Unlike singer-songwriters, contemporary pop stars rarely have their songs viewed through an autobiographical prism, yet it’s hard to miss the changes in Britney Spears’ core messaging over the past years. Early in her career, when she was a teenage star selling albums in the eight-digits, “Oops! … I Did It Again” seemed to sum up her effortless rise. Later, as she became an ever-reliable hitmaker and touring workhorse, “I’m a Slave 4 U” took on extra-textual meanings.
And during her mid-2000s run as the tabloid successor to Michael Jackson, “Chaotic” and “Blackout” served as the operative terms. In that sense, the 2013 track she uses to open every night of her trendsetting Las Vegas residency says volumes about her current career motto — its repeated refrain echoing through Planet Hollywood’s Axis Theater:
“Now get to work, bitch.”
The roots of Spears’ current form of Calvinist professionalism can perhaps be traced back to several business decisions starting in the late 2000s. Spears rehired Larry Rudolph, the man who steered her career from age 15, and Adam Leber as her managers. Nashville-based Lou Taylor of Tri Star Sports and Entertainment Group came aboard as business manager and financial guru. CAA’s head of music Rob Light and Jeffrey Azoff took over from the agency side. Tangential, if lucrative, gigs such as her stint as a judge on “The X Factor” were jettisoned. By 2012, Spears was placed No. 1 on Forbes’ annual list of the highest-paid female entertainers in the country, a return to the top slot since her 2002 heyday.
And the consolidation has continued. Earlier this year she re-upped with RCA Records, which had inherited her contract from former affiliate Jive years ago. And even touring was scrapped, as Spears established her two-year residency in the Nevada desert.
For Light, the key to Spears’ present stability was her team’s ability to refocus on the bottom line. “Larry and Adam are two of the best managers in the business, and they were spot-on in trying to identify who her core audience was,” he says. “Because before you can go forward, you have to figure out where your audience lives and how you get to them. And Jeffrey and I realized that her core audience is in the sweet spot of Las Vegas: that 21- to 35-year-old who is living in the nightclubs.”
Look a little bit closer, however, and Spears has been building an impressive empire for years, even if head-shaving antics and a financial conservatorship once gave her the image of teetering on the brink. She has sold more than 70 million records worldwide. Her tours — not counting the Vegas residency, which has already grossed more than $20 million — have grossed hundreds of millions. And her personally branded fragrance line with Elizabeth Arden has sold over a billion dollars’ (yes, billion with a “b”) worth of merchandise since launching in 2004.
“Britney has built her team more like that of a corporate structure,” says Taylor. “I think Britney truly conceives of herself as a corporate executive officer, and the organic desire she has for any sort of brand ideas or sponsorship, show ideas, music ideas, all really start at the top with her. I think that’s probably the thing that most people don’t understand about how she operates.”
Spears herself isn’t sure she’d call herself a CEO — “but that’s very sweet of Lou to say,” she says — though she acknowledges that recent years have taught her the importance of clear-eyed career planning.
“I’ve been very hands-on with everything I’ve done since I had my children,” she says. “And it’s just really important for me to understand the big picture, where everybody’s coming from, what’s the real purpose of this shoot and this song, or whatever it is in that moment that I’m doing.
“It’s important to learn to say no. With tours and all of that stuff, there are so many aspects that go into it, it’s easy to have so many people around you saying, ‘oh yes, yes, you can afford this, you can afford this,’ and then all of the sudden you’ve spent $20 million on your stage and you’re like, ‘where’s my money?’ You have to make sure that you’re on top of things and know where the money’s going.”
Even with something like the Elizabeth Arden deal — sometimes the sort of affair for which artists simply affix their name to a perfume bottle — Spears maintained hands-on involvement.
“When I first met with her, I had a list of questions, with all of her likes and dislikes, colors, flavors, other fragrances she had liked and disliked, art she thought was beautiful,” recalls Ron Rolleston, Elizabeth Arden’s executive VP, creative and business development. “There was a calculated risk involved, but also an intelligent investment to be made here. Britney had this really loyal fanbase that already existed.”
Spears plans to launch a sleepwear line this fall, and her branding ventures have also seen her partner with Hasbro and Candie’s, yet as Rudolph notes, “she’s had such a huge career, but when you really think about it, she’s done very little in terms of over-exploiting that in the branding space.”
Rudolph recalls Spears’ early deal with Pepsi, and its flurry of branded Super Bowl spots in 2001, as a particularly canny venture.
“We got as much out of it as Pepsi did,” he says. “Britney’s brand became so elevated as a result of Pepsi’s commitment to her. I think they bought $17 million worth of media at the Super Bowl just to play Britney commercials. You can’t beat that in terms of general brand extension.
“In Britney’s career, we’ve often tried to do things first,” Rudolph continues. “She was the first music artist to have a celebrity fragrance, and now everybody and their grandmother has one. She was the first solo female pop artist to come out in that cycle she came out in, before Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson. And now she’s the first pop artist to go into Vegas that is current and still has hits on the radio, as opposed to the heritage artists like the Celines and the Rod Stewarts of the world, playing off their old catalog.”
Launching her Vegas residency, the Baz Halpin-directed “Britney: Piece of Me,” was yet another calculated risk, wagering that the city’s youthful demographic shift and the explosion of dance clubs would support a star born in the 1980s, without prematurely branding her as a nostalgia act. The risk paid off, with 34 sold-out shows already in the ledgers, and dates scheduled well into 2015.
With the success of the Vegas residency came a significant setback, however: Spears’ last record, December’s “Britney Jean,” was both the lowest-charting and the lowest-selling studio album of her career, peaking at No. 4 on the album chart and failing to go platinum. (All Spears’ previous albums have gone platinum or better, with “Oops! … I Did It Again” certified diamond, and “Baby … One More Time” certified 14x platinum.)
Yet for Light, the record’s performance is less a reflection of Spears’ stardom than the shifting market standards.
“Honestly, trying to compare record sales in 2014 to anything anyone had in the past is an impossible task, because it is such a broken business,” says Light. “The actual sales are never going to be the same, but if the social media numbers stay high, and her audience stays incredibly active, we’re feeling great.”
Tom Corson, president of RCA Records, concurs. “Britney is still near the top of the bell curve,” he says. “If you have an album that’s somewhat less successful than prior albums, it can be a reflection of a lot of things. But what you know is that the artist is still selling tickets, the artist is still viable in the marketplace, the artist brand still has resonance.”
If “Britney Jean’s” cultural success intermingling with commercial underperformance is perhaps a common story for the modern record industry, Spears’ stationary performance schedule is something entirely new.
“Artists getting out there and touring is the best way to touch their fans, and you need to maintain that relationship,” Corson says. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of desire and motivation, and I respect an artist’s right to take a year or two off and do it differently.”
But when asked if she’s eager to get back on the road, Spears is succinct:
“Actually, no. I’m really happy with the way I’m set up right now, going to Vegas and coming back and having my foundation here,” she says. “I’m a home girl. I really don’t see how I went all over the place and traveled the world and did everything. I feel like I was out of my frickin’ mind, and I did that for 15 years. But I was just so hungry and young and eager to pursue my dreams that it made sense then. It’s really easy to lose track of where you are and what you’re doing.”
And plus, working on the Vegas residency schedule — in which Spears plays three shows a week, with the rest of the week spent at her home in Los Angeles, coupled with scheduled multi-week breaks along the way — allows Spears more time to pursue projects from her home base.
“In my off-time I do record,” Spears says. “Once in a while I’ll just go into the studio if there’s a really good song that I have in my head and want to do. I think as artists you’re constantly in creative motion. If I stopped writing songs then that’s a part of me that would stop in my life, and I need constant motion… I’m definitely more in a creative space now. You have more time to go there spiritually in your home with a piano than you would being in a hotel room.”