While plenty of artists achieve success in their homelands, a holy grail exists in the format of international fame and the greater riches to be found by becoming a hit in the world's biggest music market, the United States. While the path to overseas stardom is fraught with challenges, the right combination of passion, ingenuity and marketing can pay off.
UK electro-rockers Capelle's attempts to make it in America actually became a film. The band made a foray into the United States on the strength of a cross-country tour in 2011. They will make their stateside return in October to perform at a festival in New York. Capelle frontman Nic Capelle says the group actively utilizes social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and online video chat platform Yowie, to connect with their growing fan base. In April they live streamed a concert at Chicago's Double Door to reach a broader audience. Capelle also filmed All Roads Lead To America, a full-length documentary of their first U.S. tour, which is set for release this year. The idea gelled after fans responded to clips posted to Capelle's website of the band on tour.
"[Fans] were finding the different [band members] really entertaining," recalls Capelle. "It was all off-the-cuff and natural [and showcased] the reality of what it's like to be in this band. Once we knew people were digging it and that it could be a really interesting documentary, we decided to do it."
The documentary captured everything from the rigors of touring, including the band's near breakup, to performances at Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club in Memphis and in a forest near the Grand Canyon, and a spontaneous music video shoot for "Muscle Car" at Joshua Tree National Park in California.
In 2010 Toronto rockers the Envy signed with Universal Republic Records through Gene Simmons' Canada-based Simmons Records. The following year the group performed aboard the inaugural Kiss Kruise, but they're still hoping to bolster their U.S. presence.
"We're so focused on success in America because success in Canada isn't really enough," says frontman Shaun Frank. "On one level, it's not enough for what we want to do, but on the other side it's also not big enough for our bank accounts."
There is a catch-22 in trying to break into America. As Frank notes, some artist managers look at album sales and radio airplay to determine touring capability, but without actual touring experience, it can be difficult for bands to break through on the charts or at radio.
"The business in America is way more focused on radio than it should be," says Frank, who believes the key to international success is to grow organically through touring on the right bills. "[In] every other market I've ever dealt with in this band and other bands — Japan, Canada [and] Australia — there are ways to break into these countries without radio."
In the K-pop market, stateside fame has been realized in the form of collaborations with major U.S. artists. For example, Snoop Dogg performed on the title track of Girls' Generation's 2011 album, The Boys; Kanye West appeared on JYJ's "Ayyy Girl" in 2010; and the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am will reportedly produce the U.S. debut album by the all-female hip-hop group K-pop group 2NE1.
Japanese rockers X Japan are considered one of the most influential rock bands in their country's history, routinely playing the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. Prior to their decade-long hiatus starting in 1997, X Japan didn't have huge aspirations to reach an English-speaking audience, mainly due to the language barrier. After their 2007 reunion, with international interest surging through the Internet and a growing hunger for anime films, for which the band has recorded theme songs, X Japan has performed for audiences ranging from 2,000 to 7,000 people in Asia, Europe, South America, and North America.
"It was interesting for us to play venues with 2,000 to 3,000 people, which we had not done for many years," says X Japan drummer/songwriter Yoshiki Hayashi, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Tokyo. "It was like back to basics. We realized we have to do this all over again to become famous here, so we started enjoying it."
Yoshiki, who doubles as a classical composer, wrote the theme song for this year's Golden Globe Awards. In April X Japan won the Best International Band award at the 2012 Revolver Golden Gods Awards. The band is set to release their worldwide debut album later this year, which will feature a majority of songs sung in English. But there are still challenges ahead for X Japan.
"First of all, I had to learn English because I didn't speak it 15 years ago," says Yoshiki. "Now I can. I'm still learning. You just have to keep trying. There are no shortcuts. America is a huge country."
The vast distance between U.S. states can certainly disrupt many artists' touring plans, particularly those coming from smaller countries. For others, the vast distance between their home and the United States alone is a huge hurdle.
"The biggest challenge we face is the sheer distance to everywhere else in the world," explains Matt Warman, bassist for New Zealand rock band Midnight Youth. "The only other major challenge is trying to convince [the music] industry in other countries that your music can be just as good as music from their own territory."
Building on their recent showcase performances in Los Angeles, Midnight Youth plan to return to the states in the future. "You have to be confident in what you do," says Warman, "and believe that there's no reason why your band shouldn't be heard as much as any other international touring act. If you walk the walk, people are more likely to join that buzz.
"Apart from that, it's all about having great songs. No matter how well you can play an instrument, it all means nothing without the songs."
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)