‘There can be no fame attained, nor any accompanying revenue acquired, in any career based on artistic or other intrinsically valid accomplishments that is not also supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Even Mozart had to eat. And Lady Gaga, as can be surmised, is eating very well.’
Professor of Sociology Mathieu Deflem teaches a highly popular course on the Sociology of Fame at the University of South Carolina. In this article he discusses the unique marketing concoction that is Lady Gaga.
The rise to fame of Lady Gaga has been the topic of much popular as well as academic debate, apart from having attracted the usual more and less sensationalist journalistic reflections. Some of these discussions have involved several rather hastily concocted pieces of advice written from within, and purported to be for the benefit of, the marketing world. These marketing tips based on the career of Lady Gaga have been communicated in several essays1 and also formed the basis for a case study at the Harvard Business School and a book-length treatise.2 Yet, as the evidentiary foundation for the assumed Lady Gaga marketing strategies and their relevance for other brands in pop music and elsewhere has often been less than clear, the value of such contributions can only be described as speculative, at best, and suspect, at worst.
It is a truism to observe that business principles are at work in creating the fame monster that is Lady Gaga. All human activity needs a practical component to ensure a proper organisation, no matter how noble the endeavour. The very notion of the world of popular music as a form of commercial entertainment -which developed well before the advent of Lady Gaga- exemplifies the co-existence of economics and art. It is to be noted in this context that it is by definition only commercial music that is subject to an industry and the usual concerns for profit maximisation. But it must also be observed that the commercialisation of music applies to all kinds of musical expressions, not just to the world of pop, rock, and related popular forms. It is therefore useful to speak of the music industry rather than merely the pop music industry. Additionally, a distinction should be maintained between the economic influences on, and the economic aspects of, music as a social reality, which is more broadly conceived as a culture, rather than only an industry.
Lady Gaga Marketing Practices
Clarifying some of the actual practices in the marketing of Lady Gaga, I draw on on-going work on the fame of Lady Gaga that is rooted in a scholarly perspective oriented at an investigation of the social conditions of the pop sensation’s rise to fame.3 Analysis specifically focuses on business practices, aspects of entertainment law, outreach through media exposure and via audience interactions, and various extra-musical cultural factors, such as political activism and gender dynamics.
It is from this perspective that the business practices involved in the case of Lady Gaga can be approached as social realities and examined in terms of their relevance for the success of her career. Such an investigation is needed before one can formulate any lessons for entrepreneurs with similar or different products and customers. Based on on-going research, at least four truths can be revealed about the marketing of what the singer herself has called the lie that is Lady Gaga.4
1. Lady Gaga is not just a pop star:
What comes to mind when we speak of Lady Gaga are not merely the catchy pop tunes and dance beats she and her producers have created, but also the strong visual images and fashion styles the performer has become known for, equally to if not more importantly so than her music. Lady Gaga presents a total package which is always more than mere musical sound alone. The public persona Lady Gaga also involves her variably perceived to be shocking fashion choices as well as, on a more substantive level, her activism, her outspokenness, her sense of being different, and her involvement in establishing outreach towards her fans and those she perceives to be in need of special consideration. As such, Lady Gaga essentially exemplifies product differentiation.
The truth about Lady Gaga’s public persona and image is not that she sets out to cause a stir, but that many people, including the occasional marketing professional, believe that is what she does. Besides her stylistic choices, the singer incorporates in her music meaningful messages related to various activist causes and political positions, especially in connection with gay rights. Mixing style and substance, her most ardent fans also embody the totality of Lady Gaga by referring to themselves as her ‘little monsters’ and declaring a love, not a mere appreciation, for the performer and all she stands for. Being a little monster involves more than an aesthetic disposition towards a singer and her music, and is instead understood in existential terms as the expression of an all-encompassing identity, a way of being.
2. Lady Gaga practices an art of fame:
As Lady Gaga herself has stated, she takes fame seriously and practices its pursuit consciously.5 The singer’s first two albums, “The Fame” and “The Fame Monster”, deal with various, both positive and negative aspects of fame, which ironically have also been displayed over the course of Lady Gaga’s career. This art of fame is not only revealed by Lady Gaga connecting intimately with her fan community, especially through social-networking sites, but more importantly also with a much broader audience.
It is self-evident to observe that Lady Gaga represents, perhaps more strikingly than any other figure in contemporary pop culture, the unique nature of fame in the era of twitter, Facebook, and other instant-communication technologies on the internet. However, it is not true that the majority of people in Lady Gaga’s audience have been reached by these new technological means. Instead, the vast majority of people attracted to Lady Gaga are still drawn from more casual fans of her work, even and especially those who do not necessarily like everything she does. The most central role in creating this broad audience has been played -as in times prior to the advent of the internet- by Lady Gaga gaining a presence in radio, television, magazines, and other established news media.
The true fame of Lady Gaga exists in the attention she gains, not just from her hardcore devotees, but from a wide mass of fans, semi-fans, non-fans, and even anti-fans. The fame of Lady Gaga exists not only in her relationship with those who like her, but also with all those who do not know much about her and even those who proclaim not to like her but who, ironically, cannot stop talking about her and who watch her each and every move.
3. Lady Gaga sells products:
Without questioning her artistic integrity, the business of being Lady Gaga entails more than writing and performing music. Her music itself is available for purchase in multiple formats, including downloads, CDs, deluxe and standard albums, and special editions and re-releases. Her forthcoming album “ARTPOP” is planned to be available as a digital download app besides the usual formats. Relying on a so-called ‘long lead’ strategy, Lady Gaga’s albums are announced many months in advance of release to create a buzz, a strategy that in the case of “Born This Way” may ironically also have created unattainable expectations.
Lady Gaga’s to-date last two albums, “The Fame Monster” and “Born This Way,” were also released with certain words in several songs censored. The strategy was voluntarily enacted by the record company in order to assure the album’s presence in department stores, to which the vast majority of sales has shifted since the demise of traditional record stores.
The investments in Lady Gaga as a product-selling brand name has been enabled by the development of a so-called ‘star system’ in the music industry, whereby very few performers are treated with special consideration while a host of other acts are largely ignored. Lady Gaga has been accepted and is presented as unique, as decidedly not niche. Stylistically, for example, Lady Gaga’s music is situated in the world of pop, but she is also considered something of an outsider as she emphasises her unusual route of getting into pop from a more diverse past that includes a classical piano training, a childhood exposure to classic rock, and a deliberate adoption of mixed musical styles, ranging from electronic dance to heavy metal. The pop star Lady Gaga is a rock star as well.
4. Products sell Lady Gaga:
It is not cheap to be Lady Gaga. In particular, the costs of staging the elaborate stage shows of her worldwide concert tours The Monster Ball (2010-2011) and The Born This Way Ball (2012-2013) are considerable and rely on corporate sponsors. Lady Gaga tour sponsorship has been primarily provided by Virgin Mobile, with extra support from other companies such as Skype. Additional revenue has been generated by a plethora of product placements in the singer’s music videos. Besides consumer goods that have a so-called ‘organic’ connection with Lady Gaga’s artistic endeavours, such as headphones, a whole range of other products have been featured in her videos as well, including alcoholic beverages and condiments.
The product Lady Gaga also entails multiple so-called ‘tie-in’ or brand partnerships with a range of products. Among them are the Monster Heartbeats headphones and the MAC Viva Glam cosmetics line, both of which feature Lady Gaga’s name. Most lucrative has been the Lady Gaga signature fragrance FAME, launched to much acclaim on the notion that it would be the first black fragrance to magically turn clear upon being sprayed.
Thwarting any negative feedback that might result from an all too visible connection between the worlds of art and money, Lady Gaga sponsorship occasionally takes the guise of activism, for instance by promoting Virgin Mobile’s Re*Generation program for homeless youth from the LGBT community. Other business partnerships are masked in terms of providing benefits for the fan community, such as by setting up Skype chats with fans attending Lady Gaga concerts.
The Business of Fame
There can be no fame attained (and accompanying revenue acquired) in any career based on artistic or other intrinsically valid accomplishments that is not also supported by an appropriate infrastructure. Even Mozart had to eat. And Lady Gaga, as can be surmised, is eating very well. But the good business practices that are at work in the case of Lady Gaga should not necessarily lead us to conclude that she herself is a marketing genius or a smart businessperson, as some have argued.6 Besides not knowing if or to what extent the singer is driven in whole or in part by financial motivations, it is also far from clear if she herself is responsible for the marketing of her work or if, conversely, she relegates such activities to her managers and other members in her support team.
As far as lessons are concerned from the marketing of Lady Gaga for others, any suggestions can only be tentative at best. Lady Gaga’s success as a factual outcome does not necessarily imply that it has been largely controlled by the singer or her team rather than having been facilitated by favourable circumstances. Moreover, the relative uniqueness of Lady Gaga, to successfully launch a global music career at a time when the popular music industry has been in sharp decline, prevents any wild speculations on what can be learned from her case for the benefit of other artists, let alone for other products. Proposing marketing lessons from Lady Gaga may well reflect a component in the success of her marketing, rather then being a reflection thereon.
About the Author
Mathieu Deflem, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina. His specialty areas include law, popular culture, and social theory. Since 2011, he has regularly taught ‘Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame’, a course that gained worldwide media attention. He has published several academic and popular writings on the fame of Lady Gaga, including a recent article in The American Sociologist on his experience of becoming famous for teaching on fame in an age of celebrity. More info via: www.mathieudeflem.net.
1. See, for example, Bodnar, Kipp. 2011. “Marketing Lessons From Lady Gaga.” Hubspot, May 11, 2011. http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/13715/Marketing-Lessons-From-Lady-Gaga.aspx; DePaz, Keisha L. 2012. “Brand Marketing: What Startup Founders Can Learn From Lady Gaga.” Under30CEO.com, December 10, 2012. http://under30ceo.com/brand-marketing-what-startup-founders-can-learn-from-lady-gaga/; Peters, Georgina. 2011. “Lady Gaga, Guru: More Than Meets the Eye?” Business Strategy Review 70(2): 69-71; Yohn, Denise Lee. 2012. “What You Can Learn from Lady Gaga.” QSR Magazine, June 2012. http://www.qsrmagazine.com/denise-lee-yohn/what-you-can-learn-lady-gaga.
2. See Nobel, Carmen. 2011. “HBS Cases: Lady Gaga.” Harvard Business School, September 26, 2011. http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6812.html; Huba, Jackie. 2013. Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Followers into Fanatics. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
3. For a brief overview of this perspective in the sociology of fame, see Deflem, Mathieu. 2012. “The Presentation of Fame in Everyday Life: The Case of Lady Gaga.” Margin 1(Spring): 58-68.
4. For a related analysis from the viewpoint of Lady Gaga’s fame, see Deflem, Mathieu. 2012. “Marketing Monster: Selling the Fame of Lady Gaga.” Pp. 30-35 in The Wicked Twins: Fame & Notoriety. Exhibition catalogue, Paul Robeson Galleries. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
5. See the interview with Lady Gaga by Anderson Cooper on the television program 60 Minutes: “Lady Gaga on ‘Mastering the Art of Fame’.” CBS News, February 14, 2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-7337078.html.
6. For example, Jackie Huba speaks of “Lady Gaga’s marketing intuition” and “her business acumen,” even though there is no evidence presented that the singer would have such qualities (Huba, Monster Loyalty, p. 11, 6; see note 2).