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ARTPOP or ARTFLOP: The Media's Manipulation of Lady Gaga's Album Sales

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Disclaimer: This is an opinion article. It is not news.

"I put so much love into my music, into my shows, I make it all for you. I'll never understand the overflow of hate sent my way. Or maybe thats what entertainment is now. It's more fun to point & laugh than appreciate the artist. I'll keep rehearsing my steps #showbiz."

This is what pop star Lady Gaga tweeted to her 40 million followers on November 20, the same day that Billboard declared that her fourth studio album ARTPOP debuted at number one on their Billboard 200 Chart. Most artists would be celebrating a number one debut on the Billboard charts, but not Lady Gaga. She does have a flare for the drama, so is this merely an instance of theatrics and overreaction, or was her response justified?

In my opinion, it is the latter. In the new age of media where everyone from a well-studied music connoisseur to a deadbeat in his mom's basement can be published, Lady Gaga appears to be getting the short end of the stick. With a flood of "news" articles that accompanied the release of ARTPOP came a manipulative and deceptive bias leading people to believe that the album and the singer's career itself were flailing much worse than they actually were.

I have been a Lady Gaga fan for the last 5 years (albeit a disillusioned one for some of the last few), and am not one of those crazy 'Little Monsters' Kelly Osbourne is always talking about. I don't care if someone has a negative opinion about 'Mother Monster;' good art is supposed to inspire debate, discussion and controversy. My problem is that unlike the coverage of Gaga's female pop counterparts, a barrage of articles presenting themselves as news and not opinion pieces were written about Lady Gaga, manipulating the public into believing that ARTPOP was actually an "artflop," as many referred to it.

It was for this very reason I waited so long to write anything at all; I did not want to contribute to the overabundance of articles on ARTPOP. However, I changed my mind after observing a distinct difference between how the media covered Lady Gaga's latest venture and how it covered new releases from Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Britney Spears, who all released new albums in the last 2-3 months.

Here are the facts: Gaga's previous album, Born This Way, debuted at number one in 2011 with first-week sales of 1.1 million (although 440k of them were from a special deal that sold the album for 99 cents). That is an incredible number of album sales, even discounting the 440k sold from Amazon, and not by any means a standard debut. Gaga was coming off her incredibly successful first two albums, The Fame and The Fame Monster, as well as her huge Monster Ball Tour. Now, with ARTPOP, she is returning to the music world after a long absence caused by an injury that ended her latest tour early.

ARTPOP debuted at number one with first week sales of 258,000. In comparison, Miley's album Bangerz debuted at number 1 with sales of 270,000 copies, Perry's Prism debuted at number 1, moving 286,000 units and Britney's Britney Jean sold 107,000 copies, nabbing the number four spot. While Britney's album had the weakest debut, one can argue that the difference in sales between Gaga, Perry and Cyrus is not very substantial; their sales can all be considered in the same 'tax bracket.' Yet, "news" articles popped up from 'credible,' mainstream media outlets with a negative spin on Gaga's first week sales as compared to Perry's and Cyrus's.

Let's compare Yahoo! Music's articles on the debut of Miley's album to the debut of ARTPOP, shall we? Paul Grein, a writer for Yahoo! Music's "Chart Watch," wrote of Miley's debut: "While Cyrus' first-week tally isn't a record-setter, it's far from a dud...Bangerz sold more than Rihanna's Unapologetic, which sold 238K in its first week in November." The majority of the article goes on to defend why Cyrus's debut is impressive.

On the other hand, his article reporting on the debut of "ARTPOP" reads: "Where are all of Lady Gaga's little monsters? They came out in droves for Gaga's [last] album, Born This Way, but...ARTPOP is receiving a decidedly more tepid response from her social media-loving fanbase...Both Gaga and Rihanna are considered among the top female pop stars on the planet. As such, shouldn't they be able to drum up bigger first-week sales totals? You'd think so. So why didn't ARTPOP do better this week?" While Grein's article on Cyrus is focused on defending the album's 270K sales, his one on Gaga is spent analyzing why ARTPOP's 258K sales are sub-par. So I guess according to Yahoo! Music, a 12k difference in first week sales is what makes or breaks an album, even if both held the number one spot.

It is also important to point out how Grein uses Unapologetic's debut numbers (238K) in each of his articles. In the Bangerz piece, it is used as evidence of how good Cyrus' sales were in comparison. In the Gaga article, it is put in the same under-performing category as ARTPOP. In reality, ARTPOP's numbers are closer to Cyrus's (12K off) than they are to Rihanna's (a 20K difference). Therefore, why not use Unapologetic to highlight how decently Gaga's debut was (as he did with Cyrus's) rather than as proof of how both didn't sell well?

Grein could have easily used the 20k difference between Unapologetic and ARTPOP to spotlight the fact that Gaga's debut was better than that of another huge contemporary pop star. Instead, it's used as "evidence" of how both supposedly didn't get big enough first week totals. The same fact is being manipulated in a completely different way in the Lady Gaga "news" article than it is in the Miley Cyrus one.

Or take, for instance, the Los Angeles Times's news articles on Cyrus's first week sales verses Gaga's. Miley's headline simply reads "Miley Cyrus debuts at No. 1 with 'Bangerz'" while Gaga's is "Lady Gaga tops Billboard 200 album chart -- barely -- with 'Artpop'." Again, that 12K difference in sales warrants a difference between a straight forward headline for Cyrus and a qualified one for Gaga?

One final side by side comparison can be seen in Rolling Stone's reporting of Miley's debut verses Gaga's. For Miley Cyrus, the famous music magazine writes, "Pretty much every week has been Miley week in late 2013, but this week really is, as Bangerz finally shows up to rescue the record business." Weeks later, Gaga's article reads that the 258K albums sold is "a decent number in today's post-Napster and sort-of-pre-streaming world, but it's pretty low for one of the world's biggest pop star." Again, was there some invisible tipping pointing in that 12K difference that makes Bangerz's sales able to rescue the music industry whereas ARTPOP's sales are "pretty low?"

No doubt some media outlets did write unbiased and straightforward news articles. Billboard, for example, writes, "It's the second No. 1 set for Gaga, who also debuted at No. 1 with her last album, 2011's Born This Way. That set bowed with 1.1 million sold in its first week...ARTPOP is also the fifth top 10 for Gaga...The arrival of ARTPOP is the third-largest sales week for a woman in 2013. It follows Katy Perry's Prism and Miley Cyrus's Bangerz." Notice a difference in language between this article and the previous ones mentioned when discussing ARTPOP's sales. This news piece is exactly that: an accurate, unbiased report on the facts.

On the other hand, MSN published an article with the headline "Lady Gaga's 'ARTPOP' flop expected to lose label reported $25 million in marketing costs." The headline itself, labeling the album a "flop," is biased, and its claims are extreme and unsubstantiated. Furthermore, how can the third largest sales week for a woman in 2013 be labeled a flop and cost the record label $25 million, especially when it barely undersold the top 2 largest?

Finally, Britney Spear's latest project was the lowest selling debut of her entire career, and undersold Lady Gaga's debut by over 150,000 copies. Yet, the media still compared Britney's showing to Lady Gaga's.

In a news article published by Rolling Stone, reporter Steven Knopper writes, "That's it. The blockbusters are over – One Direction and Eminem boomed and Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, not so much." Knopper chooses to lump Gaga and Spears into the non-Blockbuster category, even though Lady Gaga sold more than double the number of albums than Britney did in each of their first weeks. The piece, written on December 11, weeks after ARTPOP was released, manipulates its readers into thinking that the album had sales as dismal as Britney's were.

Knopper mentions how many units Britney Jean sold (107K), but never actually mentions that ARTPOP sold 258,000 copies. Many who stumble onto this article are most likely not aware of ARTPOP's sales figures and therefore make assumptions about ARTPOP's success (or lack thereof). Why didn't Knopper choose Miley's Bangerz to compare to Britney Jean? After all, Bangerz only sold 12K more than ARTPOP did in its first week. Perhaps because, in Rolling Stone's eyes, that 12K makes the difference between an album "rescuing the record business," as they wrote about Bangerz weeks earlier, and an album that hasn't "boomed."

And yes, many said that further proof of Gaga's career ending was the album's steep decline in second week sales, when it fell to number 8 on the charts (an 82% decline, the worst of the year).

While Gaga's second week sales may have been the worst fall off in 2013, many other artists experienced big decline in sales in their second weeks as well, including Eminem's latest album, which had a 73% decline according to Rolling Stone. A 73% decline verses an 82% one doesn't seem too far off, but I won't make this lengthy article even longer by pointing out the differences in "news" articles about Lady Gaga's decline in second-week sales verses Eminem's. I'd make a safe bet that those chronicling Gaga are a lot more harsh, biased and skewed than those covering Eminem. (It is also interesting to note that ARTPOP rose from number 8 to 7 in its third week, but few bothered covering that).

Perhaps all of this just means that music fans aren't buying albums as much as they used to. Knopper's Rolling Stone article even goes on to discuss a "year-long sales coma" for albums. Similarly, in an article analyzing the decline in album sales, Vanity Fair writes after Perry's debut, "Everybody’s interested in the single, and no one’s got time to sit and hear [an artist's] hour-plus statement...the album just isn’t working anymore. The youngsters are streaming singles and the oldsters are staying home." If all albums aren't selling as well, it is odd that the media has chosen to single out Lady Gaga's as much as it has.

If you don't like Lady Gaga or her music, that's fine. Write as many strongly-worded opinion pieces as you'd like. But when big media outlets write news articles declaring an artist's work as a "flop" when that's merely their opinion, it can lead to a dangerous manipulation of the public. Most people who aren't as tuned into the music business will glance at one biased headline or skim one skewed article and think that ARTPOP is faring much worse than it actually is. Then they will tell their friends, the public will not be as interested in exploring the album, and what once was opinion will indeed become fact.

Right now, Lady Gaga's career or the ARTPOP album itself are by no means dead, and are still in line with the careers and albums of their counterparts (ARTPOP's second single, "Do What U Want" as well as its first single, "Applause" are both in the top 20 on this week's Billboard Hot 100 Chart). So yes, Gaga's response to her number one debut was completely justified. You keep rehearsing your steps, Lady Gaga, and hopefully the media won't silence those who still wish to give you their applause.


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