The VMAs the other week highlighted a puzzling inequality in British/American musical relations. Florence And The Machine’s performance at the high-profile US event was a proud moment for many Brits: one of ‘our’ artists, blazing a trail Stateside.
Yet if the tables are turned – when a US artist such as Lady Gaga wins a Brit Award, say – American music fans barely even notice. Meanwhile, whereas clued-up British music fans seem to know about every US blog-buzz act going, from Washed Out to Wavves, American indie types who display a similarly encyclopaedic knowledge of UK indie tend to get dismissed as weirdo anglophiles.
There’s nothing like the failure of a much-hyped British band to “break America” to give you a bracing dose of reality. Take The Libertines. Regarded as generational icons in their homeland, they only sold 196,000 albums across their entire career in the US, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
Similarly, Klaxons’ first album ‘Myths Of The Near Future’ only sold 50,000 albums in the US. Paul Weller – the Modfather himself – has sold a combined total of 316,000 records in America, over his entire solo career.
Why should this be the case? And will it ever change? When it comes to the lack of British acts making it big in America, Senior Chart Manager/Analyst for Billboard Keith Caulfield says the main factor is America’s sheer size.
“In the UK a small but dedicated following can have a big impact on the charts,” says Caulfield. “When Muse first came out they were a blip in the US. It took Twilight [Muse appeared on the soundtrack] to bring them a whole new audience.”
Muse, of course, are an exception to the ‘Americans don’t like British guitar bands’ rule. Their albums have sold respectably in the states. There have been other minor successes. Mumford & Sons recently went platinum in the states, while La Roux’s self-titled album peaked at No 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart.
But those examples are far outweighed by number of home-grown guitar bands who simply don’t register across the pond. Fundamentally, it’s a question of supply and demand. The American market is already so saturated with bands, it’s difficult for overseas acts to make themselves heard.
Frank Riley, founder of California-based booking agency High Road Touring, has worked with artists such as Kate Nash and The Cribs on their North American tours. He thinks that, in our atomised online world, breaking America is more difficult than ever. Far from providing an opportunity, the proliferation of outlets in the digital age has made things harder.
“In the olden days everything was based on politics in the music business,” says Riley. “A few people held all the keys to the media—radio, television, print—and those on the inside got the attention. In the new days you’d think it would be all about talent, but it’s not. There are different politics – but a lot more chaos.”