Thursday, October 7, 2010

Why British Indie Bands Still Can't Break America


I've been meaning to write about this piece from the NME since it was posted a few weeks ago. I've been fascinated at, seemingly, the growing gulf between indie/alternative music from overseas and here in the States over the last few years. Growing up on British classic rock before punk and new wave changed my life, you might say I'm a bit of an Anglophile. I've had the good fortune to present and program indie music on the radio for most of my adult life and have gotten to see countless shows while attending SXSW here, The Great Escape and Camden Crawl there.

I've always been amazed at the extent of coverage that modern music receives in Britain. Go to any news stand, and tell me that SPIN and Rolling Stone are better than MOJO or Uncut? Then there's more mainstream fare like Q and the NME but you get my drift. (For the record, I can do without some of the fanboy stuff from NME, but for sheer volume of information, they're still worth a look) As an example, during a trip to London I was pretty blown away stumbling upon a prime-time BBC-TV program all about music from Manchester. Not just Madchester or baggy, but bands spanning back to the 60's. The Fall! Prime-time! I mean, never ever anything like that here. And this wasn't MTV5, but a national BBC channel. In short, my take is that indie music is afforded a variety of mainstream platforms in the UK that it doesn't have in the USA.

But back to the initial premise: sure, there are exceptions. I saw Mumford & Sons play live in Brighton and were convinced they were for real. The article states that their album Sigh No More has been certified Platinum in the US. While I've found no such evidence, the disc's "Little Lion Man" recently spent a week atop the US Alternative Radio chart (replaced by Kings Of Leon's "Radioactive"), so perhaps that's merely premature speculation. The album's peaked at #16 and currently sits at #26.

The article rightly refers the nearly overnight discovery of Florence + The Machine, whose VMA performance of "Dog Days Are Over" catapulted her UK #1 Lungs from #44 to #14 on the Billboard Album Chart. It's since dropped to #28 and #53 in the ensuing weeks. The song sits at #27 on the Alt Radio charts. Mind you, the album was released in July of 2009.

But let's step back and ask if these two are really indie bands to begin with? Compared to the usual fare heard on American commercial alternative radio, probably so. But in the realm of the Pitchfork-helmed indie underground, not so much. Their trashing of Sigh No More may as well have come with a stamp that read 'not one of us', and that's their right. It was released domestically by upstart Glassnote Records, founded by industry vet Daniel Glass, and they've had an incredibly good run with a band who'd previously been ignored by radio (Phoenix) and a new band, The Temper Trap, whose debut single "Sweet Disposition" was strategically licensed in so many places it become ubiquitous. So while Glassnote may be, by definition, indie, it's walked and talked like a major.

Florence's Lungs was released on major label Island, and perhaps due to her winning, who-is-this-chick performances at SXSW 2008, enjoyed a bit more favor from the Pitchfork crowd, who were allowed ample time to keep her as one of their own before the album ever saw light.

But as to the fundamental reasons why British indie bands still can't break America, I've lots of opinions, including:

- US commercial radio curtailing the presentation of new music
- inability of UK bands to repeatedly and thoroughly tour America
- diversity of US radio formats: is there even an audience for country and hip-hop in Europe? Certainly not to the extent there is domestically.
- American radio, with few exceptions, killing the notion of 'DJ as tastemaker'
- also, with exceptions, less acceptance of 'pop' in a 'rock' radio format
- a greater cultural difference between the US & UK than at any time in our lives
- drinking age: 18 vs. 21, prohibits a fertile audience access to where up-and-coming bands perform.
- British music press hype kills bands dead

Mind you, the NME article is talking about UK bands succeeding on a chart level in the States and achieving the success that goes with it. There are countless critically acclaimed indie bands that have found America a welcoming place to tour and sell a fair amount of records, albeit on a smaller scale and unfortunately, playing to the same circuit of markets with reasonably surefire draws. I mean, we're probably never going to see stadiums in flyover country filled like we saw with the Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, and U2 ever again. I think that time has passed. Would it help if The xx played Wichita? Considering The xx might never receive airplay there, there's probably little chance of that happening. That said, we've become are too splintered, too retreated-to-our-own-corner to have that type of communal experience. And no one will ever be able to 'break' America without actually breaking all of it.

Truthfully, I think the reasons why run much deeper than what's been touched on here. What do you think?


  1. All of the above. American radio is dead. Sadly, internet radio isn't much better, something that is became painfully clear after March 23, 2010.

    I do do think the British press go way overboard with the hype machine.

    I still don't see what is so great about Florence and Mumford and Sons.

  2. >>I still don't see what is so great about Florence and Mumford and Sons.<<

    They're called 'hits', and most bands breaking through to wider audiences have 'em. Compared to most of what else is out there, these two stand out.

  3. I wish I had something deep and meaningful to add to this comment section. All I can say is, like American politics, we have reached a serious divide, a split, a separation of ideas and no way to bridge the gap. Country music fans only buy what tightly programmed country music radio stations tell them to buy. Hip-hop fans only buy hip-hop. The small percentage of kids that listen to indie or alternative rock are flooded with American bands on web-sites and blogs (mtv,spin,fuse,pop candy,friends of bands on MySpace,etc.) and increasing rent and cost of gas and groceries leave less and less money to buy indie CD's at $15 compared to Coporate music CD's for $9.99 at wal-mart, or ticket prices going up and up or bands never coming to your hometown, it's a downward spiral of less time and less money and finding one or two great bands to love and follow. Then add in the great British bands and it's information overload on the smallest percentage of indie rock loving fans. I used to listen to ArtRocker Radio on, and I'd have a list of British bands as long as the list of woxy bands to look for at my local independent record store. Fortunately, I live in the San Francisco area and can shop at gigantic Amoeba Music on Haight St. and I can find new or used or imports but sometimes even I can't find copies of the bands I'm looking for or ran out of money before I could get to the end of my list.

  4. >>They're called 'hits', and most bands breaking through to wider audiences have 'em. Compared to most of what else is out there, these two stand out.<<

    I must be tone deaf, I just don't see the attraction for them (Mumford and Florence). Another band I was bored with was Pete & The Pirates - they really didn't do much for me. On the other hand, the XX caught my ear from day one you guys played them. Different strokes, I guess.

  5. Australian and New Zealand bands have been asking this same question for ages. And I think they'd come to the same conclusions you do - you need to play by American rules to 'make it' in America. Promote to radio heavily, tour, incorporate a bit of hip-hop or reggae, connect with influential DJ's like at, rock out, and hone your act on the live circuit back home before heading overseas. That's all really hard work and quite expensive.

    There's 'hope', however. Ben Lee has gained quite the audience without doing most of the above. But, it's still only a small audience and maybe that's OK?

  6. i'd suggest that the nme's argument is flawed ... i don't think it's just british indie bands that don't have chart success in america, american indie bands don't either - certainly not on the singles charts ... there isn't a band that i'd classify as 'indie' that has a song in the top 50

    also, isn't it the rare band who does better in a foreign market than it does at home (i remember gavin rossdale whining to the nme that bush were an arena band in the u.s and 'couldn't get arrested in britain' and bizarrely, kings of leon were an arena band in the uk a few years before their success in the u.s in the last year or so)

  7. if you are looking for cheap music and enjoy indie there are loads of great stuff over at Loads of bands have a pay as much as you want (min$5). I got into the super desserts via woxy and then on bandcamp. Not sure if you will like the album? Well stream it for free as many times as you want beofre you buy. FLAC/MP3/WAV every file format you could want.

  8. Great post, and lost of good information here. True, there's nothing more important than constant touring, and the shows have to be memorable. In the case of some international bands, they try the same U.S. strategies that worked for them in their home countries. This country is so large and so complex, that things rarely work out the same way.