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Breaking a music artist in America in 2017 (#midem)


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The US remains the world’s biggest recorded-music market, and a tempting one for artists around the world to target. But it’s also one of the most challenging countries to crack as an overseas artist.

A panel at the Midem conference today provided some tips and techniques to help: from building a team to finding the right promotion strategy.

The panel included Michele Amar, director of the US Office, Bureau Export; John Katovsich, VP of theatrical music at Lionsgate; Andreas Katsambas, recording executive at BMG; and Andrea Da Silva, global team leader, media and entertainment at the US Department of Commerce. The Bloom Effect’s Fiona Bloom moderated.

Language was a major theme running through the session – despite increasing globalisation, American audiences still want lyrics in English and artists doing interviews in English.

When asked what lyric translation tools he’d recommend, Katsambas joked, “I was going to say Google Translate – but I tried it a few times with funny results. But you do need to have good English.” He did, however, mention working with a Japanese act in the US who spoke no English so they took a translator with them to handle interviews. “It’s a hurdle,” he said, “but it’s not impossible.”

Da Silva mentioned LyricFind as a workable solution here but also cited Shakira as an act where English was not her first language. “A lot of American audiences want to literally understand what they are listening to,” she said of the issues that non-English speaking acts face here. “There is definitely a demand for English-language content.”

Katovsich explained how technology was limited and that, really, humans are the only way to work here. He gave the example of trying to translate The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ into Spanish for a Mexican film project. “We got stuck with Google – so ask a native,” he said, adding his company has a division focused specifically on the Mexican market and so can provide solutions here.

“Good production and English lyrics generally help,” were what Katsambas saw as the special ingredients to have a chance in the US, but said certain genres have their own caveats. “Electronic artists can produce music they can license without lyrics,” he said.

That said, English was only deemed essential if acts want to be truly mainstream in the US and that they can have very strong niche careers singing in their native tongues.

Streaming services were cited as changing the rules of engagement for international acts now. “It has gotten easier with streaming services,” said Katsambas. “I spend a lot of time on Spotify listening to New Music Friday playlists […] Social media is also very compelling now. You can go on YouTube and discover new acts. Finding artists is not very difficult now. It’s what you do with the afterwards that is the challenge.”

The shift to a global release date has also helped international acts and is starting to unlock new opportunities for them. “People are realising it’s a global phenomenon,” said Katsambas. “When you work a release, you have to do it on a global scale.”

Amar cited collaborations as key for opening the door for French acts in the US – notably David Guetta working with Black Eyed Peas and Daft Punk working with Nile Rodgers. That has helped a new generation of French acts – such as Jain and Christine & The Queens – to come forward. “They are also extremely motivated to come into the US,” she said.

“Try and find someone in the US that can tap into that market,” suggested Katsambas. “You can be diverse and that is a good international angle to connect with different markets.”

Da Silva said an understanding of how the American market worked was essential and this should shape how acts present and carry themselves. “It’s a business – so be on time and be professional,” she said.

“The US is a market where you want to sing in English. I like to hear foreign language but I haven’t seen that take up in the US like it has in other markets […] Come prepared and make yourself look like you are integrating yourself into the community already […] Business is taken very seriously in the US – so be upbeat. Smile and say yes This goes a long way in the US culture […] Be easy to work with.”

While expensive to attend (and involving lots of visa red tape), certain live events and festivals are still important. “I think SXSW is still a very vibrant and essential conference for any emerging artist,” said Katovsich, who argued they still get acts in front of the right people. “It is tough to break through the clutter in those places but I think it’s still key and a big opportunity.”

Having a story or an angle is also key. Perhaps an extreme example, Katsambas said BMG sold The Zombies – the Sixties act who were struggling to get attention around their reunion in the US – to the Stephen Colbert show at Halloween, using their name as the hook. “They said yes immediately,” he revealed.

Inevitably, data was cited as the secret weapon for acts – as is also something US bookers are looking to when deciding what acts to work with.

One of the benefits of working with international acts is seeing if they have a story somewhere else,” said Katsambas, saying acts and their managers should use that to parlay into new markets.”

Amar added, “I have noticed a lot of festivals analyse acts in terms of their likes and social media data. Before they invite acts to the US, they want to know they have a certain level of engagement with their fans.”

For Katovsich, all the numbers feed into each other and help push other parts of an act’s career. “Maximise whatever numbers you can,” he said. “They are never going to hurt.”

Finally, visas for acts in the US are much more complex to arrange – so this has to be built into the planning of any live engagements. Katsambas suggested finding an immigration attorney who specialises in music. “A big part of your budget for touring in the US will go on the visas,” he said.

Da Silva added, “I would start planning a year ahead if it’s your first time [touring the US] as you will need time to educate yourself.”

Finally, acts need to play by the rules and should never try and trick the visa system as it will seriously damage their career prospects. Do the planning and the paperwork, was the message. There are no shortcuts.

“I have seen artists who think they can trick the system and come in as tourists,” warned Katsambas. “Don’t do that!”

Music Ally’s Midem 2017 coverage is supported this year by Music is GREAT, the British government’s campaign to promote UK music exports.

The UK and British Music are represented through the British Music at Midem stand, with the Department for International Trade joining forces with music industry associations AIM (Association of Independent Music), BPI (British Phonographic Industry), MPA (Music Publishers Association), PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) and PRS for Music.

Together, they will support over 150 UK music businesses and member delegates as they seek to pick up on the latest trends, connect with international companies, sign deals and develop trading and export opportunities.

Eamonn Forde

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