The visit of Lady Gaga to UK shores earlier this month was a lively enough affair. There were lashings of barmy pictures, cute quips, messy frocks and bouncy songs. She connected with existing fans, and charmed sceptical observers. Music lovers could not help admiring her refusal to lip-synch in live performance (which may be the single most countercultural thing about her). Fashion types applauded the glitzy brio of her costume changes.
Chat-show watchers learned that she is quick-witted and engaging. We also saw her cry when she sang about her grandfather, and defend minorities and human rights with a passion that belies her avowed love of artifice. Barack Obama, commencing his own transatlantic gig a few days later, was surely taking note. This woman is seriously in tune with the times.
All in all, it made for a vivid show business spectacle. But a shadow hung over the visit. The recorded music industry that helped prepare the way for Lady Gaga is ailing. Its global value shrank by more than 40 per cent between 2004 and 2010. It is overwhelmed by casual lawlessness: more than a million jobs are projected to be lost in the European creative industries due to digital piracy by 2015. Back in the day, video may have killed the radio star; but it was nothing next to technology’s slaughter of pop music’s business model.
So how has Lady Gaga done it? Her impressive sales figures – by the end of 2010 she had sold 15m albums and 51m singles worldwide – is in line with the achievements of past generations of global pop stars, who never needed to wrestle with internet theft. But her music, the least impressive thing about her, is derivative and monotonous. Her fashion sense is cultish and peculiar. No one is going to wrap themselves in raw meat on a Saturday night out in Bolton.
What Lady Gaga has brought to her own party is a supreme sense of how to do 21st-century business. So say Jamie Anderson, Jörg Reckhenrich and Martin Kupp, a group of management academics whose recent paper for the Antwerp Management School “Lady Gaga: Born this Way?” enthuses over their subject’s deft ways with self-promotion and marketing.
For this trio, Lady Gaga is a true innovator, whose instinctive understanding of how to handle social media and digital platforms has lasting significance. One by one, they show how she has consigned many of the industry’s most sacred received wisdoms to the Eurobeat inferno.
Zealous protection of copyright? All of Lady Gaga’s video clips are free to view or download on her own website. She likes her fans. They like her back, and buy her material from iTunes. An industry insider is quoted in the paper: “Maybe Gaga points a way to the future – to make your fans your trusted friends. After all, who steals from friends?”
Catfights in the headlines? Lady Gaga does not do feuds, and happily shares her platform with potential “rivals”. The management gurus call this “leveraging buzz”. She has teamed up with Madonna, Beyoncé, dear old Elton John. To play in the entertainment industry is not to be trapped in a zero-sum game. Put-downs and insults do not have to be its conversational currency. Gaga is the anti-Liam Gallagher.
Gaga as product ambassador? But she does not endorse brands, preferring instead to create new products in the companies that have asked her to come on board. She is a creative director at Polaroid, and has launched hew own lipstick range for Estée Lauder MAC, the profits for which are devoted to Aids charities. The objects with which she is identified are circumscribed by her own values. They sell relentlessly well.
Sticking tightly to her own discipline? Lady Gaga understands other art forms, and the benefits of synergy. She wrote an 80-page dissertation on Damien Hirst at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is the first pop star since Debbie Harry to inhabit that cool erotic space between art and pop, leaving us always to wonder whether her daffy melodies have any tantalising extra layers of meaning.
What will come next for Lady Gaga, asks the management paper? How about this for starters: potential earnings of $100m for 2011, according to Forbes magazine. “Within just a few years her total income is expected to exceed the total lifetime earnings of rock veterans such as U2,” concludes the essay. Lady Gaga’s recipe for her phenomenal success? “I was and I am a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers.”
It is a sweet story. Popular culture once stood against the business world, and then was absorbed by it. Now, in the era of techno-capitalism, its brightest innovators are leading the way. They intuitively grasp the mechanics of mass adulation, the economics of brand loyalty, the importance of leadership projection. They are unfazed by the oxymoronic riddle that is “mass intimacy”. All the buzzwords of good management practice – innovation, reinvention, distinctiveness – come naturally to them.
Meanwhile whole sections of the corporate world, predicated on the solid virtues of good manners and reliability, are struggling to keep pace. The freaks are being taught in business school, and the fame monster devours the conventional thinkers. Whoever would have thought it?
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden