From behind, Troy Carter looks like a middle schooler. He has the wispy frame of a pretzel stick, wrapped in skinny jeans that bottom out at black Yves Saint Laurent high-tops. It is late November, exactly two weeks after he was fired by Lady Gaga, but by appearances he and his calendar show no signs of vulnerability.
He is a man without breaks: He spent the morning fueled on the fumes of a banana, meeting with execs at his new soda company and then with tech founders he's investing with; after that it was off to a lunch meeting with CAA, and now he's at the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood. It's the schedule of anyone of his caliber, though it's also—and he won't admit this—the habit of a recently dumped man who's probably afraid to have time alone with himself.
As Carter walks by a sprawling glass-encased office on the top floor, Capitol's chairman waves him in and embraces him. Carter has been getting a lot of hugs lately, from musicians, managers, lawyers, VCs, entrepreneurs, CMOs, and even his old pals from Philly. It's always the same: an energetic wrap of arms, neither bro-ish nor sensitive. In Carter's line of work, confidants and colleagues tend to be one and the same.
Carter is supposed to head into another meeting at Capitol after that, but instead he spots an abandoned conference room. It seems he's finally willing to stop moving, to talk about what's at his core now that Gaga no longer is. "It's like you wake up and you work with somebody every day, and then all of a sudden they're not there anymore," he says, his eyes wandering down a white marble table that's as long as a runway. When he first learned the news, he kept it inside. He needed to process it. Being an artist's manager is like being their CEO, but it's more personal than that. The job is about believing when no one else does. It's living on the road together more days than you're home with your kids. It's fighting for a person's art. He did this with Gaga for nearly seven years. "I don't think you're ever prepared to sever that deep of a relationship," he concedes.
He won't divulge details. The split was rumored to have been brewing for months, and ended with that least illuminating of phrases—creative differences. Carter isn't one to look back. He says he's never "hoarded memories." While he traveled the world with Gaga, he rarely took a photograph. This is the very thing that made him a great manager: his ability to stay present, to make rational decisions just as things are going off the rails. To handle moments like this.
That's a skill he learned early. He watched his father pick up the pieces of his own life after getting out of prison for murdering his brother-in-law after a fight. And Carter's seen other lows himself: When he was in his early thirties, his first big client—the rapper Eve, whom he had spent eight years building—walked into his office one day and cut him loose. He had nothing to fall back on. The loss put him close to bankruptcy. His house was foreclosed upon, cars were repossessed, and he barely had enough cash to fill his one remaining ride with gas. The global phenomenon that became Lady Gaga? That was actually just Troy Carter standing back up.
But that doesn't mean he's unafraid of failure. This time, Carter has 31 employees. His wife, his brother, and his sister-in-law work for him. Two weeks before Gaga dumped him, his wife gave birth to a new baby girl—his fifth kid. One week after the firing, he turned 41. Last year, he moved his mother from Philadelphia to L.A. when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. All that can alter your philosophy, your purpose. As he talks about it now, Carter's voice drops from its usual volume, that of someone who has spent a lifetime talking over music at concerts. He pauses. "Money doesn't make me tick. This definition of success doesn't make me tick. Managing some of the biggest stars in the world doesn't make me tick. Making my family proud makes me tick." He takes off his chunky tortoiseshell glasses to wipe away the gathering moisture in his eyes, which seems to surprise even him.
This helps explain why, as Gaga rose to fame, Carter methodically prepared to live without her. He doesn't put it that way; he speaks of diversification, of curiosity, of building a stronger business. But that's what it is. He's an investor in more than 50 startups, from Uber to Dropbox, and has elevated himself to a fixture in the tech scene, now one of the best human bridges between the complicated frenemies of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. He's acquired heady titles like Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellow and UN Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council member. He earned a reputation as a branding genius for his work with Gaga, but like any megasuccessful manager, he was bolstered by her once-in-a-lifetime talent. Now that he isn't known as Gaga's manager, he's ready to be known for something else—but right now that "something else" is a patchwork of things, each promising in its own right, but not yet a revival.
And Troy Carter will chase that revival. He has Platinum albums, he has fame, and he has a net worth estimated at $30 million. But that's nothing to rest on, if you ask him. "Will [Smith] was talking about how he still worries about being broke. And I laughed because I'm like, 'Me too,'" says Carter. "It's a thing from where we come from. A lot had to do with going broke as an adult too. So when you come from nothing and you work your way up and you make something of yourself, there's always that sense that all of this could go away tomorrow."
The first time Troy Carter was fired, he was in his early twenties. He had grown up the kind of poor where there might be no running water or bus money, in a neighborhood crawling with drugs. He'd dropped out of West Philadelphia High School at 17 to be a rapper in a group called 2 Too Many. It flopped, though it led Carter to a job with Jeff Townes and Will Smith, at the time known as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Carter soon became a local concert promoter for then-upstarts like Notorious B.I.G. until Smith's business partner James Lassiter recruited Carter to Los Angeles. But Carter was cocky, more interested in success than working for it. "James called me in his office and said, 'You gotta get your act together. This isn't working,'" Carter recalls. The kid was sent home.
Back in Philadelphia, he spotted Eve Jeffers, a 19-year-old female rapper in need of a manager. Carter started a talent-management company and made Eve his full-time job. He had a knack for it: Eve became a commercial force, generating a clothing line and a TV show on the UPN network. But Carter made errors. He sold his agency to a larger one, then clashed with his new bosses and was ousted in 2006. Eve fired him in 2007. "I was completely blindsided," says Carter. Failure loomed.
That same year, he met Stefani Germanotta. An old friend of Carter's brought her by his office. "She walked in with these huge sunglasses on, fishnet stockings, and basically told me how she was going to change the game," says Carter. She was a performance artist calling herself Lady Gaga, who had a European dance-club sound and pop-star aspirations—elements that historically haven't mixed. Def Jam Records had just dropped her. Carter had never heard of her. Yet, he says, "I believed her."
Carter couldn't get Gaga's first single "Just Dance" on pop radio, so in 2008 he put his new act on a rigorous schedule—sometimes four shows a night, playing to gay clubs or arty fashion crowds. Gaga and Carter began experimenting with Twitter and Facebook, engaging fans and pumping out homespun content on YouTube. At the time, these channels were seen as enemies to the music business, but Carter saw them as inexpensive ways to reach the masses.
As he did this, he became fascinated with how tech companies approach industries outside of their core—whether it was Amazon with data storage or Google with YouTube. "These are businesses that you can't quite define and mean something different to different people," he says. "I said, 'We're doing it totally wrong down here [in Hollywood].'" It also got him thinking of what was best for his business. He didn't want another repeat of Eve. And he realized that his company, Atom Factory, could be much more than a simple artist-management firm. "It was more about building a platform on top of music—because music, we realized, sells everything but music."
The story of the Gaga machine has been the subject of two Harvard Business School case studies: They built a social network for Gaga fans called LittleMonsters.com, connected her with the right companies at the right times, and turned a pop star into a global brand.
And just as all that was starting, in 2009, while waiting to board a ferry to Martha's Vineyard, Carter gained the entry into insular Silicon Valley that he was hoping for. A friend called to ask if Carter wanted to invest in a music label. "He had one of his investors on the phone, and I told them that they were crazy," says Carter. "I said, 'If you help me get into tech, I'll help you get out of the music business.'" A few weeks later, Carter hit Palo Alto for a whirlwind tour that began in a coffee shop with David Siminoff, the investor who helped fund Amazon and eBay, and ended at a barbecue at the home of data-tracking company Palantir cofounder Joe Lonsdale. (Lonsdale would eventually cofound Backplane, the social platform Carter and Gaga conceived, and which LittleMonsters.com would be built on.) Carter made his first tech investment in 2010, thanks to a lead from Madonna's manager Guy Oseary. (It was TinyChat, a video service that lives on quietly.)
The more Carter invested in startups, the more his profile rose in the tech community, which gave him a front-row seat to emerging entrepreneurs and deals. He became a fixture on the tech-confab circuit, befriending angel investor Ron Conway at Google Zeitgeist and Dropbox's Drew Houston at DLD in Germany. At Summit Series, he met Shervin Pishevar, then a managing director at Menlo Ventures, who connected him to deals including Uber and Warby Parker. Over the next three years, Carter's investments snowballed into more than 50 startups, a few of which are now valued at more than $1 billion each. "Few people understand the way that information travels and trends start better than Troy," says Warby Parker co–CEO Neil Blumenthal. Even those back in the music industry are impressed. "Like his artists, Gaga included, who is a multiple threat of singing, writing, dancing, and playing instruments, Troy can manage, innovate, is an entrepreneur, and can partner with people who have complementary skills," says Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks. "He's a force to be reckoned with."
"There were a lot of stereotypes that I had to break of how people in the entertainment industry do business," Carter recalls. To prove his worth, he became an active adviser to his startups instead of just a guy throwing around money. And he became a connector, linking his old and new worlds in ways that often resulted in investments—such as uniting Uber with Jay Z's Roc Nation and Zimride (later renamed Lyft) with Live Nation. He aggressively pushed the music industry to embrace Spotify, putting Gaga's music on the service early on, then persuading a score of influential acts, including Rihanna, to do the same. "So many artists and managers don't want to try new things," says Spotify founder Daniel Ek. "They jump on only when things are already working. Troy is the other way around. He's the one who will be surfing a wave that no one even knows exists."
Google Ventures general partner David Krane was driving his kids to school when he stopped at a red light and saw the Techmeme headline on his Tesla dashboard: Gaga had dumped Carter. It was a shock. Krane and Carter are coinvestors and friends; he'd taken his entire investing team to a Lady Gaga concert. Krane checked in with Backplane, which Google Ventures invested in, to find out how the Carter-Gaga split would impact the business. But he didn't call Carter. No need, he knew. "Like all things with Troy, nothing is a crisis," says Krane. "He handles stress and pressure as well as or better than anyone I know."
Back in his office, Carter wasn't sure what to feel. "I'm human. I went through every emotion," he says. "You go from fear to sadness." When he was finally ready to share the news, he called his wife, Rebecca, a former stockbroker who's now Atom Factory's CFO. Then he told the rest of his staff, delicately. "It's emotional for the company," says Carter. "[Gaga's] one of us." Gaga didn't say anything publicly, but she wept while performing at the YouTube Music Awards hours before the news broke.
It didn't take long before people checked in. Oseary, Madonna's manager, emailed Carter a Steve Jobs quote exhorting the virtues of his newfound freedom: "The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." And there were jobs: two offers to run record labels, another to be an entrepreneur-in-residence at a VC firm. But Carter wanted to make a future of his own, replacing the fame of Gaga with the ingenuity he's found in Silicon Valley—and enough cash to forestall the doom haunting him and Will Smith.
Atom Factory is in Culver City, housed inside an immaculately modern piece of architecture outfitted with Damien Hirsts and Robert Rauschenbergs, across the street from Sony and wedged between an auto-body shop and a car-wrapping joint. Looking for traces of Gaga there is like scanning the photo album of a recently divorced person, with the ex's head cut out of all the photos. A Gaga dress that once hung as a sort of altar to the company's most important client has since evaporated.
Carter has a plan, of course: He wants to run the Gaga playbook to launch new brands. He knows how huge corporations roll out products, and that isn't his style. "They want the biggest audience possible and immediate engagement," he says. "For us it's about, 'How do we build an authentic audience and grow it very, very organically?' It's slow bake versus microwave." He's reportedly participating in a $120 million investment fund with other tech-loving artist managers—traditionally seen as competitors—including Justin Bieber's Scooter Braun. "When you look at how technology companies are funded, it's not a zero-sum game. It could be 20 investors in one company, and everybody has to work together for the benefit of that company. As we invested, we realized we need each other on these deals because my network is better when you're in it," says Carter, who is reportedly also raising his own $75 million fund. It makes sense, says MTV's Van Toffler: As leverage continues to shift away from record labels to artists and their handlers, managers of the world's superstars should position themselves first in line for new technologies.
Carter wants Atom Factory to be the hub of his corporate network—even physically. An old garage next door is home to Pop Water, a "healthy" soda that he's already invested some $3 million in. It will soon also house Everdream, a new production company. And Carter's construction crew is busy on yet another conversion two storefronts down, which will include a pad for Carter's tech companies to crash at if they need space to work, and a café-bookstore—"imagine Intelligentsia meets Taschen books," he says—where Atom Factory "friends" can caffeinate their minds. The music man is building a coworking space.
Hours before the Capitol meeting, Carter is manning the weekly Pop Water team meeting. Fourteen people—including expats from Vitaminwater, Jones Soda, and Gaga—are gathered around a screen, looking at a pair of breasts that leak out of a white crop top emblazoned with the word pop. It's eye-catching, but there's much more work to do: The head of sales informs Carter that supermarket chains like Albertsons and Whole Foods have already committed to their new brands for 2014, shutting out Pop Water.
Carter is unfazed. With Gaga, he explains later, "one club is where it started. Online is where it started. It's the same exact thing with Pop Water." The soda has been in development for two years and is for sale only in Southern California. He's personally shaking hands with mom-and-pop store owners, asking them to carry it. "We're in the business of storytelling," says Carter. "How do we build the story, so that we control it in the beginning and then expand?"
Pop Water draws from both of Carter's worlds: It is a startup in the mold of the Valley, but fueled by the entertainment business's hype machine. Terry Richardson, the infamous photographer who chronicled Gaga's Monster Ball tour, shot the ads and is Pop Water's creative director. The head of marketing is sending the drink to music execs at places like Universal. ("They reached out to say they're bored with the Red Bull, they're bored with the Vitaminwater," he says.) And Carter is unconcerned that the world is already full of drinks. "There's less clutter in the beverage category than in the music category. A lot less clutter," he says. "What we do every day is hard. Breaking acts is really, really hard."
Despite Pop Water, despite Silicon Valley, Troy Carter is not done managing (or breaking) acts. Atom Factory has about a dozen artists, including John Legend and Lindsey Stirling; in December, post-Gaga, he signed John Mayer. He also has smaller groups such as the Ceremonies, three brothers who are playing at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night in a Hollywood Boulevard bar. Hemingway's Lounge is an intimate space with vintage typewriters bolted to the walls. "We want to spread our art form as much as we can," says Matthew Cook, the oldest brother, a 22-year-old whose chest hair pokes out over a cardigan. The band, he tells me, is inspired by the multimedia style of artists like David Byrne and Lady Gaga. "I'm totally envious of everything Gaga's doing right now, working with fine artists."
Carter is carded as he enters the bar. He positions himself in the back, arms crossed, as the partially empty room populates. The band begins. One of the brothers onstage is shaking his hips, playing a tambourine. Carter's foot taps.
Gaga is busy making her debut at the Louvre, where an artist is replicating a series of famous paintings with the pop star as the subject. But Carter seems content to be here at this joint instead. He could easily take shortcuts—a call or two could probably get the Ceremonies on Top 40 radio or MTV. But like Pop Water, he'd rather this band grow at its own pace. He's working on getting them a regular bar gig until they've earned the scars worthy of a bigger crowd.
"You gotta know what it feels like to be up at night, worried about a problem. You gotta know what that feels like in your stomach," Carter says. "Getting terrible sound at clubs, playing to audiences that heckle, to venues that are half empty, so you know how to adjust to it." Resilience, he says, isn't something he can teach them. Everyone has to experience their own Eve, their own Gaga. Only then do you know how to get back up.