Why The Wanted Play Gay Clubs: Marketing, Music And The LGBT Community's Mainstream Music Clout
Why The Wanted Play Gay Clubs: Marketing, Music And The LGBT Community's Mainstream Music Clout

When the Wanted was looking to book its first major U.S. gigs in January, the British pop group didn't just call up Live Nation or AEG to reach the tween- and teen-girl fan base courted by the generations of boy bands that had come before them. Sandwiched in between 10 midsize-club dates, the group made a quintet of special appearances booked by a boutique PR and events company called the Karpel Group to help reach what has arguably become an even more powerful audience when it comes to modern pop stardom: the gays.

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Stops at bars like New York's Splash, Chicago's Roscoe's and West Hollywood's Ultra Suede generated more press buzz than many of the Wanted's general-market gigs, helping to propel the band's single "Glad You Came" into the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 weeks before its U.S. debut album, Battleground, hit shelves. Though the gigs themselves aren't exactly uncommon these days -- Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Kylie Minogue are among the pop acts who've appeared or performed at gay clubs in the United States in the last two years alone -- they're the latest evidence of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community's mainstream influence. Though June may be LGBT Pride Month, a time when A-listers like Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and even the Backstreet Boys have all paid respects to the community in years past, artist development among LGBT fans -- "Gay & R," if you will -- is happening all throughout the calendar.

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"We always tell people that when the float passes, there's still 364 days to do the work and reach the audience with a message," says Carmen Cacciatore, co-founder of gay entertainment marketing agency Fly Life. "With Pride events being so huge, there's so much you're competing with now that some marketing tools just cancel each other out. Unless you're doing something that's really going to stand out, the cost of doing some stunts around a parade versus some things you can do all year round may not always be worth it."

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Whether it's Lady Gaga building her career around the support of her LGBT "little monsters," the cultural impact of "Glee" and campaigns like "It Gets Better" and "No H8," the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell or the echo effect President Obama's support of gay marriage had on rappers like Jay-Z, Ice Cube and T.I., being gay is becoming increasingly less counterculture -- it is culture. That will only continue to play out in the coming months as gay rights become one of the brightest political lightning rods of this year's presidential election.

"Being gay or having a gay friend is all over television. Now it's, 'Do you have a transgender friend?'" says Mark Nelson, founder of Mark Nelson Events, who's booked acts like Perry, Minogue and the Pussycat Dolls for key gay club shows. And indeed, the "T" in LGBT has gained prominence in music as of late, after lead singer Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, formerly Tom Gabel, came out as transgender and kicked off a tour supporting the Cult in late May.

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That's why barely an eyebrow was raised when Adam Lambert recently became the first openly gay performer to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (To clarify, Elton John, George Michael and Ricky Martin all had No. 1 debuts when they were still closeted.) Or when artists like Perry ("Firework"), Gaga ("Born This Way"), Ke$ha ("We R Who We R") and P!nk ("Raise Your Glass") score No. 1 singles with outcast anthems for fans of all orientations. Even Azealia Banks, the most buzzed-about female rapper since Minaj, quietly came out as bisexual in a recent New York Times profile and turned her first headlining New York concert into a tribute to late-'80s gay Harlem, hosting a costume contest filled with voguing straight out of "Paris Is Burning."

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And though gay-targeted publications like the Advocate and Out struggle with circulation, the economic recovery of mid-2010 seems to have benefited the gay press. From May 2010 to April 2011, ad revenue at LGBT publications rebounded a whopping 99.5% to $307 million, the result of increased spending on national publications from beverage/alcohol, automotive and retail marketers, among others, according to the 2011 Gay Press Report, compiled by ad agency Prime Access and LGBT media placement firm Rivendell Media.

For music, bloggers like Perez Hilton, Andy Towle (Towleroad) and Jared Eng (JustJared) wield a lot of influence and Sirius' Out Q (hosted by former Billboard editor Larry Flick) has been a satellite-radio mainstay since 2003. Even Clear Channel has a Pride radio network that serves 19 markets with gay-friendly pop music as well as across iHeartRadio's digital network.

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Gay buying power, often touted for the consumer group's supposed affluence, remains a bit of a misnomer. "There's no data that suggests gay people are wealthier than anybody else," Witeck Communications' Bob Witeck says. "They may overindex in some cities but there's not a lot of validity there." Nevertheless, Witeck's firm found that gay consumers spend more on entertainment than other consumer groups and projected the market's overall U.S. spending power would finish 2012 at $790 billion (an adjustment from the $845 billion predicted in the pre-recession marketplace of 2007).

They also not only appreciate being marketed to directly, they expect it -- particularly when it comes to music. Labels are starting to develop dedicated gay-marketing strategies for certain artists, much as they already have for reaching Hispanic or African-American audiences.

lambertAdam Lambert became the first openly gay artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

"Five or six years ago it was almost uncomfortable. Now I sit in label meetings and someone in the room will say, 'We really have to drill down on this market,'" says Scott Seviour, senior VP of marketing and artist development at Epic Records. "On a business level and an industry level, there's a greater respect for that consumer. You've seen them break an artist and make names. They're passionate and they can move the needle."

Island Def Jam executive VP of marketing Eric Wong has long turned to the gay market for artists ranging from Lopez and Carey (whom he co-manages) to developing acts like Kerli and Neon Trees, whether it's through dance remixes, club promotions or personal appearances. (Lopez played New York's Pride Pier Dance in summer 2006.) And a new wave of major-label pop acts is courting the gay dance-club audience as an early champion.

Warner Bros.' Neon Hitch, best-known to pop audiences for her vocals on Gym Class Heroes' "Ass Back Home," has been working dance singles like "F--- U Betta" to gay clubs for months now, while Young Money's Porcelain Black often squeezed gay-targeted shows in between tour stops with labelmates Minaj and Lil Wayne last year. Atlantic act Marina & the Diamonds' sophomore album, Electra Heart, will get a big gay-marketing push from Fly Life when the album hits U.S. shores next month.

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But even gay consumers aren't immune to a tough touring economy, as the founders of Cyndi Lauper's True Colors tour learned in 2009. Established in 2007 to raise funds for the Human Rights Campaign and support of the Matthew Shepard Act (later approved by Congress in October of that year), True Colors was a mega-tour of sorts for gay and gay-friendly acts like Erasure, Gossip, Deborah Harry, the B-52s, the Dresden Dolls and Rufus Wainwright. Successful in large theaters for its first two years, the tour ultimately found its multiple-performer economics unsustainable in the post-recession road climate.

"With a multi-act bill, even if you're trying to do something good for people you don't want to work for free," a founding partner says. "It was an expensive ticket, and we couldn't only go out 40% sold out." The tour has since become a successful annual charity concert in New York.

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Beyond pop, there isn't a clear paradigm for other genres to establish more out gay stars like Lambert, Aiken and John. The country community was reluctant to embrace the coming out of Chely Wright in 2010, around the same time Jennifer Knapp became one of the first contemporary Christian singers to come out. Hip-hop remains the last taboo, with the bisexual Banks and male rappers' reactive support of gay marriage signaling baby steps toward an out gay male rapper. In the rock world, Michael Stipe and Rob Halford waited long after their careers were established before announcing they were gay.

Regardless of genre, Epic's Seviour hopes the current cultural climate accelerates the change even faster. "Adam Lambert is the perfect example of someone who owns who he is, makes great pop music and is not defined by sexuality," he says. "He just makes great pop music."