January 11, 2012 6:58 pm

What they don’t teach you at Lady Gaga U.

Predicting public taste remains hazardous as ever

Perhaps it is nostalgia for their own student years that drives academics’ fascination with popular music.

To mark Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, Bristol University last May hosted a conference of “the UK’s foremost Dylan scholars”, with an introductory address by Prof Daniel Karlin, who had nominated the singer for a Nobel prize in literature.

Mary-Lu Zahalan-Kennedy, a Canadian performer, last year became the first graduate of Liverpool Hope University’s masters course in Beatles studies.

Now Harvard Business School has written a case study on Lady Gaga, challenging its students to think about how they too could produce a meat-dress-clad phenomenon.

The music industry is a perfectly respectable subject for study, not least by a business school. The revenues can be huge, the marketing frenetic and few sectors have been so changed by the internet.

In the 1980s there was “a simple path in which the key to success for a musician was signing to a major record label that would then develop, manage, market and distribute the musician and their works”, a recent report for the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) observed.

Album sales have since collapsed – UK figures last week showed them at a little over half their 2004 level – and while digital services such as iTunes and Spotify have won a large following, other hopefuls such as MySpace have shrivelled. There is no sign of the business settling down. The IPO report said there was a clash between artists who wanted to license their music for use in computer games and the games companies, which believed they should own tunes outright rather than pay licensing fees. Asked about their business plans, one person quoted in the IPO report said: “It changes every three months.”

As Dylan sang, in a line that probably speeded his way into the Nobel literature judges’ rejection pile, “time is a jet plane. It moves too fast”.

Even in the stable pre-web days, one of the music industry’s leading chief executives told me, he found success impossible to predict. He signed musicians, distributed their albums and waited to see who the fans liked and who they didn’t. How much harder is it in today’s chaos?

It is actually easier in one way, the Harvard study suggests. “The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Madonna didn’t have Facebook or Twitter,” it quotes Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s manager, as saying. And few artists have been as adept as Lady Gaga at using social media to reach their fans, giving her “little monsters” a sense that she is their friend. “Lady Gaga writes her own tweets. No one else has her password,” Mr Carter says.

When she released her “Just Dance” single in 2008, Mr Carter arranged interviews with 50 music bloggers. Allied to this was a determined effort not to move too far ahead of demand. He ensured she started out in small clubs. When she first went on tour, he avoided the big venues. “It is better to sell out three Radio Cities in five minutes than it is to sell out one Madison Square Garden over three weeks,” he says. “Selling out quickly is a great story and we are in the storytelling business.”

Business-school case studies are in the storytelling business too and this one has all the traditional features. The girl born Stefani Germanotta in New York City was singing a song when L.A. Reid, chairman of Island Def Jam, heard her down the hallway and decided she would be a star – and then dumped her. Mr Carter, described by an associate as “a little kid from Philly with a big heart and a dream to prove himself”, helped to get her back on the road.

But like all stories, and case studies, it is told after the event, making it all seem inevitable. It isn’t. There are thousands of aspiring artists uploading their songs on to YouTube, tweeting and blogging furiously, desperately unnoticed.

The X Factor and American Idol use all the force of both old and new media: television programmes watched by millions, vast public participation, blogging and comment on every imaginable online medium and recording contracts for the winners. And yet the outcome, after some initial hits, has been more flops than stars.

For all the chat about the power of social media, predicting public taste remains as hazardous as ever, and enduring public taste even more so. The little monsters may shriek at the thought, but Lady Gaga has much to prove before anyone convenes conferences for her 70th birthday.


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