Chapter 4: Madonna
‘Life is short. My idea is that if I want to do something, I do it.’
Most pop stars know that they don’t have a job for life. One or two successful records may give them enough money to have a good time for a few months. But the days of fast cars and long hot days by the swimming pool don’t last long. Most have returned to ordinary life by the time they are thirty.
But Madonna isn’t like that. She has been the world’s top female pop star since the middle of the 1980s. During that time she has had many hit records, she has acted in several films, and she has made millions and millions of dollars. She has won prizes for her work, but she has also been strongly criticized by politicians and religious leaders. She has married, separated and married again. She has had children and she has also shocked a lot of people with her wild behaviour.
Some people say that she has been successful for such a long time just because she is a wonderful singer and songwriter, but most agree that it isn’t as simple as that. Madonna has always made sure that she is in control of her life. She has made careful plans and has cleverly used the publicity that surrounds her. She also used her success to build a large international company that made big profits.
But Madonna started right at the bottom. When nineteen-year-old Madonna Ciccone arrived in New York City in 1978, she knew that she wanted to be rich and she knew that she wanted to be a star. But she came from an ordinary family in a town called Pontiac in Michigan, and she had just $35 in her purse. New York is no place for someone with no money, so her first years in the city were very tough. She lived in rooms in some of the worst areas, and she did all kinds of jobs to make money. Sometimes she worked as an artist’s model or a dancer. Sometimes she worked in restaurants and bars. But there were also days when she was so poor that she had to get her food from rubbish bags in the street.
During this difficult time, Madonna never forgot her dream of becoming a star. When she wasn’t earning money, she learnt to sing and play musical instruments. She also taught herself to write music. Soon she was writing and recording her own songs. In 1982, someone at a record company listened to her song ‘Everybody’ and decided to offer her a recording contract. It seemed that her dream had come true.
But Madonna quickly realized that she still had a long way to go. ‘Everybody’ was a dance song and it was popular in the nightclubs of New York, but most people in the US and the rest of the world didn’t notice it. This wasn’t good enough for Madonna. She wanted to find a way of getting everybody to buy ‘Everybody’!
In the days of Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the music industry had been mainly about making music and selling records. Pop stars were rarely seen on TV, so most people listened to the radio to hear the latest songs from the pop world. But in the early 1980s, that started to change. In 1981, an American TV company called MTV (Music Television) started to broadcast pop videos to teenagers and young people across the US. Their first song was ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ by the British group The Buggies. It was a perfect way to start, because the song’s words told the story of the future of the industry. Over the next few months, across the US, more and more teenagers switched off their radios and turned on MTV. Soon MTV had spread to a hundred countries around the world. The pop music industry became more international than ever before. Record companies realized that a good song needed a good video to become a hit. Because of this, they started to look for singers with their own style who could perform well on video.
Madonna knew that she could be this kind of star. She didn’t just have great songs and a great voice. She also had her own way of dancing and her own way of dressing. She had had some success in New York, but how could she now become a star on the world stage?
She decided that she needed a manager to help her. Because she was Madonna, an ordinary manager wasn’t good enough; she needed the best manager in the business. At that time, many people thought that the best manager in the pop music industry was Freddy Demann. He had worked with Michael Jackson for several years and had helped him to produce some of the most successful records of all time. Demann understood how to make videos, and he knew how to work with MTV. So Madonna just had to persuade him to work with her. But how?
In Madonna’s position, most young singers sent a manager a letter and a recording of their songs. But Madonna wanted to be different. She found out Freddy Demann’s address, walked straight into his office and performed her songs in front of him. Freddy was rather surprised, but he also liked what he heard and what he saw.
‘She had that special magic that very few stars have,’ he said.
Freddy Demann was the right man for Madonna. Her next song, ‘Holiday’, was also a dance song, but it wasn’t just a hit in New York. It was a hit on MTV; it was a hit across America; it was a hit right around the world. Freddy also found an opportunity for her to act in a Hollywood film. By the end of 1984, she wasn’t just a radio star; she wasn’t just a video star; she was a film star as well!
In the middle years of the 1980s, money and success seemed to be the most important things in the world. The American economy was doing very well and President Ronald Reagan had reduced taxes, so people in business had a lot of money to spend. In New York, young businesswomen wore big diamonds and beautiful dresses from the world’s top designers, and they loved to drive to parties in expensive foreign cars. Intelligent people from outside the business world were often asked, ‘If you’re so clever, why aren’t you rich?’ There was no answer to that.
During those years, Madonna’s face was always in the newspapers, her videos were always on MTV and her songs were everywhere. She had one hit record after another. One of her songs from 1985 seemed to explain the feeling of the time. ‘We are living in a material world,’ she sang. ‘And I am a material girl.’
Madonna had always wanted to be a public figure, but her boyfriend in the middle years of the 1980s had very different ideas. Sean Penn was a film star who had grown up in a famous family and, perhaps because of that, he hated newspaper photographers. This was a problem, because photographers followed Madonna everywhere. At first, Sean tried to push them away. But when they didn’t stay away, he hit them. And when they still didn’t stay away, he tried to frighten them with his guns. When Sean and Madonna got married in 1985, the newspapers sent helicopters so they could photograph the wedding. This was too much for Sean; he left the party and shot at them with his gun from the ground. In the end, Sean’s problems with the newspapers caused too many problems and he was sent to prison. Madonna separated from him after just a few years of marriage.
It was a hard lesson in the problems that come from too much public attention. But Madonna was one of the most famous women in the world and she loved the publicity. So when the drinks company Pepsi-Cola asked her to do an advertising campaign for them, she was happy to help. She negotiated with them for eight months and she was even happier when they agreed to pay her $5 million for a year’s contract.
On 2 March 1989, Madonna’s Pepsi advertisement was broadcast to around 250 million people in forty countries, and it included part of her new song ‘Like a Prayer’. The advertisement was great, but it was never seen again. That was because on 3 March, MTV showed Madonna’s own ‘Like a Prayer’ video. This showed Madonna in all sorts of strange situations inside a church. Religious people around the world were very angry with Madonna.
‘How dare she use our religion like this?’ they asked.
After some time, things got so bad that the Pope said that Madonna would not be welcome to perform in Italy. The people at Pepsi-Cola were very worried about the situation. Would this damage their sales? They didn’t want to wait to find out. They decided not to use Madonna’s advertisement again, although they let her keep their $5 million. But Madonna was the winner in another way as well. After all the talk about ‘Like a Prayer’ in the newspapers and on TV, everybody wanted to buy the record. It soon became a best-seller in thirty countries around the world.
After ‘Like a Prayer’, some people began to see Madonna in a new way. They realized that she wasn’t just an ordinary pop star. She had been at the top of her business for a long time; she was clearly a very tough person. In October 1990, the American business magazine Forbes put Madonna’s picture on its front cover and asked if she was the cleverest businesswoman in the US. It said that she had earned $39 million in the past year. It also said that she was very unusual because she was a star who ran her own business. The next month, Us magazine produced a list of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry. Madonna was at number one, above stars like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Prince.
In 1992, she proved her skills as a businesswoman when she signed a deal with a value of $60 million with the big entertainment company Time Warner. The deal meant that she was now the boss of her own company, called Maverick. Maverick could produce records, videos, TV programmes and books, and it gave Madonna complete control over her own products.
She used this control to surprise everybody again. Maverick’s first product was not a record or even a video; it was a book of photographs called Sex. The book was unusual in many ways. Its cover was made of metal and it contained a CD of a new Madonna song. It also contained photographs that showed Madonna without her clothes on. In the weeks before Sex arrived in bookshops, journalists around the world wrote about the book. Many people thought she was making a big mistake. But Madonna was completely confident. She decided to print a million copies of the book and to sell it for a very high price – nearly $50.
When the book finally went on sale in October 1992, the big question at every fashionable party was, ‘Have you seen the Madonna Sex book?’ Some people were shocked by Madonna’s photographs, others were angry, but many just went out and bought it. It sold 500,000 copies in its first week!
But Maverick was not just an opportunity for Madonna to produce and sell her own books, records and videos; it also meant that she could work with other young musicians.
‘I want a real record label with real artists,’ she said. ‘I want artists who have a life of their own and who have a point of view.’
Madonna and her team of managers listened to hundreds of recordings from young singers as they tried to find the stars of the future. Everyone in the music industry agrees that this is very hard to do. Sadly, most young musicians fail. But Madonna quickly showed that she could find the right people and, in 1995, Maverick produced a record by the Canadian singer and songwriter, Alanis Morisette. She was a good choice; her record sold over 27 million copies around the world! Maverick also made records for hit films like Austin Powers and The Next Best Thing. In 1999, the company had sales of around $750 million.
Madonna is certainly not everyone’s idea of a typical businessperson; she will always be best known for her songs, her films and her way of life. But as computers, better communications and the Internet change business, ideas and style are becoming much more important than machines and materials. If you want to succeed in the twenty-first century, you need to be able to think of new products and new fashions, and you must also know how to use publicity and how to create the right image. In the factories and offices of the old business world, the bosses were nearly always serious men in dark suits and ties. But in today’s business world, women are proving that they are better managers and that they know more about the lives of ordinary people. In the expensive designer shops of Chanel and Hanae Mori, in the hundreds of Body Shops, and in the studios of Harpo and Madonna, the message is clear: modern women mean business!