Will Lady Gaga's Old-School Promo Blitz for 'Joanne' Pay Off? Insiders Weigh In

Will Heath/NBC
Lady Gaga performs on Saturday Night Live on Oct. 22, 2016 in New York City.

There’s one thing no one could accuse Lady Gaga of, at least in 2016, and that’s being sneaky. During a year when surprise releases have seemingly become the new normal — not just for superstars like Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, but even Solange, whose latest album, A Seat at the Table, topped the Billboard 200 with only three days’ notice — the promotional blitz for Joanne, released Oct. 21, felt like something from a bygone era. Was it the last of the old-fashioned blitzkrieg launches, or do stars really still benefit from a traditional run-up?

In an interview on The Howard Stern Show, Gaga promised to personally “sell it old-school-style.” Certainly, there was no newfangled stealthiness about a cover-all-bases approach that included a Saturday Night Live appearance, an Apple Music commercial, a making-of video series, a Bud Light-sponsored “dive bar” mini-tour aired on Facebook Live, the requisite Late Late Show With James Corden “Carpool Karaoke” spot and interviews with Good Morning America, Zane Lowe and The New York Times. By the time she made a heavily Snapchatted, seemingly spontaneous appearance at a Manhattan Best Buy to purchase albums for unsuspecting shoppers, it was clear that this was the most culturally ubiquitous rollout since Taylor Swift’s 1989 two years ago.

If Gaga’s goal is to promote an album like it’s 1999 — and with a Super Bowl halftime show and tour launch still months away, it’s not as if she’ll be slinking back out of sight — how anachronistic is that in a time when other artists are getting publicity by, ironically, cultivating an aura of mystery around their albums?

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong in terms of doing a surprise [launch] versus a full-scale, set-up rollout,” says Jonathan Daniel, co-founder of Crush Music, which manages Sia and Fall Out Boy. “We do both all the time, and they both work great, when they’re done right.” But while Daniel applauds Gaga’s media choices (“If you can do SNL, Stern and the Super Bowl, there’s no reason not to,” he says), the branding initiatives felt more hit or miss to the veteran manager. A promotion with on-demand delivery service Postmates, offering a chance to meet Gaga with the dinner you ordered, for example, was a disconnect from “the message of it being a personal record,” he says, adding, “The club tour is an old-fashioned, cool trick, like The Rolling Stones at the El Mocambo, but she was wearing a Bud Light shirt. Is the message that you’re going back to your roots, or that you’re doing a beer-sponsored show?”

Representatives from Gaga’s label, Interscope, and management declined comment. But the reasons for going big instead of cryptic aren’t hard to fathom: Beyond wanting to ensure a comeback after the perceived flop of Artpop three years ago, Gaga also has a fairly radical stylistic change of direction with the more organic-sounding Joanne, and a dance-conditioned core audience might have found the sudden drop of a ’70s/country-rock-influenced album alienating without some explanatory prep work. The idea may also aim to provide a pre-Super Bowl primer to Middle America — that somewhere between the meat dress and the Tony Bennett collaboration, Gaga has settled into a middle path. (Or even that the Joanne of the title was Gaga’s late aunt, not some Jo Calderone-style alternate persona.)

“She’s at a point where she is entitled to try something different,” says Charese Fruge, vp programming and operations manager at CBS Radio Houston. “Besides Madonna, she’s the queen of reinvention. So I have no business questioning whether she could come back with a home run or two at top 40. I think right now she’s just in a different head space. She definitely wouldn’t be the first -- or the only -- queen of pop to go through that phase."

Whether the omnipresence will pay off is hard to gauge this soon into a hoped for long tail. First-week album sales are projected to be in the 150,000 to 200,000 range, which would make it one of 2016’s top debuts, though hardly a Lemonade-level blockbuster. On the other hand, in the days after SNL and Stern, the highest position for any of her songs on the Spotify streaming chart was in the pallid 60s. Radio largely ignored the first single, but when Stern asked if the SNL-aired “A-Yo” would be the follow-up, Gaga demurred: “I’m not approaching this in the same way as I’ve ever put out a record before. I’m going to perform the music and sing the music and make films” — leaving open the question of whether, at 30, Gaga has graduated to the Madonna level of being an eternal superstar tourer who is already a heritage artist at Top 40.

There is little doubt that the massive promotion is partly because Gaga feels more personally invested in this autobiographical album than any other. Even her Twitter wars bespeak passion, whether she’s promoting “A-Yo” by telling The Chainsmokers (whose Alex Pall said single “Perfect Illusion” “sucks”) that “maybe u guys’ll like this one better” or citing the heartfeltness of her Trayvon Martin-inspired song, “Angel Down,” as a rejoinder to a dismissive Times review. Offers one program director in a major market: “The fusion of it all is a little confusing. I don’t know that [Joanne] is on the same page with what people expect of her, or what pop radio wants from her. I’m sure her team is having to readjust.” 

Gaga’s First-Week Sales History

The Fame, 2008
24,000 sales

The Fame Monster, 2009
174,000 sales

Born This Way, 2011
1.11 million sales

Artpop, 2013
258,000 sales

Cheek to Cheek, 2014
131,000 sales

Joanne, 2016
175,000-180,000 units (projected*)

How Joanne Stacks Up Against Other 2016 First-Week Sales

1. Views, Drake, 1.04 million units
2. Lemonade, Beyoncé, 653,000 units
3. Blonde, Frank Ocean, 276,000 units
4. Death of a Bachelor, Panic! at the Disco, 190,000 units
5. California, Blink-182, 186,000 units
6. Royalty, Chris Brown, 184,000 units
7. Suicide Squad, Soundtrack, 182,000 units
8. A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead, 181,000 units
9. Blackstar, David Bowie, 181,000 units
10. Joanne, Lady Gaga, 175,000-180,000 units*
10. Untitled Unmastered, Kendrick Lamar, 178,000 units
12. Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande, 175,000 units

This article appears in the upcoming Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.