Marketing Monster: Selling the Fame of Lady Gaga

Mathieu Deflem
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This is an electronic copy of an essay published in The Wicked Twins: Fame & Notoriety. Exhibition catalogue, Paul Robeson Galleries, a program of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Exhibition dates: January 17 – April 19, 2012.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: 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.

In a world fascinated with celebrity in the mold of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, it is more than puzzling that fame can still be acquired in relation to an artistic accomplishment. The rise of pop star Lady Gaga, therefore, is not so much spectacular because of its scope or intensity, but because it has come about at a time when entertainment culture virtually equates with shallow celebrity. Moreover, the advent of the internet and, especially, the development of file hosting websites have drastically changed the landscape of the record industry. While recordings in the form of vinyl, cassette, or CD were an essential element of the music industry for almost the entire 20th century, new avenues have since had to be devised to secure the necessary economic basis for a professional career in music. The global fame of Lady Gaga can serve to analyze how success in popular music is still possible today.

After an initial false start with Def Jam Recordings in 2006, Lady Gaga was a year later discovered by Vincent Herbert of Streamline Records (an imprint of Interscope) and introduced to hip-hop executive Troy Carter, who became the singer’s new manager. Initially working as a song-writer for major commercial acts such as Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls, Lady Gaga subsequently met singer Akon, who introduced her to Jimy Iovine of Interscope Records and signed her to a joint deal with KonLive. Recognizing the star potential of the young singer-songwriter, the key industry players were now in place to reach a level of pop stardom (and financial success) not heard of since the pop and rock music heyday of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Between May 2010 and May 2011, Lady Gaga earned a reported $90 million. Surely, a multitude of factors has facilitated the rise of Lady Gaga, but it is safe to suggest that an industry infrastructure must have been at work to enable such a successful artist development. At least five components can be distinguished in the marketing aspects of Lady Gaga’s fame.

Lady Gaga is about more than only music. To be sure, all performers need to package and present their music in some form or another, but clearly some are better at it than others. When one today speaks of Lady Gaga (as many of us do), not only a variety of musical sounds come to mind. Intricately tied up with her music, Lady Gaga is also about the look, the vision, the fashion and --even more strikingly for what is after all ‘just’ a pop star-- the outspokenness, the activism, the meat dress, the monstrosity. With her global audience (not just with her fans alone), Lady Gaga can therefore connect in many different ways, involving both style and substance, and arousing both controversy and support.

Lady Gaga has mastered, in her own words, the ‘art of fame’ and was a diligent student in the ‘sociology of fame.’ Besides realizing the trappings of fame as can be judged by an up-and-coming talent, Lady Gaga has done wonders in connecting with her fans, whom she affectionately calls ‘little monsters.’ From early on in her career, Lady Gaga took her music to the internet, at first via MySpace and PureVolume where she posted some of her music, and subsequently via her own website and the now familiar YouTube. Most importantly, Lady Gaga has been supremely successful in connecting directly with her fans via the newly developed social-networking sites, in particular Facebook and Twitter. By September 2011, Lady Gaga had amassed more than 43 million likes on Facebook and 13 million followers on Twitter. Further outreach has been accomplished by allowing and encouraging fan sites and blogs to post information. The close symbiotic relationship that is accomplished with her little monsters, whether real or imagined, additionally sustains the idea that she needs no marketing.

Lady Gaga entertains profitable tie-ins with (other) brands and products. Most of these ‘brand partnerships’ (to use the words of Lady Gaga’s management company) can be said to connect fairly intimately with her artistic endeavors. By example, Lady Gaga markets her own brand of headphones, the so-called Monster HeartBeats, and is a creative director for Polaroid, where she launched a new series of cameras. Additional tie-ins with a variety of media outlets ensure distribution of her music and videos. Several of Lady Gaga’s recent videos could first be seen on certain TV channels (e.g., the video to the song Telephone on the E! channel) or on a popular TV show (e.g., the video of The Edge of Glory on So You Think You Can Dance). Most infamously, a deluxe double-CD edition of the Born This Way album was slated to be sold only at Target stores, until the exclusivity of the CD sale was lifted over alleged problems concerning some of the retail company’s donations to politicians unkind towards gay rights. Some of the brand tie-ins connect with philanthropic causes championed by Lady Gaga. Sales from her products with cosmetics company MAC, for instance, benefit AIDS research.

Lady Gaga relies on company sponsorships. Some companies directly provide revenue to Lady Gaga in return for promotion. The highly successful Monster Ball Tour, which grossed more than $200 million between November 2009 and May 2011, was sponsored by Virgin Mobile. The communications company had its logo plastered everywhere possible at the venue where a Lady Gaga concert was held. A photo booth was set up to take pictures of fans, a selection of which was placed online at the site Additional promotion was done to benefit Virgin Mobile’s Re*Generation program to help homeless youth from the LGBT community. Especially noteworthy is the sponsorship in the form of product placement in many of Lady Gaga’s videos, securing monetary support from companies as diverse as gambling site, Casio watches, Campari liquor, and energy drink Neurosonic. The video to Telephone, presumably construed as a commentary on consumerism, featured about a dozen such product placements, including technology giant Hewlett-Packard, LG Electronics, the PlentyofFish dating site, and Miracle Whip.

Lady Gaga epitomizes the present-day pop star who knows what to sell in the post-record age as well as how to sell it. As with all major pop artists of today, Lady Gaga derives more revenue from touring and merchandising than from record sales, sharing all accumulated profits with her record company Interscope as part of a so-called ‘360° deal.’ Yet, even as the sales of CDs have dwindled and digital files can easily be shared, it is a stunning feat that Lady Gaga still manages to sell millions of CDs and legal downloads. A variety of strategies are used to ensure profitability. The Born This Way album, for instance, was announced more than half a year in advance of its release in order to allow extending the Monster Ball tour and create a hype for the new album thereafter. Singles are likewise announced many weeks in advance, and subsequently issued as a download and then as a video, as a CD, and as part of a remix or gift bundle to guarantee a prolonged stay on the charts. Most blatantly and singularly profit-driven have been the releases of Lady Gaga’s albums The Fame Monster and Born This Way in edited formats that muffled the sound of certain words deemed offensive. With record stores disappearing, this self-censorship strategy assures album sales in retail outlets (notably Wal-Mart), where explicit editions of popular music albums are not sold. As a result, fans have had to listen to such artistic perversions as Lady Gaga singing about herself as a ‘free bit’ (rather than the intended ‘free bitch’) until explicit editions of the albums were released. The singer has yet to publically address the shameless ploy.

The fame of Lady Gaga is no doubt in some measure the result of good business. Yet, it cannot be concluded, as some have recently done, that Lady Gaga is a marketing genius or an astute business woman. It is not clear, after all, if or to what extent she herself has been responsible for the marketing of her work, let alone that she would be primarily motivated by economic concerns. Even the best of music has to be advertised and sold. Without organization and business support, no art could ever reach its audience. It would therefore be as foolish to argue that Lady Gaga’s fame has no substantive artistic core as it would be to claim that there are no economic aspects of marketing involved. Nonetheless, keeping in mind that Lady Gaga is without a doubt a rarely gifted composer, musician, and performer, any lessons to be learned from the marketing of her fame for other artists will be modest at best.

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New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

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