Shortly after the 1996 release of Tori Amos’ third studio album, Boys for Pele, Atlantic Records approached DJ Armand Van Helden about remixing her song “Professional Widow.” The request came from Atlantic’s three-person gay and lesbian marketing division, which was formed in 1995 with the goal of promoting Atlantic artists to queer audiences — the first department of its kind among major labels. Though the request wasn’t explicitly for a “gay remix,” it went without saying. “Gay clubs often premiered music ideas, and that included remixes,” says Marc Mannino, who was the division’s coordinator from 1995 to 1998.
Van Helden shed the song’s mournful harpsichord riff and transformed it into a four-on-the-floor rave-up — and the response in nightclubs was immediate. Most importantly, “Professional Widow (Armand’s Star Trunk Funkin’ Mix)” generated grassroots buzz around Amos’ album, particularly among queer listeners. “People still get goose bumps [when they hear that remix] and can recall that moment on the dancefloor,” says Mannino, now executive producer at audio production company Swell Music + Sound. “Those kinds of things have long-lasting effects on an artist’s career.”
Back in that largely pre-internet time, marketing to gay and lesbian consumers was relatively straightforward: reach them at the places where they shopped and partied. In the club-centric ’90s, Mannino says remixes played a big part in that strategy, as did booking performances by straight artists with gay appeal (like singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik and British duo Everything but the Girl) at venues like Barracuda, a Manhattan gay bar. Atlantic also convinced bookstores, clothing shops and Starbucks locations in predominately gay neighborhoods to sell records by artists like Jewel and Pet Shop Boys.
Today, though, marketing artists to the LGBTQ community has evolved into a cottage industry of boutique agencies, whose efforts have expanded far beyond nightlife. Instead, as corporations increasingly pursue the LGBTQ community’s dollars, and as social media makes activist causes more accessible, these agencies describe their work as largely advocacy-driven: educating clients about issues and legislation affecting the LGBTQ community; facilitating partnerships with organizations and brands that support LGBTQ initiatives; and amplifying their clients’ roles as allies through social media — not just during Pride Month or around an album release, but year-round.
According to Darryl W. Bullock, the author of David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, marketing to gay and lesbian audiences took root in the ’70s. He points to Bette Midler, whose frequent performances at a gay bathhouse earned her the nickname “Bathhouse Betty,” and the Village People, whose public image played with several gay archetypes. Even then, queer listeners were seen as a niche but influential market. “People dancing in the disco, those were your tastemakers,” says Bullock.
They were also fiercely loyal. “We take artists to our hearts, and we’ll look after them forever,” says Bullock, citing the likes of Cher, Diana Ross and Madonna. “Their careers would not have lasted for as long as they have without that queer audience, without those people who’ve supported them for their entire careers, through the highs and the lows.”
By the time Atlantic launched its gay and lesbian marketing division, brands like Absolut Vodka, IKEA and Subaru were already advertising to queer consumers, known in marketing circles as DINKs: double income, no kids. The LGBTQ community’s buying power has risen steadily during the past few decades and is estimated at $917 billion, according to the most recent data from Witeck Communications. (Some analysts say this figure has surpassed $1 trillion in 2019.) That change is partly the result of the growth of the community itself, which has embraced increasingly fluid definitions of gender and sexuality: What was once a “gay and lesbian” market is now LGBTQ+. According to a 2018 study conducted by gay social network Hornet and Kantar Consulting, 31% of people born after 1997 identify as LGBTQ+, compared with 20% of millennials and 8% of baby boomers.
As companies become more aware of the value of “the pink dollar,” LGBTQ consumers in turn are more wary of artists who pander to them. “We’re not interested in people just doing a generic ‘I love my gay fans’ tweet,” says Carmen Cacciatore, the president of Mighty Real Agency, an LGBTQ-focused marketing agency whose recent clients have included Lizzo, Dido and Chaka Khan. “That’s nice and all, but what can you do?”
Cacciatore says advocacy-related work became a bigger focus for artists and labels around 2008, when social media networks like Twitter experienced wild growth and breakout acts like Lady Gaga made supporting the community an explicit priority. When Gaga expressed interest in speaking out against “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010, Mighty Real connected her with OutServe-SLDN, a network of LGBTQ military personnel. Soon after, Gaga’s tour bus drove 11 hours out of its way so she could speak at a rally in Maine, where she encouraged her millions of Twitter followers to join her. “Yes, we advised her in that [rally],” says Cacciatore, “but it was authentic. It was her. We just helped her magnify her role in this space.”
In the past, he has declined to take on projects with artists whose intentions seem less than genuine. “I’m not going to put together an advocacy plan just because a manager or an outside person is telling them to do it,” he says.
More recently, Mighty Real worked with Cyndi Lauper to connect her team with LGBTQ centers in Tulsa, Okla., that sold concert tickets for one of her shows in exchange for a cut of profits — a savvy promotion technique that also benefited underserved queer populations. “In these areas, the LGBTQ community centers are crucial,” says Cacciatore, “as they may be one of only a handful of safe spaces for folks to socialize and get any support.”
Labels also often look to these agencies as sounding boards when artists are releasing material that might contain sensitive or offensive content about queer people, says Vinny Moschetta, vp marketing at The Karpel Group, another LGBTQ-focused marketing company whose clients have included Nicki Minaj, Sia and Björk. Usually, they take the feedback to heart. “It’s not coming from a place of malice,” he says. “It’s just not having that deep connection to the community that we do.”
Historically, marketing to queer audiences has often meant marketing to white gay men in particular. But Moschetta stresses the importance today of treating queer consumers as a diverse community, not a monolith. “If it was just left to ads you take out during RuPaul’s Drag Race or on Grindr” — the gay hookup app on which Madonna and Ariana Grande have advertised music and concerts — “you’re going to miss whole parts of the community that we as a company spend our time making inroads with,” he says.
Moschetta says that in the past five years he has worked with an increasing number of artists from genres like country, rock and hip-hop. As a result, the company’s campaigns have become more specific: It threw an album-release party at a nightclub catering to gay black men, for instance, and it has also connected musician clients with organizations that support transgender women of color, who currently face disproportionate rates of violence. “The avenues are there,” he says. “It may just take a little extra work to reach [these audiences] in a meaningful way.”
Helping artists and labels make money is, of course, a big part of what these agencies do. But those who work for them emphasize their desire to uplift a segment of the population that continues to be persecuted, particularly under the current U.S. administration. “Even though LGBTQ market visibility is increasing and our economic spending power is rising, there is still major discrimination, violence and injustice happening,” says Cacciatore. “Those stories need to be told. We need messengers who can not only celebrate with us during Pride, but also be there in the trenches with us the rest of the year, day in and day out.”