06.23.10

Has Perez Lost His Touch?

Just a year ago, the Perez Hilton brand was expanding—to a fashion site, a record label, and TV opportunities. But his first two music acts have tanked. Is his influence fading?

In the profile picture on his personal Facebook page, celebrity blogger-professional irritant Perez Hilton is wearing a black T-shirt that reads, "I Believe in Travis Garland." Apparently, however, not many others share his faith. Garland, the second act signed to Hilton's nascent Perezcious Music record label—part of Warner Music Group—has sold an anemic 29,000 downloads of his single "Believe," according to Nielsen SoundScan data. This despite a massive promotional push from Hilton that, in addition to fawning blog posts, included calling in a favor from American Idol creator Simon Fuller—with whom Hilton is developing a reality show searching for the next great boy band—to have Garland perform during a live results show episode in May.

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If the latest scandal involving tweeted photos of Miley Cyrus' not-yet-legal girl parts proves once again that Hilton has the clearest eye in the industry for capturing the pop culture zeitgeist, then Garland's failure to connect with audiences exposes the blogger's vision for spotting talent to be extremely blurry. Indeed, when Mario Lavandeira, 32, embarked on an expansion of his Perez Hilton alter ego brand a year ago, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the move could "secure his status as a tastemaker and entrepreneur, or irreparably dilute his brand." With each move, from the record label and the CocoPerez fashion site to the omnipresent talking head appearances, Hilton's position tilts closer to the latter.

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"Having a label deal with anybody is a losing venture, because he's not going to make money, and without hits his credibility as a tastemaker gets hurt," says well-known artist manager and New York University arts professor Jeff Rabhan. "As a blogger he can talk about acts, and if they breakout he can take credit, and if they don't there are a million other reasons that can be cited. Now he's really responsible for who he signs."

Two cases in point: Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Though Hilton is widely credited with "breaking" both acts, the truth is they both were bubbling up before he discovered them—would the undeniable hooks of their music and the overt sexuality of their images have made their success inevitable, with or without him? It's impossible to say. But Hilton is far from the sole reason for Perry's and Gaga's rise.

With Garland, however, Hilton is not only responsible for sheparding his career development, but also may have compromised his own brand with the signing. While Garland's Wikipedia page obliquely notes that he was introduced to Hilton via MySpace, the truth is that Joe Simpson, who manages the 20-year-old singer-songwriter through his JT Entertainment, brought him to the blogger's attention. And, according to a former high-ranking record label executive, Hilton agreed to ease up on the nasty coverage of Simpson daughters, Jessica and Ashlee, in return for signing Garland to Perezcious Music. Hilton and Simpson did not respond to interview requests.

Though Hilton is smart enough not to make it obvious—he still refers to Ashlee as "Asslee" and Jessica as "The Simplton"—coverage of the sisters on his site has been less frequent and noticeably gentler. The blogger—or more precisely, the army of ghostwriters who fill the site under his name, as overseen by him—has only written about Ashlee a handful of times so far this year, including a downright polite post in February about her and husband Pete Wentz throwing a party for the production crew of Chicago. That's a far cry from posts like one on December 16, 2008 that carried the headline, "Asslee Loves it Up the Butt!" Jessica still receives a steady stream of vitriol from Hilton, but the tone is demonstrably more measured than back in 2006-07 at the height of her fame when posts such as one calling her, "The Biggest Whore of Them All," routinely appeared.

Still, from an audience point of view, there's no denying that Hilton holds a powerful perch—he boasts over 2 million Twitter followers and last month 2.4 million readers visited his eponymous site. As a second record industry executive says, "He's still the place to go to get exposure for pop artists." Big video premieres and exclusive first streams of new songs still get sent to him. Hilton's ability to not only compete but also frequently beat larger, corporately owned rivals such as TMZ.com, Wonderwall, and OMG is testament to his influence.

And despite running pictures of actresses with Photoshop-supplied semen or exposed vaginas, Hilton is an immensely popular outlet for advertisers—other than ABC, no other advertisers pulled out or complained in the wake of the Miley mess, according to Henry Copeland, Hilton's head of ad sales.

Hilton's damned-if-I-care bitchiness is what endears him to his audience, after all. Rather than acting as a deterrent, Copeland's pitch to advertisers stresses Hilton's flamboyance and rebelliousness as the key things that set him apart from his competitors and creates this "magical chemistry" with his audience, which consists primarily of gay men and women in their 20s.

"When we are in competition for an advertiser and it's an us-or-them situation, I use that as leverage to make sure we don't get cut out of the deal and the other guys do," Copeland says.

If Travis Garland's sales stats are anemic, those of Sliimy, the first act signed to Hilton's record label, are flat out embarrassing.

Video screenshot


Perez Hilton talks to Joy Behar about the racy Miley photo.

Copeland would not discuss advertising revenue, saying only that it has "grown materially each of the last five years." He added that a typical "takeover ad" on the flagship PerezHilton.com site costs $54,000 for a day and the most expensive ad package goes for $105,000.

Problem is, Hilton's audience hasn't grown along with his celebrity. Other than a few monthly spikes, traffic to PerezHilton.com has been remarkably consistent for the last three-and-a-half years, ranging from 1.7 million to 2.3 million unique visitors per month, according to comScore data. (Internet figures are notoriously debatable, and others say the site gets closer to 10 million unique monthly visitors. Copeland says Hilton gets 350 million page views per month.)

But as Hilton has progressed from opinionated outsider to celebrity, his audience has gone more mainstream as well.

"It's a different readership now than it was two years ago," says Rabhan. "Two years ago it was the Hollywood or music executive or entertainment insider, now it's more middle America. It's not a readership that would affect cultural product."

That, coupled with the spate of imitators he helped spawn, has lowered Hilton's perch. It has been a while since Hilton, a music lover with no personal musical ability, helped catapult Mika, Adele, or Eric Hutchinson out of obscurity. Recent efforts at championing Leona Lewis' "Happy" single or a Kylie Minogue comeback have fallen on deaf ears, for instance.

More damaging, however, is the fact that Hilton's efforts to grow his business have been stymied. His offshoot fashion site, CocoPerez.com, garnered just 160,000 unique visitors in May, according to comScore. And if Garland's sales stats are anemic, those of Sliimy, the first act signed to Hilton's record label, are flat out embarrassing. The French pop artist's album, Paint Your Face, has moved only 1,000 copies and 10,000 digital track downloads, according to SoundScan.

"I feel like he may have peaked a while ago," says the second music industry executive, asking to remain anonymous to avoid retribution from Hilton on the label's acts.

This source and others pointed to the site JustJared as nipping at Hilton's heels as a music industry influencer. That site's early advocacy for Ke$ha, who scored an immediate smash with her first single, "TiK-ToK," ran counter to Hilton's disparagements. Moreover, record label executives have grown frustrated with Hilton's attempts to derail the careers of performers he doesn't like, such as his relentless campaigning against Christina Aguilera, who he feels is biting Gaga's style.

"Everyone is still scared of him, but they hate that it's not a fair court," says the former record label executive.

Sources say Hilton may have missed an opportunity to seize the marketplace a few years ago when every television and radio executive in the industry was courting him. They say he repeatedly turned down offers for syndication across multiple platforms.

"He missed his Glenn Beck opportunity," says one television executive who has met with Hilton, referring to the Fox News contributor's explosion onto the scene last year.

Instead of marshalling the combined forces of television, radio, publishing, and the Internet into a unified brand strategy, Hilton opted for guest spots and talking head-type appearances on VH1, MTV's Total Request Live, or even the Miss USA pageant—which he famously turned into another controversy by asking Carrie Prejean for her views on gay marriage—and a snippet-sized gossip report called Radio Perez.

Hilton is going to have to be more ambitious than that for his brand to have legs—or potentially get sold for millions of dollars like other powerful individual bloggers with name recognition such as Nikki Finke have done. Celebrity is fleeting, as the many stars who have been dimmed by the brash blogger can attest. What makes people like Martha Stewart, Oprah, Jay-Z, Diddy, Rachael Ray, and any number of other entrepreneurs rather than mere celebrities is their business acumen. It's what separates simple tastemakers from franchise-building executives. Right now, absent the spike in attention born from Cyrus' between-the-legs shots, Hilton is far from the latter, and quickly losing his grip on the former.

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.