From Adele to One Direction: How breaking America went from pipedream to reality for UK acts

British albums topped the Billboard charts last year. Emily Mackay looks at why some UK acts succeed where others fail, and asks: is there a formula for hitting the US jackpot?

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The Independent Culture

The revelation last week that four of the top-five-selling albums in the US Billboard charts last year were by British artists, namely Adele's 21, Mumford & Sons' Babel and One Direction's Up All Night and Take Me Home (yes, two albums in the top five) was merely the cherry on the cake.

In March 2012, the top spots in the Billboard album chart were taken by Adele's 21, former Floetry singer Marsha Ambrosius for her Late Nights & Early Mornings, and Mumford & Sons' debut album Sigh No More. It was the first time UK artists had held all three top spots since 1987, when Dire Straits, Sting and Tears For Fears managed the feat. That's particularly impressive when you consider that Adele's 21 came out in February the previous year and Sigh No More in February the year before that. We're not talking flash-in-the-pan here. But it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The same month, One Direction's debut album topped the US album chart in its first week, the first debut album by a UK act ever to do so. In April, Adele was named one of Time magazine's most influential people. In October, Mumford and Sons' Babel smashed Justin Bieber's first-week album sales to become the fastest-selling in the US that year; in the same week the band went on to match The Beatles' 48-year-old record for placing six singles simultaneously in the Billboard Top 100, because of plays on streaming sites.

That last in the string of glories could at first glance be seen as evidence of a new British invasion, following on from those of the Sixties when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Dusty Springfield conquered America; and the Eighties, when synth-pop groups like Duran Duran and A Flock of Seagulls charmed the US. Since then and in between, the translation of home successes to America has been hit-and-miss, and hard to predict. The huge homegrown success of Britpop didn't translate at all, despite Oasis's ebullience, while big UK pop acts like Robbie Williams never managed to replicate their hometown glories.

But the first problem with our apparent third British invasion is that we're looking here at three wildly disparate acts, all massive successes in freakishly individual and unpredictable ways. To assume that this is a trend that might easily be capitalised on by any UK act willing to take the trip to the US would be, to say the least, foolhardy.

"I thought, is this a moment for British music, is this spreading to other British acts?" says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts and retail at Billboard. "Not necessarily. Because if you look at the rest of the top sellers, once you leave the Top Five, the next highest seller for a British act is Rod Stewart outside of the Top 10 with his Christmas album… If there were more British acts outside the Top Five, if there were 10 of them in the Top 30, then I think it might be something huge but I think it's kind of an Adele, Mumford, One Direction story."

To take it on a case-by-case basis, Mumford & Sons are perhaps the easiest to understand in terms of musical appeal. Highly emotive, with yearning choruses and swells of comforting melancholy, their reappropriation of American Appalachian folk heritage, with a love of The Band and Bob Dylan laced with a raffish, bewhiskered Mr Darcyish English charm seems bound to appeal to both Midwestern mum and coastal college kid. But why hasn't Laura Marling's ice-maiden blend of Sandy Denny and Joni Mitchell made the same inroads? Where are Noah & The Whale, whose last album romped through American heartland rock with dapper, waistcoated aplomb?

You can't explain it in musical terms alone; in terms of their Beatles-matching singles record, many have cited Mumford & Sons' willingness to open up their music to streaming services like Spotify. On the other hand, Taylor Swift, the only US artist in the Top Five, kept her newest record off streaming services, and it didn't seem to do her a great deal of harm.

Babel of course, built on the previous success of Sigh No More, which, like Adele's 21, had a slow-burn rise up the charts, leading to explosive first-week sales for their follow-up. The band had also gained, in February 2010, some essential national US TV exposure in the form of their debut American appearance on David Letterman's The Late Show.

They're not a band you can exactly accuse of overbearing hype, though; much of Mumford & Sons' word is spread through the traditional live route. In 2011, they took their love of The Band to the point of undertaking a train-based tour across the States in the company of American act Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and for their Gentlemen of the Road stopover tour extensive US dates saw them unafraid to get their waistcoats dirty in the lesser-visited likes of Dixon, Illinois and Laramie, Wyoming. The appearance of authenticity is, of course, part of the whole Mumford shtick but it seems to have done the trick.

The idea of authenticity, too, must play some part in the never-ending rampage of the Genghis Khan of 21st-century soul-pop, Adele. In October 2011, she was forced to cancel a US tour due to a vocal chord haemorrhage, though she'd made the trip before, in support of 19; indeed, it was her exposure to American country and roots music via the medium of her bus driver while touring in the southern US that shaped the sound of her second album. She has also had plenty of US national media exposure. After appearing on Anderson Cooper's show to sing a chorus of "Rolling in the Deep" in February 2012 ("I don't think anyone who's vaguely conscious doesn't listen to Adele's songs," noted her host at the time), she went on to perform the whole song at the US Grammy Awards. Oh, and she also came away with six awards, the most for a female and UK artist ever. Then there was the small matter of a Bond theme tune (James Bond being one of the cultural drivers of the original British invasion).

Her 21, which takes achingly heartbroken classic soul pop in the mode of former British invader Dusty Springfield, repackaging US musical heritage with a less wayward hint of the British gritty gobbiness that made Amy Winehouse so beloved across the globe, is another easy-to-see winner.

So you might think that the secret is a combination of traditional touring, national exposure and an accessible, emotional sort of music that's a cunning blend of US heritage and UK flair.

The success of One Direction, though, is of a quite different kind. Formed in 2010 through The X Factor, the five boys initially tried to compete as solo artists. You can understand why; most of the iconic pop songs you can think of in recent years have been by solo artists, and often female ones; your Britneys, Beyoncés and Rihannas. The harder influence of hip-hop darkened the Dance Party USA teeth-and-tan vibe of US teen pop, and at the start of 2012, nothing could have seemed as naff as the idea of a "boy band".

More fool both them and us, though; cobbled together as a five-piece under the influence of Nicole Scherzinger and Simon Cowell, One Direction have gone on to live that old-fashioned Beatlemania dream of hordes of shrieking teenage girls both in the UK and in the US. When they made their US TV debut in March 2012, 10,000 fans showed up to try to catch a glimpse of them. But rather than being traditionally media-driven and building awareness through touring or TV, the band's US label, Columbia, focused on social media to build on what awareness there was among teens already before they released a single or chased radio airplay.

It's a diverse set of artists, with different appeals, fan bases, and marketing tactics. The US is still the biggest music market in the world, and as such, UK bands will always want a piece of it. And, as the BPI estimates that UK acts now represent nearly 13 per cent of global sales, there's no need for them to be timid in their ambitions. But to assume that just because Mumford/Adele/One Direction can do it that the US will turn round and listen would be naive. Maybe we can't herald a new British invasion just yet, but we can learn something from each of these very individual successes in terms of style, personality, marketing, touring and effort (backed by money – breaking America isn't cheap) reaching such unprecedented success. There might not be a magic formula, but there's certainly hope.

"For all these years people were like 'Oh no, we can never make it in America. It was always such a risky thing, because you don't want to come to America and then be perceived as a failure in your home country," says Caulfield. "Great mysteries of life... Robbie Williams and Kylie never become superstars in America and yet One Direction was able to do it, and maybe that will give hope to other British acts. With social media and the internet the way it is, a lot of your marketing and a lot of the hard work is done for you in advance because you see what's going viral, you see what happens, you see how the YouTube clicks are coming in and maybe there are other acts that are saying, hmm, let's look a little bit closer at our metric in America... It'll be interesting to see what happens this year."