In 1989, Bruce Pavitt, the founder of the Seattle label Sup Pop, hatched a plan to boost the profile of several of his bands, including a pre-fame Nirvana.
“During the pre-internet 1980s, it was difficult for struggling regional bands in the United States to achieve any national media attention,” he wrote in the 2013 book Experiencing Nirvana. “In England, the situation was different.” Pavitt attributed this to two factors: “The swift transmission of information enabled by the mutually combative ethos of the weekly U.K. music magazines” and “the country’s geographical compactness.” So the label sent Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad to tour England, which in turn “led to interest from American major labels,” counter-intuitively creating buzz back home by wooing listeners abroad.
Thirty years ago, if a label needed to jumpstart a record outside of the unforgiving U.S., options were extremely limited. Today, when huge swathes of the planet have YouTube access, acts have many more choices. “I used to say when we couldn’t break a record in L.A. or New York, we’d go to San Francisco and Boston,” explains Mike Caren, CEO of Artist Partner Group/Artist Publishing Group. “When we couldn’t break it there, we’d go to Fresno and Peoria. Now you have the entire world.”
It’s not just that new avenues of achieving popularity are open to artists who used to focus only on the U.S. and the U.K.: Those avenues are increasingly necessary for breaking new acts back in New York or London. This is especially true for artists who are not making rap, which is a streaming dynamo. “Depending on the sound, the gatekeepers, and the fans in different territories — how curious they are about new music in certain genres — it can make more sense to start [a record] somewhere else,” Caren says.
The reasoning? To build a career, new acts have to demonstrate growth on streaming services. Rappers can roll out of bed and amass heaps of streams in the U.S. before breakfast, but other genres struggle to do so at the same rate. In those cases, it might make sense to look outside of the U.S. for a receptive audience, build a following abroad and then use that international fanbase as a crowbar to pry open the door to the American market. If Caren once tried to break records in Fresno, he may now aim for Buenos Aires.
This represents a reversal of the traditional music business model. “An artist used to become established in one market and then after several albums would go global,” says Chaz Jenkins, a label veteran who now works at the music data analytics company Chartmetric. “Now to get established in the first place, you need early engagement from these [foreign] markets [that were not considered a priority in the past]. If you don’t get that, it’s much tougher [to break through].”
The success of Dennis Lloyd’s “Nevermind” shows how the process can work. The Israeli singer-producer was shocked when his single — singer-songwriter fare with a beat just pushy enough to get a dancefloor swaying — was added to a German Spotify playlist titled “Swag” and began to gain momentum in the country. “Spotify wasn’t available in Israel, so he had no idea [his song was performing well on the platform],” says Lloyd’s manager, Josh Fluxgold. After getting traction in Germany, “Nevermind” spread to Italy; months later, thanks to a focused push, the single reached Number Three on Alternative Radio in the U.S.
But there’s no need to rely on serendipity. Caren set out to accomplish something similar while working with Ava Max on the club-ready thumper “Sweet but Psycho,” which took nearly a year to become a hit in the U.S. “Strong initial engagement” came from Bulgaria, according to Chartmetric data. After establishing a beachhead in Eastern Europe, Caren’s team looked north. “We had a hypothesis that the Nordic countries would be a good place to focus,” he says, citing their propensity to support “uptempo dance pop.” “Sweet But Psycho” reached Number One on Spotify in Sweden “months before it was even charting in the U.S.”
Cigarettes After Sex, a languid guitar band from Texas who stream surprisingly well for a rock group, are another act that broke abroad. “It was Mexico and Latin America that delivered their incredible growth,” Jenkins says. 15 years ago, it would have been costly for a band like Cigarettes After Sex to get their CDs to Latin America, and maybe not worth it — piracy was a major problem in the market. But thanks to streaming infrastructure, these hurdles have largely disappeared. “It’s become easier to go overseas first,” says Vincent “Tuff” Morgan, director of pop and “urban” A&R for Peer Music, who signed Cigarettes After Sex to a publishing deal. “Once you develop a story there, you move back stateside.”
Chartmetric’s Jenkins believes that in the future, we’ll start to see a lot more trajectories like that of Cigarettes After Sex. That’s because the power to spark hits is switching away from the usual collection of Western cultural capitals to what Jenkins calls “trigger cities,” which are primarily located in places that the U.S. music industry has traditionally written off. “I used to quite flippantly say, ‘Instead of trying to break this artist in his home market, why don’t we take the artist to the Philippines?'” Jenkins says. “The idea was dismissed back then because these markets don’t generate revenue.”
But streamers in these cities are so zealous that Jenkins believes it’s time for the music industry to rethink decades-old dogma. “In Western countries, we like to think that we are the home of social networks and we use them,” he explains. “But our use is pretty limited in comparison to the way consumers use these platforms in a lot of what have traditionally been seen as emerging markets, where they think of Spotify more as a music version of a social network.”
The numbers bear this out: When Chartmetric ranked cities around the world according to weekly YouTube views, not a single American or Western European destination appeared in the Top Ten. Instead, places like Mexico City, Bangkok and Lucknow, India ranked highly.
There is an intensity to fandom in some of these cities that makes even the most enthusiastic U.S. listeners look downright apathetic. A favorite artist in Bangkok was watched roughly six times as often as a favorite artist in New York City. That means a city like Bangkok can “provide such phenomenal and rapid growth in audience that it can break an artist,” Jenkins says.
That growth might also accrue to genres that are not currently sizzling in the U.S. Parts of South America, like Buenos Aires, remain enamored with rock, at least according to their Shazam tendencies. Listeners in South Asian cities show a preference for pop and electronic music (Indonesia is a huge market, unlikely as it may sound, for the Norwegian electronic producer Alan Walker).
However, even if an artist successfully builds a following abroad, making the move to the U.S. may not be frictionless. Lloyd’s “Nevermind” had to rack up 100 million streams before an American label even started working it in the U.S. “There aren’t many records that break out of Italy, so there was a bit of difficulty really garnering the support,” Fluxgold says.
And rapid streaming growth in foreign markets still might not translate into piles of cash. “By and large, [trigger cities] still don’t generate much revenue,” Jenkins says.
This means that labels remain wary of focusing on trigger cities. “You’re not seeing [a trigger city approach] much in practice at a major label level,” says Brian Vinikoor, vice president of marketing at Arista Records, which signed Lloyd. “Labels are incentivized financially to break what’s signed out of their country — they’re gonna make more money from the streams generated by their country,” Vinikoor continues. “There can be a disparity between what’s best for the artist and what’s best for the label from a financial standpoint.”
But a short-term revenue focus may be the wrong approach during a time of musical hyper-saturation — an unfathomable amount of new songs appear on streaming services every day. “What is the case now is you look for growth anywhere,” Jenkins says. “Monetization is more of a long-term thing: If there’s not growth in the first place, there’s not going to be money in the future. And the growth that you can get in these markets is so rapid.”
After succeeding with Lloyd, Fluxgold is hoping to crack the code again. “There are a couple records [that performed well abroad] that we’re looking at that have the potential to break here in the same way Dennis did,” he says.
And Vinikoor recently watched another Arista signing, Stephen Puth (brother of pop singer Charlie Puth) gain a following in Poland and Denmark. “As long we’re thinking about artist development and building a proper fanbase,” the executive adds, “then you have to be thinking globally from day one.”