This week, Slate launched Top Right, our list of the 25 Americans who combine inventiveness and practicality, who think big ideas and get them done. We featured Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s business manager and the pioneering force behind her many inventive endorsement and promotional deals. Here, Annie Lowrey interviews Carter—who spoke from a Gaga-related project site in Omaha, Neb.—on managing Gaga Inc.
Slate: So give me the background. How did you get started in the business, and how did you come to work with Gaga?
Carter: I met Gaga through Vincent Herbert, a producer I knew who signed Gaga at [Streamline Records, part of Interscope]. But prior to that, I had been doing artist management since 1999. And we signed Gaga up in, I think, 2007.
Slate:Now, let’s talk business. How do you identify or come up with deals that you think would work for Gaga? Because it seems you have a much greater variety of projects …
Carter: I don’t think we’re out there aggressively looking for deals. Our strategy is that business follows the creative. We’re not out there scouring the marketplace for opportunities. It just happens. If [Gaga] has an idea that works with a song or a project that she is working on, we go look for best-of-class partners to help us execute it. And a lot of businesses bring ideas to us.
Slate: So how does that work in practice? Maybe give us a bit of background on your deal with Gilt Groupe, for instance.
Carter: That came to us through our marketing team. We had a pre-existing relationship with the people at Gilt, and wanted to work with them.
With the Born This Way album, generally we said, how do we find strategic partners that can help us with our vision? Part of that is about putting the music in places people wouldn’t normally put music, like with Google and with Gilt. When we’re looking at strategic partners, it may be that they’re larger partners or big corporations or start-ups. But, when you look at Gilt and places like Amazon and Starbucks, they’re all places where it’s a lot of foot traffic or digital traffic. And they’re all best of class.
Our projects end up very different. We deal with partners in the fashion industry, technology industry, music industry, beauty industry. With Gaga—she’s not afraid to take chances. You get these dynamic projects because of it. She’s completely unafraid.
Slate: How different is what you do now from what you were doing back in the 1990s, working with artists like the Notorious B.I.G.?
Carter: Well, I came from the world of hip-hop. And when I started out, it was actually pretty much the same approach. A lot of people in larger corporations just didn’t understand what we were doing, and didn’t understand the audience, and didn’t understand the music. So we were forced to build things from the ground up, to partner with people who were looking for marketing and wanted to compete.
Slate: Tell us about Backplane, your new business with Gaga. I know it’s in development, and the details are under wraps, but what’s the motivation behind the start-up?
Carter: I can’t talk a lot about it. But, the motivation for starting it was really to build a more intimate relationship between Gaga and her fans. She was the motivation behind it. She called me with the idea of closing the gap and building this more intimate relationship. Then we went to build the technology to do that.
Slate: It’s funny, because I think of Gaga as already having such a close relationship with her fans—on Facebook, on Twitter, on her own site, where she interacts with them.
Carter: The problem is: How meaningful is that social media imprint? Just because you have 43 million likes on Facebook doesn’t necessarily translate into 42 million albums sold, 42 million concert tickets sold, 42 million pieces of merchandise sold. So this really builds on a concentrated audience, as opposed to making it bigger.
Slate: And this isn’t the only entrepreneurial project you have.
Carter: I work with a lot of entrepreneurs. I love entrepreneurs. In the tech space, what I found is this incredible energy that reminded me of the early days of hip-hop. Back then, guys were all starting their own companies. It wasn’t about the money. It was about passion for a specific product or project. I’ve just been meeting a ton of smart kids who have a deep passion. I’ve become an advisor to some, an investor in some of these companies, and they’ve been helping me with some of my projects.
Slate: It is true that you get that entrepreneurial culture in hip-hop—that artists are making their own labels, starting their own businesses …
Carter:Absolutely—go figure, Steve Jobs and those guys were starting up Apple at the exact same time Russell Simmons was in an apartment in Queens staring his business. Rick Rubin was in a dorm room downtown starting Def Jam. There’s a lot of similarities. You have to sell your idea. You have to be passionate. The marketing, it’s got to be grassroots. There are a lot of parallels.
Slate: So what are you and Gaga working on now?
Carter: It’s all about the music. Everything else revolves around the music. Everything comes from the music. The technology doesn’t matter if the records aren’t good. Right now, we’re going out, promoting this record, we’re staying in this album cycle.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.