Born This Way: the birth of a #1 album

Lady Gaga was at a crossroads in 2010; Her first two releases, The Fame and The Fame Monster had been big successes and in 2010, Gaga was ranked #4 by Forbes in their Celebrity Top 100 (Forbes, 2010). The crossroads Gaga and her manager Troy Carter were at, was the choice between a full budget blockbuster campaign for her next album, or a deliberately smaller campaign which would rely on word of mouth as the main propellant. But what option would serve Gaga better, and based on what does one make that decision? 

Much like Lady Gaga’s meat dress, her track record is guaranteed to attract attention. Not only is she well known as a musician and performer, with five #1 hit songs and 17 top 10 hit songs (Billboard, n.d.) and currently she is also the 27th most listened to artist in the world on Spotify (Spotify, 2021). She is also a critically acclaimed actress having received Golden Globe awards, Oscar nominations, and more for her work (Times of India, n.d.). Besides her music and acting roles, Gaga is, additionally, known as a fashion icon and designer (Sollosi, 2020). Moreover, she is a mental health and LGBTQ activist (Born This Way Foundation, n.d. & Indian Express, 2020). Her music can best be described as pop with influences ranging from dance, synth, electro, ballads, piano’s and more.

After her first two records were released, The Fame, and The Fame Monster, it was time for Gaga to tour in support of both records. In a seemingly controversial move Gaga and her team decided to ‘underplay’, opting for around 6000 capacity venues, such as the Radio City Music Hall (Madison Square Garden Entertainment, n.d.) for the first part of the tour. These venues would be much more intimate than the arenas she was initially scheduled to play with Kanye West (Kreps, 2009). For an artist who just had two Billboard charting releases, #2 The Fame, and #5 The Fame Monster (Billboard, n.d.), it was a bold move. This move created a real tangible feeling of scarcity within her fanbase, since there would only be a select amount of tickets available for each show. The total tour sold out 101 of the 122 shows (Billboard, 2010) and it cemented Gaga’s place in the music industry. After the first leg of the tour, which consisted of 22 shows (Kreps, 2009), it was followed up by a second leg which did take place in arenas around the world.

After her first two albums and a successful tour, it was time for Gaga and her team to draw up plans for the next release; The album would be titled Born This Way and was written and recorded mainly on the road during her tour around the world (Abbey Road Studios, 2021). Within her team’s knowledge and experience it seemed there would be two viable options: 

One option would be to proceed with a full ‘blockbuster’ release, similar to the way movie studios market their big releases. A lot of budget is required for these releases, in some cases around 10 million dollars, but the reach of these campaigns is proportional to the budget. 

Brand partnerships can be essential for a campaign of this kind since they can supplement budget and reach. For example, a brand deal between Target and Gaga (which later fell through due to Target’s donation to anti-LGBTQ rights groups (Perpetua, 2011) would have provided said budget. Additionally, it would have also supplied increased reach because Gaga could advertise in every Target store.

The second option would entail mainly working with traditional music retailers and relying on fans and word of mouth for promotion, similar to how Gaga’s first tour was marketed. A big benefit of this approach is the vastly lower required budget since her record label already has basic distribution to all traditional music retailers. The drawback in this case is that one  cannot guarantee a mass reach, since one is relying on the organic reach of the album throughout the fanbase and their friends and families.

One instance of such organic spread can be through social media. When we look at Gaga’s social media , see Figure 1, it becomes clear her fanbase is highly engaged. She was the most followed account on Twitter and Facebook in 2010 (Axon, 2010 & Gabatt, 2010 ) worldwide and has had a steady, engaged relationship with her followers. They are willing to comment, share, like, subscribe and anything else they can do to help and aid Gaga in her campaigns. With these statistics she is also attractive to brands who seek a highly engaged fanbase to capitalise on. It is also due to these followers that Gaga can successfully roll out tours, albums, and any other products she wants to, such as perfume and clothes (Chernikoff, 2011 & Luu, 2011). Additionally, Gaga and her team were working on tightening the bonds with her fans by developing new platforms such as Backplane (Lowrey, 2011).

Figure 1

Post by Lady Gaga and some selected comments

Note: Facebook, 2021

Growing and developing an artist is similar to developing and growing a brand. It is important that a delicate balance is struck between being authentic and selling products to one’s  followers. In case of promoting sales too much followers might perceive a brand as unauthentic or ‘sell outs’, but at the same time if one does not promote sales enough the brand will not sell. It is this authenticity that brands often seek in artists, as a way to reinforce their own authenticity. Gaga is a great example of an artist who has stayed authentic, for example dropping the Target sponsorship in favor of her ideals and beliefs (Perpetua, 2011), while at the same time has successfully leveraged her reach for selling products. Proof of this in 2018 is when her albums sold more than 11.46 million copies in total (Chartdata, 2018). 

All in all, both options are viable but the author of this paper believes that Gaga would be best served employing the second option, whereby the album would be sold to conventional music retailers and the campaign would be built around word of mouth of her strong fanbase . Just like her tour, the limited availability of the (physical) album would create a scarcity in the group most probable to purchase the album, her fans, who would in turn share their purchase on social media and with their friends and family. Looking back, Gaga sold 1.11 million copies of the album in the first week (Caulfield, 2011), with Rolling Stone eventually naming it number 484 in their album top 500 (Rolling Stone, 2020). Therefore, the strategy Gaga and her team did ultimately employ seemed to have a great outcome. It is very much important for an artist and their team to acknowledge which strategy to employ; Whether the artist already has a dedicated fanbase and, therefore, is able to release via social media sharing and word of mouth, or whether they are yet to find their target audience and, therefore, might consider a ‘blockbuster’ release to be more effective.

References

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