Building a Singing Career: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift

Crowd at a Concert - Lisa Popeil Discusses Singers Building a Successful Career
Singers are going to need grit and perseverance, says Vocal Coach Lisa Popeil.

Though the rise from obscurity to fame can occasionally happen serendipitously, for most performers, it’s a long slog through disappointment, heartbreak and great perseverance.  In my book, Sing at the Top of Your Game, I chose 5 female and 5 male pop artists whose stories I thought showed a variety of trajectories and contained events not widely known by the general public.  

My sketching out of these histories include early starts, working with producers, and strings of record deals, and culminates with each artist’s first major hit, considering that a milestone in the fine art of “making it”.  I think you’ll be surprised by the arduous journey of many of these talented singers…I know I was.

For this lesson, I’d like to begin with the stories of several girls, the gals, the women whose names you’ll know. 

Katy Perry

Let’s start with Katy Perry, originally Katheryn Hudson who was the daughter of two Evangelical pastors. Growing up listening to gospel music, she only discovered pop music secretly through her friends.  Katheryn started taking vocal lessons and began performing at her family’s church at the age of 9. She completed high school early at 15 and  began her career singing gospel music leading to her signing with a Christian record company in Nashville who tried to brand Katy as a Christian alternative to Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.  In 2001, her record sold 200 albums and thenthe label went bankrupt. Not a very auspicious start, eh?

But then her luck changed and in 2003, she got a real break, a meeting with LA producer Glen Ballard.  She impressed him with her star quality and songs and signed with Ballard, moved to LA. He took her to Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong to play gigs at fashion shows and basement clubs. Then she signed with Island Def Jam as the lead singer of the group The Matrix.  The label cancelled the album before it was even completed.  Strike two. But then it gets worse,  Island Def Jam dropped her and her album project with Glen Ballard was shelved. Perry then signed with and was dropped by Columbia Records. She was then recommended to Virgin Records and her debut album, One of the Boys was released in 2008 and generated three top-ten songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.  It took until Perry’s third album to produce five #1 singles. 

Lessons Learned from Katy Perry

So what can be learned from such a rocky road?  Well, first, where you start musically may not be where you end up.  Second, one can still be successful after tremendous disappointment and rejection and third, it only takes one person who believes in you to change your career trajectory.  

With this in mind, ask yourself the following questions: “How much rejection do I think I can really take?”, “Will I give myself a time line to reach certain goals before I quit or do I intend to just keep going?”, and finally “How much do I believe in myself as a singer, songwriter, and performer?”  It’s a lot of think about, isn’t it! 

Lady Gaga

This next story shows that collaboration can be an important way to get ahead.  Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga, was born in New York City.  She started studying piano at the age of 4 and by 13 was taking voice lessons and writing songs.  Not only did she study classical piano to a high level but she won several leads in her high school musicals.  When she was 17, she studied at CAP21, a  musical theater training program associated with NY University but left to focus on a pop career. 

Lady Gaga was fascinated with the combining of art, religion, politics, sex and music in an art world style and she worked as a waitress and dancer in burlesque clubs and sang in dive bars.  In 2006, Gaga met music producer Rob Fusari and began writing new material.  She was signed and then dropped by Island Def Jam records but it was her publishing deal with Sony/ ATV Music as a writer which caught the attention of producer/writer/artist Akon.  His interest led to her record contract with Interscope Records.  

In 2007, she began working with Moroccan-American-Swedish producer RedOne which led to her first album “The Fame”.  She supported the album with a tour in Europe and in gay clubs in the US, as well as opening for the New Kids on the Block’s US tour.

Her second single “Poker Face” reached #1 in several major music markets worldwide in 2009, selling 9.8 million singles.

Lessons Learned from Lady Gaga

What can we learn from Miss Germanotta’s story?  Well, early musical training can be a boon to your career.  So I say “Start early and get good!”

You really should reach out to collaborate and brain-storm with like-minded musicians and artists.  And whether you like this fact or not,  being sexually provocative does get attention.  Creating a shocking image can make you memorable and stand out from the crowd.   You’ll just need to find a way to do that in a way which feels comfortable to you.

I once had an interesting conversation with George Michael about getting his start with Wham back in the early 1980s. I asked how did you do it? He told me that he knew his songs were hits and will full confidence, threw his cassette onto a record label executive’s desk saying simply “ These are hits”.  Teachable moment: Convince those around you that you are great at what you do.  Then be great.

Taylor Swift

Let’s end this lesson with the fascinating story of Taylor Swift. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Taylor spent her childhood on a Christmas tree farm.  Her father was a well-to-do financial adviser with the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch.  At the age of 9, Taylor became interested in musical theater, performed in school productions and traveled to New York for vocal and acting lessons.  On the weekends, she performed at fairs, coffeehouses, karaoke contests, Boy Scout meetings and sporting event.  So, anywhere for anyone!  She won a local talent competition when she 11 and got the opportunity to be the opening act for a local show by country artist Charlie Daniels. 

Swift and her parents started working with a NY-based music manager, got a development deal with RCA Records and by the age of 14, the whole family moved to Tennessee to support Taylor’s ambitions.  Through her RCA deal, Taylor met Liz Rose, an established songwriter who would become an integral and long-term songwriting collaborator. 

When the family had an opportunity to invest in a new indie label related to DreamWorks Records, Scott Swift, Taylor’s father, bought a 3% stake in the new label.  That cost him $120,000.  Her first album was released in October 2006 with a breakout single called “Tim McGraw.  Taylor tour heavily, used the internet to the max and conducted meet and greet sessions with fans before and after her concerts.

Lessons Learned from Taylor Swift

What are some Take Away Points from the Taylor Swift story?  Well, rarely is someone successful alone. It’s good to have a great deal of family support, powerful friends, or believers with a large contact list.  Money does matter.  It can allow you to open doors and secure the services of top team members.  Cultivate your fan base and treat them well. They’ll repay you by spreading the love. 

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