6 min

Divas & torsos

The secret reason record companies push cheesy dance music on us

GRAB YA. Lorraine Reid of Temperance and Pansy Division want your gay dollars.

Now that the music industry has woken up to the reality that the gay market is vast and potentially profitable, it has other issues on their hands.

It doesn’t require a genius to figure out the equation. With an infrastructure built on bars and clubs, queer lifestyle is underscored by popular music.

The marketing system to reach the gay community is all in place. Glossy lifestyle magazines, washroom advertisements, Pride album tie-ins and a powerful pool of DJs make it an easily-accessible niche.

But despite the lure of cash, the record industry is still grappling with stereotypes and political correctness.

While music marketers want to flatter homosexuals as artistic innovators, they have a tendency to sell the community back catalogue music, re-packaged with images of gym-cubated torsos. The industry is still lame in its efforts to give gay audiences what we want – or at least what they think we want.

Is there a commonality in gay musical taste? Can a group of people, lumped together because of sexual preference, be sold the same music?

Many marketers are at a loss to say what queer consumers want – unless it’s the cheesy dance music played in many gay men’s bars. Or Streisand-styled singers.

So much for the theory of homosexuals as artistically cutting edge.

Since the start of the 1990s, there has been a noticeable shift in the kinds of music being marketed to dykes and fags. Advertisements for recordings by straight musicians appearing in major gay and lesbian publications are becoming commonplace.

As an ardent music enthusiast, I count my favourite musicians and recordings not by the sexual identity of the performer, but by the content of the music. Similarly, the gay press often focusses on content, weighing an item’s worth in terms of its relationship to the readership.

I know marketing forces are at work. Stumbling upon ads for this week’s circuit party-themed dance compilation release neither interests, me nor does it surprise me. But seeing ads for straight artists like Duncan Sheik or Tori Amos in the pages of Out or The Advocate makes me wonder. It’s much like bumping into a woman at The Toolbox. Who brought them here and why?

In the case of Sheik and Amos, it was out gay record exec Jeff Newton. As the manager of product development in gay markets at Atlantic Records, he says the recent explosion of artist promotion in the gay media is positive.

“People are finally realizing the gay community is a huge market and there’s lots of money there,” says Newton from the label’s Manhattan offices. Atlantic is the first major label to dedicate a department to developing the gay market, a move it made almost four years ago.

In addition to Sheik and Amos, Newton is currently hot to push new product by Everything But The Girl (the band’s new album Temperamental hits stores this fall) and former Broadway singer Linda Eder.

“Marketing Broadway stars to the gay community is obviously a given,” Newton says. “Linda Eder also has a very Barbra Streisand sound.”

It’s an analogy that makes me cringe, though I know full well that many gay men swoon at the drop of a single tone from Streisand. I attribute the conflict to that bigger question of a vast community versus a singular gay taste.

Though Newton admits his job is defined by the bottom line, his duties don’t require flow charts, demographics or other research conventions. Newton merely looks through Atlantic’s upcoming release roster and hand picks those artists he wants to market within the gay community. Maybe his golden touch comes from this mythical prowess that queers maintain over the arts.

“It’s [based on] what I prefer and I seem to be quite good at it,” he says.

Newton looks for certain criteria before making his personal selection. Things like being supportive of the gay community and being willing to work within it – meaning the artist will speak with the queer press – are key in the selection process.

Sounds simple enough. But there’s more.

“Duncan’s music is marketable to all, due to its style and lyric content,” Newton writes me, press release style, in a recent e-mail. But the meat of the matter unfolds in another comment from the same communiqué.

“Of course, his looks don’t hurt with gay men, either.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

In the back of my head I hear the angry tones of Patti Duke’s character Neely O’Hara in Valley Of The Dolls as she growls, “I didn’t have dough handed to me because of my good cheekbones. I had to work for it. She’s got life on a pass because of her damn classy looks.”

Neely’s got a point.

In today’s music industry, cheekbones and the by-products of personal training can outweigh the sound. True, it’s hard to resist a looker. But the mainstream music industry has rapidly regressed to incorporate those qualities that are usually associated with runway models and soap opera stars. And queers are at the receiving end.

While Newton is candid about the impact of his personal tastes and the hunk factor, others in the industry are more serious about political correctness.

Vee Popat coordinates the dance music division at Attic Records. Political correctness is a fundamental issue when he seeks out the gay market as a means of promoting his product.

He tells me that there exists in the wider music industry a view that gay audiences are only interested in “cheesy dance music.”

Popat says he wants to understand the queer listenership more intimately, but he says he doesn’t know where he should start.

I’d offer him some tips like going to some gay clubs or picking up a gay publication. But I’m too busy pondering the potential truth in the industry secret that he has revealed to me. Every time I step into a gay bar, I’m engulfed in a non-stop cheesy dance music soundtrack – and the industry thinks it’s doing good work serving it up.

Attic currently distributes a chunk of this country’s

independently-produced urban dance music, which is certainly not cheese. The roster includes the successful Hi-Bias label, which is home to Temperance, a house and funk-flavoured act.

Attic has advertised Temperance in gay bar washrooms and has pitched the single to the DJ pool, hoping to garner play in gay nightclubs.

Popat seems to equate the true underground with gay DJs and a gay audience. At the same time, he makes no bones about why the gay club scene is a good vehicle to develop a following for Temperance. It’s fronted by diva-styled singer Lorraine Reid.

“The gay club scene is immeasurably valuable to marketing a new record. It’s especially proven for diva value,” he says.

And, no matter the artistic integrity of Temperance, it’s this diva value that led Attic to position Reid at high profile gay events like Toronto Pride and Fashion Cares. More cheese please.

While some promoters chase after gay audiences with their straight acts, others who handle gay-identified artists claim a reluctance to do the same.

“I’ve never done it on purpose before,” says Jerry Leibowitz, who heads the Canadian arm of Rykodisc. It’s one of the world’s leading folk, blues, alternative and world beat labels.

Among the Rykodisc stable is Bob Mould, an out rock musician whose resume includes leading ’80s hard-core trio Husker Dü and founding ’90s hard rock art-core band Sugar. He is currently enjoys a solo career with a solid cult following.

“Bob is not interested in being rock’s gay guy,” Leibowitz says.

While Mould has conducted interviews with high profile queer publications, like Out magazine, his aim, according to Leibowitz, is to cultivate, first and foremost, a solid following of music fans.

For Leibowitz, targeting the gay media as a means of promoting an artist is too compartmentalized an approach, in his own words, “too ghetto-izing.”

“I’d rather support the few good music magazines that exist in North America,” he says.

The potential ghetto-ization of the gay community in marketing terms is not only on the mind of Jerry Leibowitz.

At Outside Music, one of Canada’s leading distributors of international alternative and underground music, Stephanie Hardman works to promote music without the advantage of major label marketing budgets. She markets bands like overtly queer neo-punk rockers Pansy Division and radical lesbian feminists Tribe 8.

Hardman says that her approach depends on the artist. In obvious cases, like Pansy Division, the artists are open about their sexuality and that defines a possible path for promoting their product. However, Hardman is concerned about stereotyping and wonders if that approach is too limiting.

Drawing a cultural/geographical analogy, Hardman describes her image of the gay market as similar to the Quebec music market.

“Across Canada music tastes tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the road,” says Hardman. “But in Quebec the awareness and interest in music delves into more eclectic tastes, things like jazz and the more unusual sub-genres of dance music.

“I see the gay audience more like that. Attracted to something different, more cultivated,” she tells me. (Her confidence that homosexual taste is bigger than disco cheese makes me wonder if I’m just simply jaded.)

It’s clear that the music industry is aware of the potential in the gay community – whether it’s about cents or sensibility. Perhaps because there is no homogenized gay taste, it’s easiest for them to abandon the idea of queers as trend setters and fall back on stereotypes – and cheese.

Next time you’re in a music store and the latest remix EP by UK band Gay Dad catches your eye, be aware. Who’s manipulating who?