For many American musicians and independent record labels, the large amount of work necessary to market and promote their records domestically leaves them with few resources to pursue international markets and album sales. Marketing and distributing music abroad is a complex process, and legal issues, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about international radio and retail outlets can hinder even the most ambitious artists.
Nevertheless, many people around the globe are fans of American music, and many U.S.-based musicians have found success in Europe, Japan, and other parts of the world. Some artists who are largely unknown at home are quite popular abroad. American music can be a lucrative commodity in the foreign market, but how do you tap into this potential gold mine?
For the past six years I've helped run Silly Bird Records, an independent music label that has gained substantial international attention, primarily in the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. In addition to drawing on my own experience to write this article, I spoke with several other professionals about how they overcame international barriers to find success overseas.
One was House, a musician and producer who has toured and released albums in Japan with the bands Limbomaniacs and MCM & the Monster. House is currently working on a hip-hop/dub/electronica project called Ben Wa. Another, Dren McDonald, is the owner and operator of Ralph America and Vaccination Records, two independent experimental-music labels that are based in the United States but have achieved success in Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere (Ralph America features the widely acclaimed avant-gardists the Residents). McDonald recently launched Clamazon.com, a worldwide marketplace for independent music on the Web.
PLANNING YOUR INVASIONAlthough having your music played on the radio in Sri Lanka or Uzbekistan might sound like a cool idea, don't spread your international campaign too thin. Be sure to target the higher-profile areas first. For most types of music, this means focusing on financial centers in Western Europe (England, France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands); Scandinavia (almost exclusively the cities of Oslo and Stockholm); and Japan. Most international consumers of American music reside in these locations. Concentrate first on these areas, which will be more than enough of a challenge, before you consider extending your campaign into less accessible parts of the world.
Certain regional audiences are more receptive to particular genres than others. It is crucial to research and have an understanding of the music markets in the countries that you want to break into. You may already have some idea of which types of music are popular in other countries. For example, if you're a fan of German techno or British dance pop and your music reflects that influence, you know which places to target. Enclaves of country-and-western or new-age enthusiasts, however, may be more challenging to find. In such cases, you will have to locate your audience before sending out material.
Although releasing your music abroad can be rewarding, it is a difficult, complex, and frustrating process. Unknown American artists who find instant success overseas are not unheard of, but you'll probably have to lay the groundwork for your international music career right here in the States. Radio stations, promoters, and distributors in Western Europe, Japan, and the other primary-target regions will first gauge how well an artist or a group has fared on home turf before they will consider establishing a working relationship.
"It's the chicken-or-egg dilemma," says House. "It's difficult to make contacts, set up a licensing deal, and find distribution for your music without a track record. You have to build name-awareness in the United States before you can even consider being picked up for distribution anywhere else-yet you need all of this to start building a track record."
MARKETING DIFFERENCESMarketing your music in other parts of the world is similar to marketing it domestically. International music-buyers seeking American artists are fairly savvy and accustomed to the marketing techniques used in the United States. Reproducing promotional materials such as posters and one-sheets in different languages is often unnecessary because English is fairly well known in most of the countries you'll be targeting. In fact, marketing in English can benefit your foreign effort-especially in Japan-by adding an "exotic" American flavor to your venture.
Radio is as important abroad as it is in the United States. Trying to get radio play on European or Japanese stations, however, can be a daunting task. Don't spend the bulk of your resources on this effort. "Our German distributor sends a few releases to European radio," says McDonald, "but on the whole, radio stations ignore new music by American independent artists." Silly Bird's success on European radio came not from blind mailings to program managers but rather from relationships with individual DJs that were established through friends and contacts.
Though some small (usually pirate) radio stations may air unknown artists, there is no foreign equivalent to the American network of college and independently owned commercial radio stations. Domestically, Silly Bird sends out more promotional packages to radio stations than to print media, but it is best to concentrate your efforts on print when you're trying to promote your music abroad. Getting your material reviewed in a magazine is the most effective tool you have when marketing your music internationally. "If you can't get good press, you can't do well in other countries," says McDonald.
House sees radio play as the last step in a long process that begins with obtaining licensing and distribution deals and continues with touring and finding a foreign label to release your music. Only after you have taken these steps will your hit song have a good chance of being picked up by international radio markets.
DISTRIBUTION AND LICENSINGDistributing compact discs and other media to international markets is rarely cost-effective if you attempt to export directly from the United States. Legal issues surround the sale of foreign products in almost every country, and you can expect to pay 20 to 40 percent in tariffs if you lawfully import your products. "When we sold directly to Germany, we had to mark down the price of our releases to make them affordable in the stores," says McDonald. "It became hardly worth it."
During the PopCom convention in Cologne, Germany, McDonald kept hearing the same thing: "While a lot of distributors liked us and liked what we did, I found out that they didn't want-or simply couldn't afford-to deal with the tariffs, shipping fees, and other costs. It was just too hard to make the effort worthwhile."
Add to these legal and logistical hurdles the problem of being a relatively unknown entity, and you're in a tough situation. Many small labels and artists form coalitions to overcome these obstacles. Label groups that have affiliations in particular countries, for instance, can avoid many of the tax issues involved in the international distribution of music. If you can make a good case that your partners in France, say, are a part of your business, you will probably avoid French import tariffs. "Even if you just have a friend in Europe and want to set him or her up as an employee of your label, I think that would be beneficial," says McDonald.
The "strength in numbers" advantage is also a great incentive for joining or creating a music coalition. The larger your presence, the more attention you'll receive. This is more important now than ever, as recent years have seen a recession of interest in independent music distribution. House agrees: "In Europe there is a big shift away from dealing with the smaller labels. To get any real success, you need association with a large entity, such as a well-known group of labels. Most European distributors will not even consider you unless they see a connection to some kind of `long-armed' entity."
Because distributing and exporting their music involves so many headaches, artists and labels may want to seek out licensing deals with local labels in a particular region or country. These can be one-time deals based on a sole release, or long-term licensing relationships. The last Limbomaniacs release in Japan was a compilation of songs from the group's first two U.S. albums licensed to a Japanese record label. Vaccination Records has forged a long-term relationship with Flight 13, a German label and distributor that handles most of Vaccination's European releases.
Of course, the trick is to find a deal. When I asked House and McDonald about what worked for them, they both credited a combination of hard work, a little luck, and the use of existing contacts to develop new connections. Creating a relationship with any company takes time, and establishing a successful one with a foreign company can take months or years.
MAIL ORDER AND THE WEBThe Internet has created a number of new opportunities for access to an international audience. Hundreds of sites let artists post their music on the Web for download and mail-order purposes. For anyone trying to attract foreign attention, the Internet is the best place to start. Putting your audio files on one of the major download or streaming sites-such as MP3.com, IUMA (Internet Underground Music Archive), or Live365.com-is the first step (see the table "Internet Resources"). The next step is to locate a Web site that will take your CDs and arrange mail-order sales.
The Internet can help relatively unknown artists find an audience outside the United States without the work involved in securing foreign licensing and distribution. "We started Clamazon.com to get around the international distributor thing," says McDonald. "The Web has enabled us to get records to people who would never be able to find them in their local stores and might never even hear about them. It's really starting to help us get around this problem."
Nonetheless, attempts to garner international attention for your music will almost certainly fail if you limit yourself to online promotion alone. Even though the Internet can be effective in reaching listeners around the world, it is just one tool in your marketing and distribution arsenal. There is no substitute for the hard work needed to break into foreign music markets.
START PACKINGNo matter which tactics you use to get your music heard abroad, you'll have to push the limits of your abilities and resources. Both House and McDonald stress that the process of working with existing contacts, making new connections, and developing international relationships is more important than anything else. If you don't have the contacts or the ability to travel to target locations, you have that much more work ahead of you.
Before you begin your international campaign, decide where your best bets lie and determine what level of commitment you can put into your efforts. You may need to scale back your goals and focus on fewer locations at first. Embarking on this global adventure will most assuredly be hard work, but you may reap unimaginable rewards.
In addition to running Silly Bird Records, Ken Stockwell is a writer, musician, and broadband-media music producer. He lives in New York City.