Making It In America: Why (Some) British Acts Are (Finally) Breaking Through.

It may be a topic that has consumed the British music industry for much of the last decade, but it’s fairly safe to say that American program directors have devoted very little time to pondering what it is that allows a hit record in the U.K. to become a hit in America. In Britain, the topic is a trade press perennial–both when a Craig David or Robbie Williams don’t break through here and when a James Blunt does. Now, “Making It In America” is the subject of a daylong conference, sponsored by the U.K. music trade Music Week, to be held in London on Feb. 27, at which Edison Media Research’s Larry Rosin will be one of the speakers.

British hits are more often stymied by benign neglect than any deeply held programmer beliefs that a certain type of record will not work here.

The Music Week conference comes at a time when there are more success stories–Snow Patrol, Natasha Bedingfield, Corinne Bailey Rae, James Blunt, and KT Tunstall all benefited from a changing radio and record industry landscape and, in many cases, an increased ability to circumvent radio, at least in the early stages of a project. But both the relative success of British acts and the much-publicized 2002 dearth of British acts on Billboard’s Hot 100 both reinforce the same central issue: British hits are more often stymied by benign neglect than any deeply held programmer beliefs that a certain type of record will not work here.
This doesn’t mean that no programmer ever told a U.S. record rep, “Well, maybe they love that kind of thing over there, but it won’t work here” or “artists need to come here and tour for a year if they’re serious.” Program Directors, when pressed, are very good at offering reasons why they won’t play something. But for the most part, the international hits that American radio won’t play are the ones they really never know about in the first place–the ones that are not put in front of them by a major label.
In 2007, an American program director is likely the product manager for at least one and sometimes several other radio stations in a given market. The off-air Music Director job has long been eliminated and the post turned over to somebody with multiple on-air duties. The type of radio programmer likely to pore over the British charts for a potential hit that isn’t already being brought to radio’s attention by a major label has fallen out of favor, replaced by somebody more likely to focus their energies on contributing to a station’s sales or Website efforts. Many in the industry also believe that the record business scandals of recent years made programmers less likely to go “off the menu” for anything other than what their cohorts were playing or considering.
In the early part of this decade, there were two prominent Top 40 programmers who were known for listening to international Top 40 radio and helping champion records in America: WBLI Long Island, N.Y.’s J.J. Rice and KBKS (Kiss 106) Seattle’s Mike Preston. Preston now works for a Rhythmic AC station (most comparable to London’s Heart-FM). Rice, who was also known for poring through American albums to find other singles candidates, is still at WBLI but that station is more conservative these days. That leaves Kid Kelly of Sirius Satellite Radio’s Sirius Hits 1 channel as the only prominent Top 40 programmer with a penchant for finding British hits.
And few PDs willing to dig to find hits, that usually leaves label priorities as the agenda setter. Why wasn’t Jamelia’s “Superstar” the American smash that it was internationally? Because a U.S. programmer’s only chance of finding it was to go looking on the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” soundtrack. Conversely, when Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” finally exploded at Top 40 and Adult Contemporary radio here, it did so under the stewardship of a new label boss. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the Fray’s “Over My Head (Cable Car),” another record that sounds like an obvious hit now, kicked in around the same time after many months at pop radio.) And even though the combination of AC play and “Oprah” has given Corinne Bailey Rae a hit album, Mainstream Top 40, where “Put Your Records On” has run its course, has yet to respond to her sales story. And unless Capitol goes back to Top 40 with that song again, they likely will not.
There are exceptions that prove the rule. New York’s powerhouse AC WLTW (Lite FM) was an early supporter of James Blunt’s “Your Beautiful,” then played “Goodbye My Lover” as an album cut, even when it didn’t become the American follow-up single. And two years ago, I sent an import I had heard on British and Irish radio to Triple-A KFOG San Francisco PD Dave Benson. That song was “Black Horse And The Cherry Tree” and KFOG’s early support at the very least accelerated KT Tunstall’s American trajectory.
But by and large, it’s hard to get radio’s attention when you’re not a label priority. And it’s hard to be a label priority when an American division already has so many of its own. In the late ’90s, an American A&R friend watched helplessly as his recent pick-up of a Canadian hit became a smash in the border towns of Buffalo and Detroit, but couldn’t compel a wider push from its major label. They had million-dollar signings of their own that were more important to protect. Ironically, at a time when the U.S. division had its own expensive signings to protect there was no incentive to pursue the Canadian record, particularly in an era when the cost of any project at Top 40 was still a million dollars.
The “it’s not my signing” syndrome didn’t just explain why International hits got less of a push, it’s also why there were so few Country records worked to Top 40, even during the Country boom of the 1990s. Not until the late ’90s when a Country division worked Lonestar’s “Amazed” to Top 40 itself–instead of trying to interest a pop division in shouldering the cost–did Country again find an open door. It may seem less needed now, but one could make a case for an American label whose only job is to work the signings that the U.S. divisions of the majors didn’t want.
Benign neglect has by no means been the only stumbling block. The U.K. chart that gets quoted by the American press is the sales chart–so that when Americans do hear about what’s on the British charts, it’s likely to be Bob The Builder or Crazy Frog instead of what’s actually on the radio. (The new chart rules seem to be bridging that gap a little.) It also doesn’t help that there’s little room on Top 40 for dance music–the U.K. may only have a few big dance hits going at any time, but U.S. radio only has a few each year. And British hit radio is more like American Hot AC in texture–it’s hard for some PDs to imagine the Scissor Sisters as a hit act among 17-year-olds, not just 27-year-olds.
So what’s changed recently? For one thing, Top 40 is going through one of its periods of transition where it’s much more open to the songs that are usually “too good for the radio.” American pop hits in 2003 didn’t sound like “You’re Beautiful” or “Chasing Cars” and they probably won’t in 2010, but the current sound is more adult, more eclectic, and more pop than Hip-Hop. Songs like “You’re Beautiful” that start at AC radio rarely find much of an opening at Top 40. They’re still the exceptions, but AC-to-Top 40 crossovers are less unheard of now. And American AC radio isn’t quite Radio Two, but it is far more eclectic and aggressive than it used to be.
The other change is that radio is not the only gatekeeper. Whether it’s “Gray’s Anatomy” helping to break Snow Patrol (and the Fray), or “American Idol” (a big part of the story on Tunstall and Canadian Daniel Powter as well as the now endless procession of its own artists), network TV has helped stage international hits for American radio the same way that MTV did 25 years earlier. Even without Top 40 support, Bailey Rae’s album became a sales hit from AC play and “Oprah” exposure. While most alternative marketing stories are meant to support a radio push, every now and then, one is able to circumvent it.
But there would still be even more International success stories if both British and American labels were more aggressive about getting them in front of American programmers. That is, of course, easier said than done, but some additional suggestions:

  • Don’t lose the momentum at home: The long roads to American success taken by Tunstall, Blunt, and Bailey Rae will likely reinforce the current label belief that extensive set-up is key, but there’s still something appealing in the immediacy of hearing a potential hit while it’s a hit everywhere else in the world.
  • Rock radio, which is getting harder after several years of being friendlier to the likes of Keane and Snow Patrol, is rarely going to be the appropriate path for British acts. The place for a record like Hard-Fi’s “Hard To Beat” was always Top 40. But when it didn’t generate a story at Rock radio, Top 40 PDs never knew about it. To that end…
  • Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, and Nelly Furtado all sell albums without pretending to be Rock acts. And yet there are still pure pop acts taken to Alternative radio first in hopes of establishing Rock credibility–a strategy that has, over the last decade, been applied to acts as unlikely as Hanson and Natalie Imbruglia. Trying to establish a rock beachhead for an act that will ultimately live primarily at pop radio again risks the loss of momentum, or stranding an act altogether between two constituencies.
  • Find a way to plug the streams back in. With a concerted effort, I still manage to hear the British hits even now that British commercial radio is restricting its streams to U.K. users. But there’s no substitute for hearing a record on the radio repeatedly to make it sound less eclectic and more like a hit. Mike Preston and J.J. Rice might not be listening to Capital Radio right now for the next U.K. hit, but if you want their successors to start listening, then it’s time to work out the royalty issues that have reduced British hit music’s penetration in the U.S., particularly since most of the major U.S. broadcasters have started streaming again.

Finally, rather than trying to learn the rules for American radio, there is as much to be said for having the record that doesn’t sound like anything on the radio. Nobody in British radio was clamoring for “Mad World” any more than American Top 40 PDs were waiting for “Chasing Cars.” The most powerful records in any format in any country are often the ones that stick out. And those records only become hits because somebody didn’t take no for an answer.

6 replies
  1. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    I enjoy how Sirius Hits 1 played “Angel City” by Helicopter Girl last summer. It didn’t end up breaking through to the mainstream, but it certainly helped Hits 1 further differentiate itself from the CHR pack.
    To that end, listening to BBC’s Radio One on Sirius provides nice variety for me on the pop music scene. Will all of the songs from the UK work over here? No. But programmers can find gems from time to time that could work, that is if the hurdles that you referenced in your article can be overcome.

  2. Adam Jacobson
    Adam Jacobson says:

    Wow, Sean — You bring up some great things in this well-written piece.
    First of all, you make the comment that “an increased ability to circumvent radio” has helped these British acts gain access to the U.S. This will only continue, because it helped acts gain access to the still tightly-controlled U.K. radio waves. Take for instance Lily Allen. It wasn’t until her Myspace page heated up last summer when radio stations in Britain first started paying attention.
    I fear this will only continue, as radio has clearly lost its ability to break new artists – with exception. What radio can do is serve as the conduit for new artists in reaching a wider audience. There is absolutely no excuse why a tastemaker PD can’t constantly be listening to radio stations from across Europe and Latin America with their ear on what’s new and cool. I’ve been doing it for years – only because American radio is so safe and predictable and, well, BORING.
    The “it’s not my signing” approach to breaking new music at radio is sad, because it lowers the opportunity to break acts that might actually end up being your signing in the future.
    The Brit bandwagon that many American PDs have jumped on is more like the sputtering Jitney rather than the Eurostar it could be, because there are far more artists out there that savvy PDs should be aware of. The question is which act to embrace?
    America went nuts one year ago over Arctic Monkeys. Do they have what it takes to be the next superstar act or the next big disappointment? Will Razorlight, the Feeling, Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party gain fans in the U.S. with the help of radio, or only Myspace and YouTube? Will Alternative radio shun these artists because they don’t test and will further send the ratings down into the 1.2 range because they are not as widely embraced as louder, harder male-appealing acts?
    Another topic that is not even on the radar is great English-language material that’s not coming from Britain but from other European countries. Reamonn, led by Rea Garvey, has enjoyed eight years of chart success in Germany, Portugal and Greece, of all places, with pop-rock. Yet he’s never had success just over the Alps in Italy.
    And what about great songs that aren’t in English? Forget about that discussion. America isn’t ready for a Man or RBD record to be No. 1 at a big CHR like KIIS, Z100 or WHYI/Miami.
    Too bad. It was 23 years ago when Falco broke globally with “Der Kommissar” and attracted the attention of After The Fire, which translated the song into English. Now the opposite is happening – Moby’s “Slipping Away” has been recut with a dance version featuring lyrics by Mylene Farmer and it’s gotten airplay in France and Germany. A haunting take featuring the lead singer of Spanish act Amaral has won fans in Spain.
    If American radio is to remain relevant, it needs to find, embrace and nurse the right acts. It cannot continue to be the recipient of whatever the consultants and record labels keep pushing for the benefit of no one but themselves.

  3. Dave McKay
    Dave McKay says:

    As a huge fan of British radio (and an early supporter of Blunt, KT Tunstall, Daniel Powter and others), here are a few UK hits from last year that I thought deserved a shot in the US:
    Sugababes “Psuh The Button”
    Embrace “Nature’s Law”
    Simon Webbe “No Worries”
    Craig David “I Just Don’t Love You No More”
    At least Paolo Nutini, Lily Allen and James Morrison feel like they may have a shot at following in Corinne’s footsteps.

  4. Tim Baker
    Tim Baker says:

    The idea of having a US label solely devoted to picking up the acts their fellow labels don’t want is something that I have was thinking about last year.
    This would especially be relevant to Universal, who dominate the British charts through their home signings (Mercury or Polydor to be reborn in the US, anyone?) and EMI have recently announced their “Internationally Famous” division within Caroline, which could possibly help, although they haven’t had many big hits using the Astralwerks system, which already does this to some extent…

  5. Jimi Jamm
    Jimi Jamm says:

    Exciting radio is getting pumped out every day by BBC Radio 1 and Tracy Austin’s Nova station in Brisbane, Australia. If we could harness some of the music, excitement and energy of those stations here in the U.S., the public would be more excited about the radio.

  6. Kye Miller
    Kye Miller says:

    Actually, in 2002, Kylie Minogue (technically Australian but records albums in the UK) had her first American top ten hit in 14 years, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, which peaked at seven on the Billboard Hot 100. Last time she was in the top ten was1988 with her cover of “Loco-Motion”, which peaked at three.


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