Monday, November 15, 2010

The Making of a Superstar

Ever wonder how mega music superstars become such icons? The ideals that embody a “superstar-in-the-making” of course include talent, the right team players, and financial backing, but there is more to the success of an act than just those fundamental elements. It also includes elements that make an act a household name, which as a whole is known as branding. Branding is something that contributes to the success of a band or solo artist. Sometimes it happens organically for a few lucky acts, but most of the time it is the result of a carefully crafted marketing plan. An act becomes a brand when just the mention of their name conjures up a certain image or picture in the minds of the masses. Some well-known examples include: 

·         Michael Jackson:  white sequin glove, military inspired garments/jackets/costumes
·         KISS:  ominous makeup, black leather with spikes, platform boots
·         Madonna:  Marilyn Monroe influences, cone bras, many other reinventions 
·         Johnny Cash:  all black wardrobe
·         Pearl Jam:  flannel shirts
·         Lady Gaga:  outrageous head pieces and outfits/costumes

Aspiring acts typically come to their label as creative entrepreneurs with their own ideas of an image that sometimes needs a little work from either an independent stylist or someone on staff at the label who possesses this expertise. According to veteran Hollywood correspondent and author of Interview Tactics: How to Survive the Media Without Getting Clobbered! The Insider’s Guide to Giving a Killer Interview! Gayl Murphy, musical acts may not initially have a clear understanding of how far they can take their image or they may need assistance in expressing themselves through fashion. “These acts want to attract fans that resonate with them and remember them,” says Murphy. “It’s a business, and this is when it becomes a strategic marketing tactic.”

Debbie Sandridge, former Motown Records A&R rep who worked under Berry Gordy and now serves as the senior director of industry relations at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Cloud, Minnesota, agrees. “Capturing attention in today’s crowded market place requires a unique visual because having quality music just isn’t enough.” Sandridge emphasizes that this is accomplished through the work of stylists and image-makers who can turn a good look into a great look. “In today’s world, it’s imperative that all acts establish a style and brand themselves for recognition, which will lead to success” she states emphatically. While an act’s visual image has always been important for album covers, promotional materials, and live performances, Sandridge notes that branding also includes an “it factor” that some acts such as Madonna and Michael Jackson just naturally possess while others don’t. This includes their unmistakable presence both on and off stage right down to their walk, their talk, and their attitude and behavior. “Before you even hear these acts’ music, you know they’re special,” Sandridge states. 

Most acts develop their image in order to give their audience a little something extra in a live performance. According to Rand Bishop, the hit songwriter, former A&R rep, and author of the new novel Grand Pop, “the visual gives fans something to talk about other than just the songs and the performance, creating a sort of ‘must see’ aspect to the act.” Bishop describes pop sensation Lady Gaga as a female David Bowie since her branding methods are similar to his, including a theatrical stage performance and outrageous costumes and makeup. Bishop also compares Madonna to David Bowie in that, like him, she used her savvy business sense and always stayed one step ahead of her audience by morphing just enough, both musically and visually, with each new album release, resulting in one of the longest pop music careers ever. Madonna was, and still is today, brilliant in that she never follows the trends but sets them herself and therefore is influential in launching the careers of other new and hip acts decade after decade. 

Right now the buzz around Lady Gaga is about her latest outfit or most shocking performance as opposed to her actual songs. But Lady Gaga is starting to exhibit some of the same brilliant business techniques as Madonna with her own musical morphing. She is not morphing her music to win over her existing fans, but instead to add new fans to her current fan base, which is a key to longevity in the music industry. One such new fan she has won over is an unlikely one, the executive coach, speaker, and author of the bestseller Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, Dr. Lois Frankel.   Frankel admits in a blog entry dated July 16, 2010 that she didn’t know much about Lady Gaga until she was blown away by her performance on The Today Show. It was Lady Gaga’s choice of song that got Frankel’s attention, the Gershwin standard “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a song that most of Lady Gaga’s current fans probably have never heard. Frankel noted that Lady Gaga most likely chose this type of song to win over people who had preconceived notions about her based on her current image and to get them to pay attention to her talent which Frankel says was a very astute business tactic that other artists can learn from. “Lady Gaga shows us that a clearly defined brand is a memorable brand,” she says. “You can bet that everything Lady Gaga does, says, or wears is part of a strategic plan to market her brand. Clearly, it’s working.”

But when it’s all said and done, branding only goes so far. As Frankel noted, “you’ve got to have the goods.” Bishop predicts that in a couple of years, Lady Gaga will strip everything down to a back-to-basics act and reveal just how talented she really is. “Whether the public follows her there will depend on how great the songs are,” says Bishop. And according to Frankel, Lady Gaga is a great songwriter, singer and performer. She has the goods to back up the image. Branding and image will get an aspiring artist a bid into the exclusive club of household name superstars, but the talent, the right team, and a good amount of business sense along with that marketable brand and image will lead to a lifetime membership.

Special thanks to Gayl Murphy, Debbie Sandridge, and Rand Bishop for taking the time to interview with me.

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