In the wake of losing his partnership with Lady Gaga, you might expect Troy Carter, her former manager, to be a bereft, bruised soul haunting the boulevards of Los Angeles, dazed at his fall from the music industry heights.
His collaboration with one of the planet's most recognisable, lucrative artists ended abruptly in November. Neither side has publicly given a reason but many suspect Gaga fired him. Whatever the truth, Carter surely has cause to wail. Or at least wilt.
Not a bit of it. Seated in his sleek office, all leather furnishings, marble and expensive lighting, he fizzes with enthusiasm about the future. "I've been in the music industry for 24 years and with God's grace I'll be in it until I take my last breath. And I don't think a speed bump in the road will stop me from doing what I love."
Losing the queen of pop, a speed bump? Carter shrugs. He is not supposed to comment on the split, he says. But he makes clear it is by no means fatal to his career. "It's not cancer. When you look at the big scheme of things, it's not cancer."
Such sangfroid is rare in the music industry but Carter's rollercoaster career has given him perspective on success, failure and bouncing back. From humble roots in Philadelphia, he has more than once gained, lost and regained sway in LA showbusiness. He is a survivor.
His confidence in a Gaga-less future, however, stems largely from his unusual and powerful position at the crossroads between music and technology.
Carter helped mastermind Gaga's strategy of marketing music directly to fans through social media and new technology, part of a wave of innovation still upending the entire industry. His biggest star is gone but Carter remains a player not just in music but in Silicon Valley, where he has invested in myriad companies including Spotify, Dropbox, Uber, Songza and Summly. Record labels and tech entrepreneurs consider him something of an oracle about the tempest he helped unleash.
"Everybody should be nervous," he says, matter-of-factly, the Philly accent still detectable. "With the music industry we've always had technological change, whether it was disruption from eight-track to cassette, or cassette to CD, CD to download, download to streaming. The difference now is how fast it's happening. We're seeing new technology pop up every few months like this." Carter clicks his fingers. "I sit on the edge of my seat. I try to live around the corner just to get a sneak peak, to have some sense of what's happening. The industry [needs] to be very aware, concerned and curious about everything on the way." Among the changes he foresees: albums released solely as apps; unprecedented data harvesting; more African Americans in Silicon Valley; concert holograms; massively bigger audiences; and the triumph of the perpetually online, engaged digital star.
Hollywood, record labels and tech giants such as Apple, Google and Samsung face immense risks and opportunities, says Carter. "Everybody should be afraid right now. We saw what happened to Nokia and BlackBerry and Motorola. Nobody saw Android coming. Nobody saw the iPhone coming. Nobody saw Samsung coming. No one is safe right now. Everything is moving so quickly."
Carter's opinion has weight. Just before meeting the Observer, he hosted a wealthy venture capitalist seeking guidance on industry trends. The Harvard Business Review documented Carter's role as music Svengali and geek guru in two studies of Gaga's success. "Troy is an extremely well-respected manager," Anita Elberse, a professor who co-authored the Harvard studies, told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year. "[Gaga's] 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." If he offered to lecture at Harvard, Elberse said she would accept. "I think he'd be fantastic." Wired magazine featured him on its cover last year under the headline "Mogul 2.0: how Lady Gaga's manager reinvented the celebrity game with social media". A Billboard magazine cover featured him as part of a "power trio".
The 41-year-old is the founder, chairman and CEO of the grandly titled Coalition Media Group, a talent management and film and TV production company. He works from the management division, known as Atom Factory, in Century City. A big tank with tropical fish adorns the reception. Hipstery types breeze in and out, munching seaweed snacks.
The mogul himself turns out to be a down-to-earth, affable, wiry figure in jeans, boots and checked shirt. He looks younger than his years but jokes about having an "old soul". He tends to speaks slowly, giving himself time to think. As a boy, he says, he was curious but not geeky. "I always wanted to figure out how things work, I would take things apart." Growing up in a gritty neighbourhood, he received a limited formal education but found his curiosity piqued by a neighbour, Lawrence Goodman, who ran a rap label. Carter and some friends formed a rap group, which was signed by Will Smith and James Lassiter's WillJam Records label. They weren't very good and lost the contract but Carter stayed on as an administrative dogsbody and personal assistant. He moved with Lassiter to LA only to be fired – he had become arrogant, he later admitted – and banished back to Philly.
Chastened, he co-founded a talent agency and clawed his way back to LA, and success, until a deal soured and ruined him by 2007.
Enter Gaga. A producer friend, Vincent Herbert, introduced Carter to then unknown Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. The trio toured her unique look and sound around bars and clubs but radio stations shunned her. She was too strange, too different. "It was tough to get played on the radio so we used social media as an alternative way to reach audiences," he recalls.
An early adopter, Gaga became a phenomenon, eventually garnering 40 million Twitter followers, 61 million Facebook fans and 2.3 billion YouTube views. "It wasn't anything that we did was original. It was a whole new wave of artists that were using these as tools."
The technology democratised video and eliminated middle men such as labels and publicists, giving artists direct access to fans. "It became an alternative to getting played on the radio or TV so we took a heavy interest in it. The tech community embraced our curiosity and welcomed us in. That's what opened up the doors."
It was Gaga's idea, after seeing the Facebook biopic, The Social Network, to create their own network. LittleMonsters.com is its own ecosystem that lets fans buy music or concert tickets, watch videos, upload artwork and chat with other fans around the world with instant translation. "Gaga has done a phenomenal job building this huge digital fanbase – fans who became activists for her and will fight battles on her behalf," says Carter. "At the height of rock'n'roll it was about mailing lists. One of the early jobs I did was opening Will [Smith]'s fan mail. Now all that's been replaced by tweets and social media. So you've always had that connection. But now you can reach people in real time."
LittleMonsters.com is hosted on Backplane, a new platform that Carter and other backers hope will host other community sites, herding content and interaction into one hub – and generating a data trove. Coca-Cola, Nike, Cirque du Soleil and a few others have signed up, he says, because they want the data and the relationship with consumers. "Are we going to replace large social media platforms for brands? I'm not sure. But we are seeing some traction in that space."
Gaga's release of an app of her latest album, Artpop, foreshadowed a future when all albums will be apps, says Carter. "It's a much richer album experience for consumers. It becomes a living, breathing thing." They can, for example, amend the artwork or annotate lyrics. "There's a million things you can do." Others will follow her lead, he says. "I'm very bullish about this new generation of artists. They're digital natives. They're starting their careers online."
Not all are convinced. "If you think Lady Gaga is rubbish, you won't like the app. If you're one of her avid Little Monsters, you'll love it. And everyone else? Well, it's certainly interesting," said the Guardian's Stuart Dredge. The album itself received mixed reviews and sold poorly in comparison to the 2011 Born This Way, prompting speculation that Gaga is being eclipsed by rivals such as Miley Cyrus. True or not, their parting of ways has freed Carter to focus on things that do not involve meat dresses or meme-inducing hats.
He sees multiple opportunities. The music industry suffered a "hurricane Katrina" from illegal downloads, streaming, YouTube and other innovations for which it was unprepared, says Carter, but the advent of services such as iTunes, Spotify and Pandora tamed piracy and generated income. "We're now at a really good point, seeing the fruits of the labour." Radiohead, David Byrne and other artists who accuse streaming of impoverishing artists and killing creativity would disagree.
Long before the split with Gaga, Carter diversified into other artists, such as John Legend and Lindsey Stirling, but his foray into Silicon Valley could yield far greater benefits. It was a logical step because he believes music's future lies in mobile devices and streaming and that CDs and record stores will go the way of vinyl and Blockbusters. He has invested in more than 40 startups and employs engineers in Palo Alto to keep up with the revolution. "We don't have a clue what technology will look like in three years, let alone in 10 years. We stay very close to entrepreneurs and [many] want us to see their emerging technology first because they know we're not afraid of it. And they know we're good at being able to translate their vision to music executives. We kind of serve as this bridge."
The likes of Snapchat, which processes 400 million messages daily, exposes the puniness of metrics such as album sales, he grumbles. The music industry needs to redefine scale and success. To think bigger. Way bigger. A recent U2 tour sold 7 million tickets – rather good, most would think, but Carter thinks a future tour could net 700 million tickets by beaming holograms into living rooms or multiple stadiums. "It's a matter of time before the technology scales to that point." When songs start dwarfing photos in terms of reach – Audagram? – engineers and designers will gravitate towards the music industry, he predicts. "As we see this fusion of content and technology, we're going to be able to compete with some of the best technology companies in terms of recruiting talent."
Black faces are rare in Silicon Valley but Carter says his race has not been a factor. "It's all about the idea, the ability to execute." He hopes his example will encourage young African Americans to become coders and entrepreneurs, just as Motown opened the music industry to black executives. "It takes just one person to be able to break down that door and show it's possible. And that's an option for the people coming behind me."
There was little culture shock, he says, because tech engineers have similar personalities to musicians. "When you think about the amount of time you need to spend behind a keyboard as a kid, or a computer, your social skills can lag behind that of a kid who was out playing football." Tech entrepreneurs, he says, can match music producers' flamboyance. "You see those guys driving Ferraris and flying private planes. You're seeing a convergence of both lifestyles."
Data capture is locking both sides in a tight embrace. Downloading, streaming and using the likes of LittleMonsters.com generates detailed information of immense value to artists, labels, stores and advertisers. "It's a game changer," beams Carter. "We're really understanding for the first time who the consumer is and how the consumer ticks." It lets you fine-tune tour schedules and marketing. "You know who are the super fans, who are the passive fans, what songs they're listening to at any specific time."
In the wake of NSA snooping revelations and privacy concerns, is this not ominous? Carter, ever the optimist, shakes his head. "If you're transparent about your use of the data, and the tradeoff is valuable to the consumer, I don't think there's an issue." Over time, however, he expects more people to switch default settings to private. "When I download an app I don't want it to blast to all of my contacts."
The man who presided over Lady Gaga's social media empire, it turns out, has a tiny digital footprint. For work he uses Path, which limits contacts to 150, and uses Facebook just for family. He doesn't tweet. "Twitter is much more public and I don't have that many clever things to say."
Even so, he believes technology now compels artists – and pretty much anyone with an audience – to be more transparent, available and interactive. Burnishing mystique with aloofness is very last century. "The whole mysterious star game is over. This audience grew up with reality TV, where people put their entire lives online. These kids share everything now. They want a constant flow of content. You're becoming more of a star now if you're opening up your life to the fans; it builds the bond."
Hollywood stars are struggling to adapt, he says. "These are the guys who were mysterious back in the day. Now they have a problem connecting with the audience. They're not social media savvy."
Will this not condemn us to ever more superficiality and narcissism? He laughs. "If you're a superficial narcissist I completely agree. It's just going to amplify whoever you are. If you're sincere and smart and genuine and lovable that's what's going to come across in your videos and tweets."
The rule applies to anyone with an audience, no matter how small, because once a talk or performance is filmed it can be uploaded and shared, after which anything is possible. "You never know how this information may travel and how big the profile may get. Whoever you are is just magnified." As are your mistakes. "Within seconds we don't just know about it, we have video about it, and we have snarky, cynical comments by bloggers, tweeters."
A dystopian vision, to some, but Carter welcomes it. Technology and information will make our kids smarter, he says. "We may crowd source a cure for cancer. Or organ transplants." The interview ends and he rises to his feet, still in full flow about boundless possibilities, exciting opportunities. His optimism is understandable, though not necessarily infectious. The new dispensation will have winners and losers. Unlike most, the music industry's tech savant can smile knowing which side he is likely to end up on.
CELEB TECH INVESTORS
The 90s hip-hop star who gave us songs like Can't Touch This and 2 Legit 2 Quit has been in the tech investment game for some time, although he hasn't had much luck. Launched in 2007, his company DanceJam was a website and social platform that let users watch, learn and show off dance moves to each other.
That closed in 2011. Wiredoo, a "deep search engine" that was designed to face up to giants Google and Yahoo, become insolvent in early 2012.
An avid Twitter user with a huge following, Gaga has invested in the Backplane company of her former manager Troy Carter.
Her own tech credentials were scooped up by Polaroid, which appointed her creative director in 2010.
Supported by Tomorrow Venture, an investment firm run by Google executive Eric Schmidt, her ladyship also partnered with Zynga's outrageously popular Facebook game FarmVille to produce GagaVille, in which users could unleash new Gaga tracks as they played the game.
The sci-fi pop superstar is now Intel's director of creative innovation, a slightly mysterious role that currently entails a worldwide tour making songs on an "Ultrabook" laptop.
He has also gone back to college to study computer science, invested in Stem education – covering science, technology, engineering and maths – and is a founding shareholder of Beats Electronics.
However his much ballyhooed $475 golden iPhone case, the foto.sosho, produced by his wearable tech company, i.am+, was less successful.
The garishly designed camera mount complete with huge straps has faded into obscurity after launching to big press at the end of 2012.
The rockstar millionaire philanthropist has had a mixed bag of success with his investment company Elevation Partners. The equity firm invested $300m in the smartphone developer Palm – which lost the market to Android and Apple and was eventually acquired by HP.
Elevation Partners also invested $400m in Forbes which, while not as catastrophic, has not been doing so well – the esteemed magazine had to sell its famous New York headquarters in 2010. His investment in Facebook however was an excellent move.
Actress Jada Pinkett-Smith recently invested in her first tech startup when she partnered with Bipper – a company that has created the app bSafe which, at the press of a button, can alert friends and family if you are in danger.
Pinkett-Smith proclaims that the app is "a safety service that can easily be used by anyone".
Her husband Will Smith also has tech investments that include Viddy, another short video sharing service similar to Vine. He has also has been said to back Fancy, a webstore to rival to the popular photo-sharing site Pinterest.
Having made a name for himself on the big screen, Kutcher has since become the angel of the tech scene with his shrewd, forward-thinking investments that include Skype and Flipboard.
He is now part of a power-trio, along with Madonna's manager Guy Oseary and businessman Ron Burkle, that runs investment fund A-Grade Investments.
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