Breaking America: It's a rough crossing

Cracking America is difficult for British acts - and maddeningly arbitrary, says Fiona Sturges. Why is it that the US can't get enough of Craig David and Dido but couldn't care less about Robbie and Oasis?

Friday 08 November 2002 01:00

America may be known as the land of opportunity, but it's unlikely that the present generation of British musicians would see it that way. In March this year, sales of our records were so low in the United States that, for the first time in nearly four decades, there were no British acts in the Top 100 singles chart. Less the land of opportunity, America, it seems, has become the land where our musicians fear to tread.

Yet the impossible can be done. In the next fortnight, Craig David and Robbie Williams, two of Britain's most bankable stars, are releasing new albums. While both are guaranteed positions at the top of the charts at home, it's a different story across the pond. Despite Williams's repeated attempts to crack the US market, America steadfastly refuses to buy his records. But in the past year, the same country that has shunned Robbie has embraced Craig David. They just can't get enough of him.

A handful of other British acts have made a similarly successful transition to the US, the most recent examples being Coldplay, David Gray and Dido. The Oxford four-piece Radiohead achieved the seemingly unachievable when they bagged the top spot in the US Billboard chart for 2000's Kid A, an LP that contained no singles and therefore got no radio play. Not since The Beatles had any British group made such a sweeping conquest of America.

Robbie isn't the only British pop star to come unstuck in the US. It has become something of a tradition for any successful British band to try their luck across the Atlantic, only to return after a year with their tails between their legs as the American audience refuses to acknowledge their genius. Oasis, Manic Street Preachers, Supergrass and Stereophonics all made the pilgrimage and returned with their pockets empty and their egos battered.

So what's Craig got that Robbie and Liam haven't? Well, for a start, the 21-year-old garage star has put the hours in – his latest charm offensive in the US lasted 18 months. Oasis, on the other hand, proved unreliable from the outset, in particular when they pulled out of a summer tour in 1996. Furthermore, David is squeaky clean – he doesn't drink, smoke, swear or take drugs. He may hug his fans a lot but he doesn't sleep with them and, until two years ago, he lived with his mum. Next to the loutish Liam and even the reconstructed Robbie, he's the typical English gent.

But being well mannered doesn't guarantee instant success. To get themselves heard in America, a band must be prepared to put in some hard graft. In the UK an artist can complete a national tour in a matter of months and, providing they're good enough, the word will get around. In America, it's an entirely different proposition.

"It can take years," says Peter Leak, the manager of Coldplay and Dido in the US. "Dido toured several times, building up more of a following each time, and Coldplay have followed a similar route. There's a huge territory to conquer, but it can be done step by step."

Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Rolling Stones all endured years of touring before they were deemed successful in the US. David Bowie, Pink Floyd and U2 all had to stage expensive, loss-making stadium shows to make their presence felt and persuade the punters to buy their records.

Even more crucial to cracking the American market is radio play. Over there, no airplay equals no hit. Here, there are only a few stations to impress, but there are hundreds in the US, catering for as many tastes. A tour of America can involve taking in as many radio stations as music venues; it can make for a gruelling schedule. To add insult to injury, while an artist may be well known in Europe, they hit instant anonymity when they reach the US, a situation to which the likes of Robbie Williams and Liam Gallagher may not take too kindly.

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Some bands have wisely spared themselves the humiliation by staying away. Gomez's management made an executive decision to keep the band in Europe lest they be given a critical mauling in the US. Skunk Anansie made the same decision.

"One of the major differences between the US and UK industries is that the UK looks to America for inspiration," says Leak. "In America, no one cares what's going on in the UK or anywhere else."

It's hardly surprising, then, that our attempts to sell musical styles back to America haven't been greeted with enthusiasm. With one or two exceptions, our hip-hop output has been met with derision, while British dance music, a scene that arguably had its roots in the US, seemed to pass America by unnoticed.

Conversely, there seems no end to what America can flog us. Hip hop and R&B is one thing, but when you consider how many records Shania Twain shifts over here, you have to wonder if someone over there is yanking our chain.

Even more galling are the occasions when American consumers have discovered the talent on our own doorstep. It was the US fans, for example, who first alerted us to Radiohead's talent. Thom Yorke and co had failed to make inroads into the UK scene until "Creep", their early-Nineties single, began to be played back-to-back on US radio. Naturally, they were given a hero's welcome upon their return.

Similarly, Dido didn't get a look-in until she went to America. It took a song on the TV series Dawson's Creek and a single with Eminem to catch our attention. She arrived home to find the Daily Mail on her doorstep and her album at the top of the charts. Republica couldn't get arrested at home until they'd made it across the pond – they developed a following after their single "Ready to Go" was appropriated by US sports channels to gee up the fans (television has proved a smart way for Brit bands to get themselves heard – Badly Drawn Boy's music has featured in a Gap advert, and Coldplay's "Yellow" was used for ABC television). More recently, Dirty Vegas were ignored over here until their American success prompted more than a passing curiosity among our own music hacks.

But lest we feel crushed at the American capacity for talent-spotting, it's worth remembering that Jimi Hendrix didn't get a second look at home until he came to London in 1966 and astonished audiences with his live shows. Similarly, you could almost count on one hand how many copies of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds were sold in the US on its release in 1966 – you couldn't surf to it, apparently – but in the UK it flew off the shelves. So, while our artists must resign themselves to the fact that they won't always get the recognition they deserve in America, they can at least take consolation in one thing. We Brits know a musical genius when we see one.

'Slicker Than Your Average' by Craig David is out on Monday on Wildstar. Robbie Williams's 'Escapology' is out on EMI on 18 Nov

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