At his lowest, Troy Carter found a perfect match: Lady Gaga

Posted: February 26, 2013

Second of two-part profile series.

Troy Carter was at his lowest. The Philadelphia high school dropout had come so far, built a talent management business, sold it for a big payday, and then lost the money, as entrepreneurs do, on a bad swing of the bat. His biggest client fired him. He was broke and in debt.

Then, sitting in his office in Los Angeles, where he was about to face eviction, in walked two people who would change his life.

First came Vince Herbert, a record producer, who had asked Carter to manage this new talent he had just found, a singer named Lady Gaga, who was right behind him.

"Vince is a big guy," Carter recalled, "and I see him walking through the reception area. And behind him, I see this girl with these big shoes, and big black eyeglasses, and fishnet stockings, and no pants, just a leotard."

It was 2007. Herbert, with a gift for spotting talent, had heard one song by Gaga and flew her out to Los Angeles the next day. She was making a buzz in New York's gay clubs, but was otherwise unknown.

"We hit it off right away," Carter recalled. "Everything she is today she was when she walked through the door. She just had a point of view. The music was there. You don't meet a lot of artists with vision, not early artists, not at the beginning."

Herbert knew Carter was down on his luck. But he also knew his friend was deeply loyal, smart, a hard worker who would make the most of an opportunity.

"People still to this day, they don't understand, and try to figure it out," Herbert says. "We still live in this world where there's black people and white people, and people say: 'Vince, you guys are two black guys. Why did you let this black guy be the manager of this white girl?' Because in music no one looks at color. They just look at each other's heart. And when you look at that, it has every color in the book.

"He was going to lose his house. He had no Christmas gifts for his kids. But at the end of the day, if you're a good person like Troy is, good things will come to you."

Carter's take? "Sometimes you can't beat grace."

'Something to prove'

The three set out.

Gaga had just been dropped by Def Jam Records. Carter had just been fired by Eve Jeffers, his biggest client. And Herbert had just left his label at Universal to start over fresh.

"So everybody had something to prove," said Carter, "and nothing to lose.

"We went from club to club," he recalled. "She was in the front seat of our friend's truck. Going to four clubs a night, playing for a couple hundred people, between L.A. and San Francisco. She pretty much wore the same outfit for one year."

Herbert adds: "We didn't have money for the ideas we wanted. We didn't have people paying attention to us. We had none of that support. But what we had was each other. We had heart."

Gaga recalled her vision (obscenities deleted) at a recent show in Los Angeles: "I had a dream that I could take the underground New York scene and I could do it worldwide."

Stefani Germanotta had left New York University at age 19 in 2005 and adopted the stage name Lady Gaga. She had a killer voice, loved the pulsing beat of electronic dance music, dressed outrageously.

She was always in costume, in character. She saw herself as performance artist, as well as outsider. Wearing a suit of raw meat or a trash-can lid was a way to make the world accept her on her terms.

As she told fans in Los Angeles: "Whether you are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, you are black, you are white, you are Islam, Muslim, whatever the [expletive] you are, you don't know how free you will feel, how you will fly so [expletive] far above the rest once you stop caring what people think about you."

Carter's job "was to translate this vision," he said. "It was something no one had seen before. Top 40 radio was telling us we had to get on dance stations, and it was gay music, not what they played."

Carter called club promoters, designers, DJs, media. "This was hand-to-hand combat," he said.

In early 2008, they released her first single, "Just Dance." "It took a year to get the first top 40 station in America to play it," Carter said, "and that was only because she was getting big in Canada. A top 40 station in Buffalo started playing it. That's when it started spreading." It eventually went to Billboard's No. 1.

A meteoric rise

Gaga was among the first to embrace Twitter, in early 2008, interacting with fans directly.

Once she started to become known by mid-2009, her rise was meteoric, so dramatic that Harvard Business School did case studies in 2011 and 2012. Carter is a central character in both.

A few highlights:

In September 2009, just as Gaga won her first MTV Music Video Award for best new artist, and ended her television performance dangling from the ceiling, covered in fake blood, she was about to begin a big arena tour with hip-hop star Kanye West.

But that same night, before a worldwide audience, West grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift and trashed her, saying Beyoncé deserved Swift's award. West became toxic and withdrew from the tour.

Carter and Gaga's inner circle had to decide, almost overnight, if she should tour by herself, cancel, or reschedule into smaller venues. He had to consider costs, contracts, partners, fans, staging.

He chose the last option. Better to have sellouts every night and demand that can't be met than to have half-empty arenas or shows that take a month to sell out. Sacrifice short-term revenue for long-term benefit. The tour was a huge success and her popularity soared.

Then, in 2010, Carter knew her appeal was global and wanted to begin a worldwide tour. He told the Harvard Business Review: "I asked myself: 'Who is the best in the business?' I need to know how to launch a global tour, and how to protect Gaga financially." He made a deal with the entertainment juggernaut Live Nation to launch a 120-concert tour. It grossed nearly $200 million.

"Troy is an extremely well-respected manager," said Anita Elberse, the professor who coauthored the Harvard studies. "He's really the man behind the scenes - behind Lady Gaga's success. Her rise has been phenomenally fast, and to manage such a quick climb to the top is incredibly difficult. It requires making a wide range of decisions, on touring, on the release of her albums, on forming partnerships with the right people and companies, each of which comes with significant risk."

Carter visited her class twice.

"If he calls me tomorrow and says I want to teach at the Harvard Business School," she said, "I'm going to fight for it. I think he'd be fantastic."

Marc Geiger, head of music for William Morris Endeavor, Lady Gaga's agency, said, "I think Troy works quietly and without a lot of ego, which is for me personally wonderfully refreshing.

"He more or less is very understanding of how to shepherd the creative," Geiger said. "He's not forceful. He's a gentle supporter of risk-taking creative, and he nurtures it."

"Troy is like a great coach, like Phil Jackson when he had Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. First it takes having Michael Jordan, and then it takes nurturing and protecting."

Branching out

The wealth and access that come with managing Gaga has allowed Carter to hone his entrepreneurial instincts in dramatic ways.

He recently founded an angel fund that has invested in 40 high-tech start-ups. He is often in the Silicon Valley.

Besides Carter's music connections, Geiger said, "he went and added a whole new cadre of equally powerful relationships in the new world of distribution and technology."

After Gaga saw the Facebook movie The Social Network, she called Carter and asked him why can't they have their own social network just for her fans?

Carter started talking with people in Silicon Valley and they created another start-up, The Backplane, which can provide a platform for a company or artist to build its own "authentic community," what he calls a micro-network.

Last year, Gaga launched www.LittleMonsters.com just for her fans, called little monsters.

Carter says 1.3 million fans have registered.

They can go to the free site and buy music or concert tickets, chat with other fans around the world, see videos or whatever content Gaga and her fans provide.

A recent discovery: Fans were uploading their artwork onto LittleMonsters.com and Gaga fell in love with it. It was her idea, Carter said, to start putting their art on T-shirts, and concert merchandise sales increased 30 percent.

Gaga may have 55 million Facebook Likes and 34 million Twitter followers, but those are often passive fans. Carter says in the future it will be better to have one million or two million die-hard ones.

He said Gaga's artistic vision will always drive her business, but data will be invaluable, and sites like LittleMonsters.com one day will provide it.

"Pretty much no artist up to this point," he said, "has really known who their fan base is - their fans specifically by name, age, where they live, what they do, what they like, who their friends are, which concerts they attended, which music they listen to, which songs they skip, where they skip them, just really understanding, having real data.

"And having that data helps you make better decisions as it relates to the music you release, where you tour, how big the venues are, who you invite, the price of the ticket, how much merch to carry with you. Everything. And these are all going to be data-driven decisions that we're going to be making. It won't be through Twitter. It won't be through Facebook. It will be through your own sites that you build, your own communities that you build.

"This is going to be a very transparent thing that you have with your fans, and information that your fans are going to volunteer," he said, "because they want a better experience."

Gaga's next album, this summer, will be an app.

"It will still come out as a CD and a digital file," Carter said, "but the real experience will be built in the app. This is her spending time with app developers, data scientists . . ." Artists can include videos, whatever experiences they want to provide with the app. "That's going to be the future of album," Carter said.

Was releasing the album as an app his idea or hers?

He laughs. "You know," he says, "we geek out."

Continually creative

In his own way, Carter feels he is every bit as much a performer as Gaga - managing her and other clients, working as entrepreneur. "This is my performance," he said.

He also believes he owes his success in large part to mentors.

"What I've been blessed with is opportunity," he told a group of high schoolers in Los Angeles whose circumstances were not much different from his at their age. When he felt unable to see beyond his own environment, "some people were able to give me vision . . . to pull me up when I was down."

Carter also knows his success could all disappear as fast as you can spell d-i-v-a. True artists, he says, lay it all on the line. They don't play it safe. And that's not in his nature, either.

Carter is gambling on a new beverage, Pop Water, a bridge between vitamin water and soda, which his company, Atom Factory, has developed and will roll out in Los Angeles soon.

"He is a person who looks for all the reasons to say yes to an idea," said Banch Abegaze, the chief operating officer at Atom Factory. "That's probably what Lady Gaga appreciates most about him. As a person who is continually being creative, coming up with amazing ideas, to have a manager who says, 'I'm going to find all the reasons why we can do this,' is probably an amazing experience for her."

Gaga now recovering

Carter says that for him, a Lady Gaga tour is like Groundhog Day, same thing every day - unless something goes wrong.

Two weeks ago, it did.

Gaga was due in Philadelphia for two shows last week, but had to cancel. After a year on tour, a hundred concerts running and dancing and climbing ladders backstage in monster platform shoes, she suffered a hip tear.

"She's pretty tough," said Carter, "so when you get that call from Gaga, you know it's serious."

Gaga canceled the final six weeks of her tour. She had surgery Wednesday in New York.

"Talking to the surgeon yesterday," Carter said on Friday, "it was much more serious than what we thought."

"It's been a bit of a busy week unwinding the tour," he added. "Personnel, vendors, insurance companies, etc."

The focus now, he said, is for Gaga to "take the time to rehabilitate."

Gaga pushed herself, and paid for it, something Carter understands and doesn't want to change.

"The most fun for me," he said, "is watching an artist experience new things for the first time. And if you're pushing it, you never run out of firsts, because you're always trying something new."

He could be speaking about himself.


If you missed part one of the profile on Troy Carter, read it online at www.philly.com/gagaland


Contact Michael Vitez

at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com. On Twitter @michaelvitez.

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