made pieces, Bowie quotes about New York, a map of key locations in his career; each major piece contains a Spotify code that provides audio accompaniment. There are even five different MetroCards, each depicting Bowie from a different phase of his career, available at the station. On Tuesday evening, 15 people were lined up to purchase them.
And while a subway station might seem an odd site for such a tribute, it is not surprising that the famously chameleonic Bowie was crafty about his disguises and managed to blend in with the population remarkably well: In one of the quotes featured in the exhibit, he says, “You’d be surprised the places I’m able to go.” People who lived or worked in SoHo often reported seeing him on the street or in a deli or a local gym.
But most strikingly, while the Prince subway takeover was cool, it was essentially advertising; this is a much more far-reaching project that acts as an extension of “David Bowie Is,” which has travelled the globe since 2013 and is making its final stop in New York.
“Exactly — the idea was to create a tribute, not an ad. If it were, we wouldn’t have approached it this way,” says Alex Bodman, Spotify’s global creative director, who oversaw the project with Bowie’s estate and his 30-odd-strong in-house creative team that does most of the branding and marketing work for the streamer. “[‘David Bowie Is’] is a phenomenal show, we were honored to sponsor it, and we took that as a starting point as to how we could focus a tribute that celebrates his life as a New Yorker. We loved the idea of finding a way to celebrate the kind of impact immigrants can make, and Bowie is one of those shining examples.” (When asked, Bodman hastened to note that the immigrant angle is not a commentary on current events: “It’s not a political statement,” he said. “New York has always been attractive to people from all over the world, and this is just a celebration of that fact.”)
The project was undertaken with the full cooperation of Bowie’s estate, which provided access to his voluminous archives. The singer was known for being extremely protective of his legacy and intellectual property — even songs that were released as bonus tracks on CDs in the late 1980s have since been taken out of circulation — and regularly purchased items from his career that popped up on eBay.
“It was a fascinating process,” says Bodman (who was calling from Sweden and had not yet seen the subway takeover in person). “I don’t know if he ever used the term ‘hoarder,’ but Bowie kept and collected everything, and we were very privileged to have such incredible access to his archives. We worked hand-in-hand with his archivist and found some things that just took our breath away, and then it became a responsibility: How do we go to his neighborhood and the places where he recorded some of his masterpieces, and create an experience where not only his fans but every New Yorker can be proud that he made this city his home?”
The exhibit also has several original pieces, as well as interpretations of aspects of Bowie’s life in New York for which there wasn’t suitable photographic evidence. “For example, we discovered that Bowie’s intention was always to have the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ story take place in Greenwich Village. We couldn’t find an image to bring that to life but it felt like an important New York story, so we worked with illustrator, George Underwood [a friend from Bowie’s school days who not only contributed artwork to several albums, he caused the singer’s famous dilated pupil in a brief teenage fistfight over a girl] and he created an original illustration.
“Also, Bowie often talked about how he loved walking in the West Village. We couldn’t find an image that wasn’t paparazzi — we weren’t interested in using paparazzi photos, that wouldn’t be respectful — so we got one of his pairs of shoes from the archive and photographed them.”
When it’s noted that the shoes in question, a pair of absurdly lurid high-heeled sandals from the peak of Bowie’s glam era, aren’t exactly orthopedically sound walking shoes, Bodman erupts into laughter. “We thought that was a good way to get his sense of humor into it,” he says, “and obviously his flamboyance.”
Finally, the MetroCards were an idea “that came from our team,” he said. “The idea was that people would be going through their daily grind, and then pull out something that is a collectors item or gives you an emotional experience — that little magic elevation out of the everyday. We call them ‘Tickets to Mars’ — it’s transporting.”
While Spotify has no comment on the budget for this formidable undertaking, its philosophy is likely reflected in one of Bodman’s closing quotes. “We’re really proud that for the second year in a row, we can pay tribute to an artist who exemplifies why we’re so passionate about music and the impact it can have on culture,” he says. “It’s not based on any kind of marketing desire or driving streams or anything like that — it’s difficult to pay proper tribute straightaway to these legends when they pass, and its meant a lot to the company and the people who work here that we can do this.”
As for what or who might receive such treatment next, he says, “We do have lots of exciting stuff coming up, but I’ll be in trouble if I talk about it!”