September 19, 2010

Should U.S. Mean Success?

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You’re driving in your car listening to the same, stale Top 40 radio: Black Eyed Peas, Lady GaGa, Ke$ha, blah blah blah. Then, an unfamiliar rap by Ludacris grabs your attention followed by a singer you’ve never heard before. You think to yourself, “Wow, I’ve never heard this before! It’s pretty catchy.” Pretty soon, the track rises to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Now, everyone knows that the singer is Taio Cruz, a debut artist who has now become a U.S. star. However, little do you know that five months ago it was an international smash (that is, everywhere other than the United States), and without an abysmal tacked-on rap by Ludacris. Not only that, Taio Cruz is actually not a debut artist; he’s released songs commercially in the U.K. since 2006, and has five chart topping singles there as well as similar successes throughout Europe. Only after cracking the U.S. market — and selling out in the process — is he now considered a bona-fide success.

The idea that the U.S. market is the be all and end all of becoming a successful artist has always been present in the music world. The arrival of The Beatles in America was a momentous moment in music history, igniting the British invasion and the arrival of foreign music into the United States. Of course, only after this event were the Beatles officially considered an international sensation. Even now, foreign artists are obsessed with breaking into the U.S. music industry despite domestic and international success. Ironically, today globalization is stronger than ever, yet the United States is almost always out-of-the-loop when it comes to “international” artists.

As an avid music-blogger, it’s frustrating to see great acts fail in the United States despite their success in foreign markets. There’s no doubt in my mind that the best music is coming from Europe right now, in particular the U.K. However, the music market there is undoubtedly different than that of the United States. Dance music is extremely popular overseas, and often rules the charts. On the other hand, U.S. dance chart hits are distinct from Top 40, because they are not “commercial” enough. Even #1 dance hits are rarely heard on Top 40 radio in the United States and are not widely known.

Maybe foreign music is too mature for the United States. Of course, every country has its Ke$ha’s who produce catchy yet mindless trash. But there seems to be on the whole a more mature sound and smarter lyrics that don’t catch the attention of closed-minded Americans. Take Erik Hassle’s amazing song “Hurtful” that in my opinion was the best pop track of 2009; it made rounds internationally but failed to succeed in the United States despite being a free iTunes single of the week.

As a result, foreign acts feel that they must conform to the U.S. market to find success. Although “Break Your Heart” is a great pop song, it’s doubtful that without a feature from Ludacris it would have found radio play. It is a shame that Taio had to sell out because the original version is vastly superior. If foreign artists do not tack on features, they ride on the coattails of their American counterparts. It would seem that The Script came out of nowhere with their U.S. hit “Breakeven,” but they actually found U.S. exposure because Kris Allen’s “Live Like We’re Dying” is a cover of one of their b-sides. A great band that deserved to find success in the United States in their own right had to rely on an average singer from American Idol — emphasis on “American” — as well as a mediocre b-side to truly find success.

There are some cases when artists find success in the United States without selling out. La Roux, who are another example of why U.K. music is so far ahead of the United States, are popular without any added features or change in sound to fit U.S. commercial music. However, their music was also floating on U.S. iTunes and dance charts for a while. Suddenly, New York radio station Z100 started playing them and the rest is history.

I will go so far as to say that Z100 controls who finds success in the United States. Although only a New York station, it is the biggest top 40 radio station in the world and also one of the world’s most visited radio websites. The United States’ as well as the world’s most popular artists started from Z100 airplay, most notably Lady GaGa. As a frequent Z100 listener, I can tell you that Lady GaGa’s music did not find popular success until they started to heavily promote her.

Conspiracies aside, it’s a shame that despite globalization and the Internet, the U.S. music industry is so closed-minded towards foreign music. It is even worse that international artists have to ruin their sound to break into America. Without music blogs, I don’t know how I would survive on only top 40 fare. Perhaps, I am just succumbing to the syndrome that foreign artists face: If I don’t hear it on U.S. radio, it’s not really successful. I like listening to music that I discover and only a few people know about, but it would be nice if I heard it on the radio once in a while and was able to share my love for it with people I know.

As said in the U.K. hit song “Hollywood” by Marina and the Diamonds: “Hollywood infected your brain … puking American dreams, I’m obsessed with the mess that’s America.” Everyone’s in on the joke but us.

Original Author: Matt Samet