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The illusory dream of “Cracking America”

23 February 2014 4 Comments
This blog belongs to Radio Creme Brulee – an internet music radio station that broadcasts globally.

robbie-pensive“Cracking America” is the illusory dream of every non-American artist. For many, it is the pinnacle of stardom and a pathway to affluence and perhaps even life-long financial freedom. In the 80s, over 32% of the music on the US charts was by artists that were not from America. In the mid-90s, this percentage started to drop dramatically and is now languishing in the single digits. Why is this? Here are some of the popular ideas floating around:

a. Foreign artists are trying to sound “American” and hence fail to distinguish themselves from the scores of American artists that are already grabbing the attention of the US consumer market for music.

b. People in America have different musical tastes from those of the rest of the world.

c. America has enough artists in the mainstream. There is no room for British artists.

d. Americans do not “get” British music.

e. The music from overseas sucks (despite being sung in English and hence not really being foreign) and hence is not worthy of making its way over to America (this is something someone actually said to me in my sophomore year at college. Quite infuriating!).

A deeper dive into the comments above would suggest inaccuracies and inconsistencies in all of the statements. It also suggests an overarching geocentric arrogance. Interestingly enough, the geocentric arrogance does not lie in the consumers of music. It lies elsewhere but before we dive into those details, I would like to highlight why it is so important for an artist to “crack America” – more specifically, the US. Here are some of the key reasons:

a. The US is the is single largest consumer market for pop/rock music:

The top 5 markets for music in the world (in order) are the US, UK, Japan, France, and Germany. Despite being the second largest market, the UK falls far behind the US in terms of revenue from the commercial exploitation of recorded music. To not have a career in the US is to miss the largest opportunity from a financial perspective for an artist.

b. The US has the largest marketing budget for pop/rock artists

Record industry heavyweights in the US have significantly larger budgets to develop and market an artist. This becomes critical for an artist that desires global reach. Many of the world’s greatest bands had to rely on American budgets to become global phenomena. Noteworthy examples include The Beatles, Rolling Stones, George Michael, Adele, and Led Zeppelin.

c. Having a hit in the US = Having a global hit

Very rarely has an artist had a global hit WITHOUT having a hit in the US. Former Take That band-member Robbie Williams might be one of the few exceptions to this. Being known in the US guarantees an artist fame worldwide. The reason for this is that the rest of the world (especially countries that do not have their own vibrant music scene) looks to the US for pop culture. Just like Hollywood is a global phenomenon, the US music industry also has global reach in a way that no other country’s music industry does. As a result, success in the other 4 of the top 5 markets does not guarantee global success. In a nutshell, there are both financial and culture implications to a successful music career in the US.
So why is it so difficult for an artist to “crack the US”? The answer can be summarized in 2 points.

a. Terrestrial radio has over 90% “share of voice” among avenues of exposure for pop/rock music in the US.

What this essentially means is that in the US, if a song does not make it to terrestrial radio, most people would not have heard of the song OR the artist. Furthermore, most people do not look beyond this medium for their music. Furthermore, in the minds of most Americans, reach is synonymous to credibility when it comes to pop music. Hence, the perception that if a song does not make it to terrestrial radio’s highly limited and repetitive playlists, it probably was not “good enough” to be on there. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that conglomerate-owned radio (which constitutes 80% of all radio stations across the US) continues to receive “monetary favors” for airplay of music. This is how a majority of new acts have made it to terrestrial radio since 1996 (which is when the telecommunications deregulation act was passed and allowed conglomerates to own as many radio stations as they could afford). “Bankrolling airplay” is expensive. As a result, only a handful of acts on a major record label can get the funding needed for their music to see the light of day on terrestrial radio. This practice, popularly known as “payola” is a highly illegal one and sadly not a practice of the past.

b. The folks that make decisions on playlists are NOT DJs and have a geocentric bias

Back in the late 80s, a kid returned from a study abroad program in Sweden while he was in college. While he was in Sweden, he discovered the pop duo Roxette. He sent in a copy of a record of theirs to his local radio station. The DJ at the station was intrigued and played the song. The rest is history and Roxette’s music continues to be known across the globe. The DJ had autonomy and could play whatever he or she wanted. Now, with a single office making decisions for playlists of ALL stations that they own, the local DJ is left with no autonomy at all. With the internet, discovery of great non-American artists has never been easier and yet, there is a complete rejection of them by the “playlist experts” of terrestrial radio that somehow only seem to be interested in American acts. British and Scandinavian acts have suffered the most from this. The US has not had a British invasion since the 1980s. This is not because they stopped making great music. It is because conglomerates (ClearChannel etc.) kept them at bay and away from the ears of the average American listener.
We encourage readers to dispel some of the more common notions on why it is so difficult for an overseas artist to “break America”. Their limited success in the US has little to do with consumer tastes. It has everything to do with the myopia, geocentric attitude, narrow focus, and musically void decision-making process of the the largest music gatekeepers in the US – terrestrial radio.

What are your thoughts on how the US can break out of this rut? Please feel free to share them via the comments section below.

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4 Responses to "The illusory dream of “Cracking America”"

  1. W.G. says:

    It’s none of the above. In the U.S., marketers have take over the industry, and it’s their job to find out what people like and give it to them. Since stuff already on the radio is all most listeners hear, this means playing the same songs, or a bunch of songs that sound the same, over and over again. Listening to any Top 40 station for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. They also try to control the image of the artist to create they differentiation that you need to identify artists. If you don’t believe this, you need to listen to those small crowds of people who find the local and international stuff. I can’t stand rap on the radio, but my local area has incredible rappers! And nobody will sign them or play them because they sound so different. It’s all about maintaining a norm so they won’t lose money.

  2. @W.G: Thank you for your comment. The marketers that have decided what “people like” have only come into existence since 1996. They were appointed by the conglomerates. You will not see them in any independent station. Their approach to market research suffers from a common mistake called the “confirmation bias” – wherein they play a bunch of songs that people already know and ask them if they like the songs. If people say “yes”, they flood the airwaves with songs that sound just the same. When DJs were making playlists, this is NOT how things got done. As a result, the diversity element was almost more significant. If these stations did not “lose money” prior to 1996 but doing what they were doing, there is no reason they should be losing money today. The stock price of these companies is only growing because of cost-cutting measures they have taken (i.e. taking DJs out of the programming function). It has little to do with increased revenues that stem from catering to people’s musical tastes better. The only reason these companies are in business is because of people listening to the radio in the car. About 50% of listening happens there. Take that element out and the days of these companies will be numbered.

  3. Frannie says:

    Interesting. I’m not sure why UK artists haven’t been more successful here. I don’t know if the differentation argument works because from what I know the UK produces a lot of sort of manufactured pop that is no different from what is played on the radio here all the time. Maybe it’s the kind of thing as to what comes first the chicken or the egg. Since it kind of got put out there that US radio won’t play British artists, labels with these artists sort of gave up trying to promote them here, and obviously if they’re not promoted they can’t have hits.

    I enjoy a lot of indie/alternative/rock type of music and for some reason the same issue doesn’t come up there. There are British bands that are hyped up by the UK press and people here find out about them through the Internet and they will have no problem selling out venues here right away. I guess because that music isn’t as dependent on radio, but more word of mouth or press reviews for example on indie leaning sites like pitchfork.

  4. @Frannie: Thanks as always for the concrete comments. The manufactured pop that the UK is producing is only now. In the mid-90s to mid-00s, that was not the case and yet almost nothing from there made it over to the US since terrestrial radio figured it was the authority on music and did not let DJs make decisions on playlists. Half the reasons we launched Radio Creme Brulee was to give people an avenue that was more representative of the global music scene as opposed to the harrow slice of pop music that was getting overexposed in the US since 1996. It is true that indie/alternative rock relies on sites such as Pitchfork but that medium gives them nowhere near the scale that terrestrial radio does. As a result, the bands do not fare nearly as well as older rock bands from a financial perspective. They never benefit from scale in the US. Bands like Muse sell out Wembley Stadium in the UK. In the US, they can barely fill an arena – and they are a rock act as opposed to a pop act. At the end of the day, media is about reach and scale and with one single avenue (i.e. over the air radio) having over 90% share of voice, that is where scale needs to be achieved. Thanks once again for the comment. Just out of curiosity, do you subscribe to this blog?

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