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Working with Lady Gaga to bridge music and technology

By Evelyn M. Rusli

New York Times News Service

Published: Sunday, June 5 2011 8:29 p.m. MDT

Soon after Apple started its music-centric social network Ping last year, Steve Jobs reached out to Lady Gaga and her business manager, Troy Carter, for feedback.

At the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Lady Gaga peppered Jobs, Apple's chief executive, with questions about Ping's design and how it would work with other social networks. The pop star and Carter voiced concerns over the lack of integration with Facebook, but they left respecting Jobs' overall vision.

The meeting also gave Carter, a new technophile, an idea. He called his friend Matthew Michelsen, a well-connected technology investor and entrepreneur, to find a platform for entertainers that could help them manage their fan base across all major social networks.

"I said why try to find a platform, let's try to build one," said Michelsen.

Despite Lady Gaga's demanding world tour schedule that fall, Carter and Michelsen quietly founded a startup, the Backplane, with a team of seven. The company, which has not yet been unveiled, is a platform meant to power online communities around specific interests, like musicians and sports teams, and to integrate feeds from Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

"Backplane will provide a platform and tools for communities to socialize and communicate on a more focused level," said Carter, sounding less like a pop star's manager and more like an entrepreneur delivering the typical elevator pitch. "We needed a more concentrated base."

While Lady Gaga herself — nee Stefani Joanne Germanotta — is the artist and creative mind behind Lady Gaga Inc., her lesser-known manager, Carter, is leading the enterprise's digital strategy. Unlike other managers who focus on a handful of big platforms like YouTube, Carter is trying to tap into a broad range of online tools to keep the Gaga machine in overdrive.

Backplane — a blend of music, celebrity and technology — was a natural evolution, says Carter, who has worked with Lady Gaga for more than four years. As traditional sales have dwindled, the Internet has become increasingly important in music management.

"There was a time when radio stations wouldn't play Gaga's music, because it was considered dance," said Carter. "Outside of live performances, the Internet became our primary tool to help people discover her music."

Carter represents an emerging group of Hollywood managers, actors, musicians and other industry players who are spending more time in Silicon Valley, as technology upends the way people consume content.

The worlds of technology and entertainment have often clashed, tested by products like the music-sharing service Napster, through which some users shared files illegally. Some critics in Silicon Valley are still skeptical of Hollywood people, whom they view as carpetbaggers overestimating their worth.

"Sure these guys can be helpful, but can Lady Gaga make a company? No," said Jeff Clavier, a venture capitalist.

To Carter, the two industries are symbiotic. As he pushes to extend the Lady Gaga brand and his own influence in Silicon Valley, he has had many meetings with executives from Zynga and Larry Page, the chief of Google, whom Lady Gaga affectionately calls Larry Google. He is also an investor in several promising start-ups, including Bre.ad, Tiny Chat and Lumier, a company backed by Facebook's first outside investor, Peter Thiel.

Carter's own venture, Backplane, is attracting capital from prominent backers. The company has raised more than $1 million from a group of investors led by Tomorrow Ventures, the investment firm of Google's chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. Lady Gaga, who has acted as an informal consultant, is also a major shareholder, with a 20-percent stake.

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