Sorry, Perez – you just don't get it

Perez Hilton's failure to turn his celebrity into a musical cash cow proved one thing: if you want to mix pop and branding, you've got to know your fans

Celebrity is not the same as popularity: that was the lesson Perez Hilton should have learned, but almost certainly didn't, last week. Maybe he thought his name would be enough to make the Perez Hilton Presents US package tour of hip up-and-coming acts – including Ladyhawke and Little Boots – a hit. After all, he's the ubiquitous gossip blogger, friend-to-the-stars and self-proclaimed "queen of all media" who has become an A-lister himself in the last few years. Nevertheless, ticket sales for his tour have been so poor that prices have had to be slashed – in some cases to nothing – for the remaining dates.

The tour reached its nadir in Boston, when the Norwegian indie rocker Ida Maria, playing to 250 people in a 2,400-capacity venue, suffered a meltdown on stage and pulled out of subsequent dates. The tour had been intended as an overture to the launch of the excruciatingly named Perezcious Music, through Warner Bros Records. So, will its failure give the music industry pause for thought about the absolute promotional value of celebrity?

Hilton has been uncharacteristically quiet on the matter, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – his rival US pop commentators are more than ready to suggest that the Perez brand itself is toxic. "People go to Perez's site only because they want to read gossip," says Michael Knudsen, aka "MK" of, "not because they actually like Mr Hilton. Why would anybody want to go to a concert presented by him?"

Maura Johnston of the hugely popular Idolator blog goes further: "His blend of self-aggrandisement, barely concealed agendas, misogyny and poor grammar is quite a noxious cocktail. It 'works', but I suspect it works largely because he was one of the earliest online gossipmongers and definitely the first to build an outsized persona for himself. He trumpets things like click-throughs to artists he mentions on his site, but the moment the users have to make any commitment or lay out any money, any 'influence' he has evaporates."

Eamonn Forde, who writes about the music industry, suggests Perez's understanding of the music industry may also be limited. "I suspect he was probably advised [to put on the tour based on financial] figures going back three years or so, when live music was still a goldmine," Forde says. "But the recession has changed that totally, particularly the middle-sized shows he's trying to break into: it's an incredibly complex science to even make 5% or 10% profit on a tour, even with corporate backing. I just don't think people buy him as an entrepreneur, as a tour promoter, or even as someone who understands music that well – he's a media entity, someone who likes to hang out with the cool kids, and that's it."

Fall Out Boy and emo T-shirts
But use of celebrity-as-brand need not be so crass and off-putting: for every Perez, who appears to think that merely stamping a name on something will transfer popularity to it, there are those genuinely trying to use the power of celebrity to create new business models for artists who can't survive on record sales any more.

Hip-hop, of course, has forged the way here, and Forde suggests Jay-Z as "the absolute perfect example of someone who maintains the respect of his peers and fans as an artist, but learns from the best – or at least puts the best on his payroll – in each new sphere he moves into, and takes each venture very, very seriously". Maura Johnston, meanwhile, cites Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy, now also a video director and whose name adorns a clothing line, comic book and chain of bars, as someone who has managed to use his fame without losing touch with his emo-punk grassroots support.

My own experience writing for dance music monthly Mixmag has shown me that the underground dance and urban music scenes in this country are bursting with youthful capitalists who also understand that the strength of their connection with fans is at least as important as the size of their following. This spring, I chaired a panel of young Bristolian dubstep musicians, promoters and shop managers at a national music industry conference; they and the discussion audience were fired up about the localised infrastructure they were building, and it was remarked that this was the one of very few optimistic panels in a conference infused with doom and gloom. In fact, dance music is full of optimists who see opportunities where the big labels see only decline.

The current champion of this attitude in dubstep is 21-year-old Ollie Jones – better known as Skream, the Croydon DJ-producer who broke the sound into the mainstream when his startlingly sparse and haunting remix of La Roux's In for the Kill became 2009's undisputed club anthem. Hearing him talk about how he positions his brand, it's easy to see put almost as much artistry into his strategies as into his music.

"I know I'm reaching a more commercial audience now," he says, "and losing some of my old fans. But if I wanted maximum sales right now I'd do the Noisettes and Katy Perry remixes I get offered, but just being flavour of the month ain't what I'm about, and I'd lose out long-term. This dubstep thing won't last forever, and I want to be known as versatile, and have a career as a proper record producer, so I've got to make the right connections. I don't want the Skream name on something that isn't me."

Steely Tinchy
More obviously entrepreneurial is Tinchy Stryder. The 22-year-old rapper became one of Britain's most bankable pop stars this year, but had been building support in the hyper-competitive London grime music scene since the age of 12, and before he signed his major label deal he was kept financially afloat by a combination of private investors and the profits from his clothing line, Star in the Hood. A softly-spoken, inquisitive young man with steely focus, Stryder says he owes his success to Jay-Z's example.

"I followed him from when I was nine, man," he says. "Every detail, every move he made, how Roc-A-Wear [his clothing line] and Roc-A-Fella [record label] and his career all worked together, how he mentioned the brands in his songs and videos, all of that."

Crucially, he understands the importance of being convincing in all roles and not just dabbling in them: "I love clothes. I love trainers. I want to look good in my video and I want people to see that and want to dress this way – but I knew as well that the clothes have to work on their own. People have to want to buy them who don't even know my songs, too."

The tartily dressed canary in the coalmine
These descendants of rave and hip-hop know that, whatever messages The X Factor might convey, you can't just play your music, get discovered and become a star – an altogether more complex raft of skills and a sharp eye for opportunity are needed to survive in the modern music industry. But can the rise of these young artists provide an alternative model for major labels to the blaring, hectoring saturation branding that Perez Hilton represents? Forde hopes so. "It comes down to the 'dinner model'," he says. "Would you want to sit down for two hours over a meal with that person? You get the feeling that with, say, Jay-Z or even Tinchy Stryder, there would be a conversation: you might learn something from him, and he would listen to you. But would you want to listen to Perez Hilton namedropping and screeching about himself for two hours? Of course not. That should tell you what you need to know about them as brand figureheads."

Maura Johnston is circumspect. "It may be that Perez is the tartily dressed canary in the coalmine," she says, "and this warning will be heeded – but I suspect there is worse to come yet. I think Warners are going to go ahead with 'his' label, which actually basically to me seems to be a way to soft-pitch Warner artists who are 'too Euro' to an American audience. It won't work, though – I feel very comfortable saying that."


Joe Muggs

The GuardianTramp

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