American invasion - making it in the USA

Chris Barrett finds out how the current wave of British success stories are making it in the US…

Paul Nichols
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 3 Jan 2014
  • min read
It happened in the sixties, in the eighties and is happening again now – British musicians and songwriters taking on America’s charts and winning.

Adele, One Direction and Mumford and Sons led the charge in 2012, releasing four of the US’ five best-selling albums, BPI stats showed. Their success, alongside other big sellers such as The xx and Ed Sheeran, saw UK artists’ sales share in North America hit a 10 year high. This year Little Mix, Laura Marling, Bastille and Chvrches have been the cross-Atlantic winners.

But why has the states fallen for these artists? Well, Brits that break America are incredibly well prepared. They’re also willing to sacrifice blood, sweat, tears and more on the road to success.

‘You have to tour and tour and tour again. Many UK bands find it difficult to cope because they aren’t used to such hardcore touring, but it’s vital,’ says Dick O’Dell, manager of UK talent Bat for Lashes.

Playing live is certainly key - and the US has a huge number of great venues to showcase new music. New York’s Brooklyn Bowl and Bowery Ballroom are important stop-offs alongside LA’s 130-capacity Largo and Troubadour and San Franciso’s Great American Music Hall.

However, aside from the red tape involved in gaining access, bands hitting the US for the first time need to consider numerous Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations, including Central Withholding Tax. Those who don’t could see the IRS retaining 30 percent of a band’s gross earnings until the end of the tax year.

Artist manager Mick Paterson felt the wrath of the IRS while touring with Spiritualized last year. ‘We put in what we thought was the right paperwork, but the IRS changed the rules in the middle of the tour and held back thousands of pounds,’ he warns.

SXSW

Glasgow’s CHVRCHES saw their debut The Bones Of What You Believe, crashland into the US Top 20 in the autumn after a campaign which began during a run of five gigs at industry event South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas earlier that year. It shows how hard work at SXSW can be a catalyst for a career stateside. But with over 2,200 acts performing, it can be a challenge just to be heard above the musical melee. Jon Webster, chief executive at Music Managers Forum, believes SXSW is best left to artists that already have an industry buzz.

‘If you’re not ready, there are much better ways of spending £10,000. SXSW is costly and there is so much music out there. But if the timing is right, it is a great way of getting to a lot of international media,’ explains Jon.

There is no shortage of SXSW success stories, as Bob Miller, manager of Corinne Bailey Rae and Davy Knowles, attests.

Corinne Bailey Rae’s SXSW show for KCRW cemented her relationship with the LA-based radio station, while for Davy, SXSW was the springboard for a six year US tour. ‘He virtually never came home from that first trip to Austin, playing over 300 shows in the first two years alone,’ says Miller.

With funding from the PRS for Music Foundation, Dick O’Dell and his act Bat for Lashes hit SXSW at exactly the right time to build on the UK success of debut album, Fur and Gold.

‘She played under the PRS banner at the bottom of the bill, but when she came on the house was absolutely packed. When the next band performed, the room had completely emptied - that tells you everything you need to know about SXSW,’ says Dick.

Sources of funding

Fortunately cash-strapped artists with US aspirations can find backing from various sources including the BPI, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and the PRS for Music Foundation.

The BPI and UKTI recently created the Music Export Growth Scheme, offering grants to independent labels looking to take export-ready artists overseas. PRS for Music Foundation runs British Music Abroad, a scheme that has helped the likes of Tropics and Seams head overseas.

Laura Whitticase, the foundation’s industry and export fund manager, says it will consider applications from any artist wanting to play an industry-facing showcase event. The organisation helps around 40 artists annually attend showcases including SXSW, CMJ in New York and the Miami Winter Music Conference.
The beauty of the internet is that it gives us more control of granular markets and the ability to get right into the pockets of our audience

Getting in 

Whichever US event an artist chooses, there is the visa challenge to overcome. It can take up to three months for an artist’s visa to be granted and the overall cost, depending on the band’s size and application date, can reach £2,500.

Tim Brinkhurst, manager of hip-hop act Young Fathers, first applied for US work visas at the start of 2013 for his band to play SXSW in March, but they were rejected despite being signed to US indie label Anticon.

‘The visas were initially refused, even though we had great press. They look for worldwide recognition and we had that, but we had to re-apply with more evidence,’ says Tim.

Working from home

Thankfully there are more economically viable ways of impacting the US market than making the journey. Events including Eurosonic in the Netherlands and Brighton’s Great Escape all attract US delegates.

Kat Morris, Great Escape director, says the event welcomes 3,000 industry delegates annually, eight percent of which are from the US. Agents and promoters as well as key online US media outlets including Hype Machine and Pitchfork all attend.

Adam Royal, online press officer at Toast Press who worked with Django Django on SXSW, believes the international make up of audiences means it’s equally important to get coverage on a UK site as it is Pitchfork. He also focuses heavily on US tastemaker blogs including Gorilla Vs Bear, Pigeons and Plane and The Fader.

‘They are strong tastemakers irrespective of how much traffic they get. That’s the important thing at an early stage. While traffic is attractive, it’s ultimately about positioning and finding the appropriate audience that will listen. There’s little use having three million people reading a site per month if only 1,000 people are going to hear the track,’ advises Adam.

While gaining coverage across key US online music platforms and building a social media following are important, artists cannot ignore traditional media.

Tim notes that coverage in key magazines and even local newspapers can help support visa applications. Mainstream print titles including Rolling Stone and Spin hold significant sway as do college radio stations such as Seattle’s KEXP and LA’s KCRW. Meanwhile, TV can bring huge mainstream exposure. Marc Marot, chairman of the Crown Talent and Media Group, which manages a host of artists including Jessie J, says: ‘The beauty of the internet is that it gives us more control of granular markets and the ability to get right into the pockets of our audience. However, compare that to a live performance on The X Factor in the US and it pales into insignificance.’

TV and sync

Dick believes appearances on key US TV shows such as the Late Show With David Letterman are hugely important but worthless without a back-up plan.

‘People think that when you get those TV slots it is game on, but it is not like that, you must have all the other parts of your campaign falling into place simultaneously,’ he says.

A considerable career boost can come from TV, film and videogame track placements and there are a number of industry initiatives aimed at making this process easier.

Annually 50 artists and independent labels are taken to visit leading music supervisors as part of the BPI’s annual LA Sync Mission. Chris Tams, BPI Director of Independent Member Services and International, cites the placement of Wretch 32 track 24 Hours on the FIFA 14 videogame as an example of how beneficial it can be.

While the opportunities for US exposure are many, there are no shortcuts to success. Any artist wanting to break North America not only needs time, money and a top class industry team behind them but a willingness to get on the road and stay there.

Marc believes a sustained presence in the US is essential in order to succeed. Jessie J’s second album, Alive, was released in the UK in September but will not be available in the US until next year.

‘Our plan is to wait until the new year, when she is able to stay there for a very long time - we need to give the Americans a sustained period of exposure to her,’ says Marc. It’s this kind of forward planning, combined with determination and persistence, which is fuelling the current romance between British songwriters and US audiences.