We are living on the verge of a truly global music economy.
We are entering an age where several markets, such as China, are beginning to pay for music for the first time ever. In honor of our artist ZHU’s blockbuster deal with Tencent and Sony Music closing today, I am sharing the blueprint of the strategy which has led us to success these past few years building in Asia.
With any artist able to create a song in their bedroom and press a few buttons to make it available on streaming platforms, it is easier than ever to have global access and aspirations. However, with 30,000 songs being released each week, breaking through the noise to create global ubiquity is harder to achieve than ever before.
Only a couple of artists break globally each year. Creating global awareness and demand for a new artist requires an intense focus and dedication to international strategy from the entire team (including the artist), ample funding, and the world to be genuinely interested in what the artist has to offer.
The reality is most artists will not be household names in every territory in the world. As a manager, how can you develop an artist’s career in more territories than their domestic market to diversify and grow their business?
Each market is very different. When navigated properly, many of them can yield significant returns. Here are the five steps we’ve taken to create success for our artists in international markets across the globe.
1) Identify the priority markets and align to prioritize them
Early in an artist’s career, we at TH3RD BRAIN like to identify the key markets to focus on. When I started managing ZHU, I had an inclination his music would resonate in Australia and followed my gut – we hired an independent radio promotion team (Frank Varrasso PR) in Australia to make it happen.
We worked together to take ZHU’s single “Faded” to #3 on Australia’s overall chart, #5 at pop radio, and #1 on iTunes, which propelled global attention – the song’s success spilled over into other countries, such as the UK, where it peaked at #3 on the Official Charts, before eventually getting nominated for a Grammy in the states.
With ample data coming back today from social media and streaming services, you don’t have to rely on your gut, which leads to my next point.
2) If data uncovers foreign markets with bubbling interest, visit them as soon as possible.
Who is talking about your artist? Pay attention to the social chatter and the demographics in your artist’s analytics to identify trends – even small signs of growth can be the start of a much bigger wave.
Learn as much as you can about music trends in the market to understand if your artist fits the mold of what’s breaking.
With Gallant, we started to notice there were as many comments on his early YouTube videos in Korean as English. Our friends knowledgeable about the market told us the Korean fans love big voices and artists who express themselves through extreme physical movements as they perform – Gallant checked these boxes.
A couple weeks later HiphopLE played Gallant’s single on the radio around the same time Apple Music, Zane Lowe and Elton John began co-signing Gallant in the states. Weeks later, we learned breakout boy band sensation BTS had been singing “Weight In Gold” in television spots and tweeting screenshots of Gallant’s album cover.
Just as important as the above organic activity was the fact Gallant had always been infatuated with the Asian market. He loves anime and was incredibly familiar with K-Pop and J-Pop groups – he could even sing their songs! He had also studied Japanese in college and could speak it decently well.
With our artist’s endorsement and a small online buzz, we had everything we needed to create a strategy for the market.
3) Create market-specific content to feed the fans and accelerate growth
Original music has a greater likelihood to succeed in another market with ample market-specific ancillary content created to compliment it. Typically, content created specific for the market will be an accelerated growth driver.
For Gallant, we fed the bubbling frenzy by creating a collaboration song, Cave Me In, with Tablo from Epik High and Eric Nam. They are both massive stars in Korea with immensely different fan bases – Together, the three artists created a great song interweaving cross cultural feels and influences.
On Gallant’s second trip to Korea, to tease the collaboration, Miles Evert from our team coordinated a photo shoot between all three artists for a key spread with W Mag, one of Korea’s top culture and fashion magazines. When Gallant was in Hong Kong, Miles set-up the music video shoot with all three artists in it to amplify the release.
Cave Me In has become Gallant’s second most streamed song to date. The cultural impact of the record spilled over to Australia, where we were able to sell out headlining shows without radio airplay.
Since early in his career, Gallant has developed an amazing partnership with Red Bull. The brand showcased him in the only global commercial campaign they ran in 2016. As the next step in our partnership together, earlier this year, we released a documentary by the name of Seoul Music, which focuses on Gallant and Lee Hi showcasing the rise of Korean R&B.
Here are a couple other examples of market specific content –
After watching the music TV show Rap of China explode (1B plays on its first episode), we paired Krewella up with a feature from VAVA, one of the finalists of the show. We secured a sponsorship from Beats by Dre in China to film an authentic Chinese music video in Shanghai with both acts.
On release day, the song became one of the top songs streamed on NetEase Music’s platform (~100M users), and almost doubled Krewella’s social fan base in the market.
How many hard years of slow, independent development did this collaboration fast forward past?
For Grace VanderWaal, we were blessed with the opportunity for her to cover Somewhere Over the Rainbow for a Japanese Honda commercial, which created immense familiarity for her in the Japanese market.
4) Tour the Market
After the organic buzz, even prior to releasing any of the market specific content, we started to receive offers for Gallant to perform in Korea.
I’m a big fan of playing hard ticket shows first if you believe you can sell them out – the subsequent festival offers and billing will increase significantly after you have already performed sold out headline date(s).
In Gallant’s case, we decided a small festival called “Seoul Seoul” was the best fit. Despite the online chatter, we weren’t sure how it would go. When thousands of people showed up and sang every word, we knew Korea was going to be a special place for Gallant. Rather than waiting until the following year, Gallant decided to return to sell out on an 1800 person room later that year.
Gallant and Wade Davis from our team were able to witness the Korea fandom for his talent as the crowd chanted “GOD-LANT, GOD-LANT” repeatedly after he left the stage. He received more gifts than he could carry home, including a pizza with his signature sad face logo made out of pepperonis.
Within days of this trip, we were able to secure Gallant a performance slot at the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA). This is the largest music award show in the world and is broadcast throughout all of Asia. Previous performers include Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder, and the Black Eyed Peas. As MAMA typically only books the biggest artists in the world, getting Gallant this slot was no easy feat and is one of the most proud moments of my career to date.
At MAMA, Gallant was given the spotlight to showcase his unique talent to the world. He was able to meet all of his favorite K-Pop acts – with his genuine interest in the scene, he fit in perfectly.
When BTS and Gallant met in-person for the first time, we were able to organically create this video of them singing his song and Gallant posted it to social media. When BTS reshared it, Gallant’s twitter following doubled overnight and “Gallant” became the #1 search term on Naver, Korean’s version of Google.
Following this performance, Gallant’s profile in the market rose substantially. As we planned a trip for him to play festivals the following year, we used his ability to speak Japanese as a leverage point to get him booked on Fuji Rock in Japan to give fans in another Asian country the chance to see him live. Can you imagine the reaction from the Japanese crowd when halfway through his performance he whipped out his Japanese skills?
On that same trip, Gallant brought out Lee Hi on stage to perform with him in front of his 20,000+ singing fans at Jisan Valley Rock Festival in Korea, which was another great moment in a story that will be told for decades to come as Gallant continues to build his career overseas – he is well on his way to becoming one of the most successful American artists in Korea.
5) One trip is just the beginning. Go to the market multiple times to build your artist’s business and see lasting impact.
As Gallant did, multiple trips is essential to grow your following, explore promotional possibilities, and capitalize on revenue generating opportunities.
Last year, ZHU went to China for the first time, and the results were astounding. He sold out his show, finalized the lead single of superstar Chris Lee’s next album, and shot an Adidas ad campaign co-starring Angelababy, one of China’s most famous female celebrities.
For ZHU, this is just the beginning. Following today’s announcement, he will be going back to China this year to play festivals, shoot a magazine cover, and perform at a launch event of an elite fashion brand.
Grace VanderWaal visited Japan twice last year. Sony coordinated two brilliant promo runs in Japan in anticipation of and on the back of the release of her debut album, Just the Beginning. Following TV appearances, fan events, and press opportunities, the album went #1 across the charts in the competitive month of November with Taylor Swift and Sam Smith releases.
Our company is very bullish on Asian territories. Most of our acts’ second and third biggest markets are in Asia so we find ourselves prioritizing these markets often. The language barrier can make it difficult to establish a mutual understanding for how to create in the most beneficial way.
Luckily, our head of business development, Fred Hwang, speaks fluent Mandarin and spends up to 1/3 of his time in Asia. We are very passionate about building with our Asian partners (brands, DSPs, etc.) to streamline communication and content in the most effective way to reach the fans in each market.
It was important ZHU, as the largest Chinese American recording artist in the world, is part of the new Liquid State joint venture here in China to ensure his upcoming original music and collaborations with artists including Tame Impala are showcased and marketed properly throughout Asia.
While China has come a long way in terms of its musical evolution, here is how far there is still is to come… When I was in Shanghai at the end of 2016, I learned the lack of live music venues is one of the main issues preventing hard ticket tours from taking place across more than five cities, despite China having nine cities bigger than Los Angeles.
There are varying international strategies to build artist careers. For emerging artists needing to create their next body of work and continue to focus most of their efforts domestically, we have seen success by focusing energy on select key markets.
Your artist only has so much time, so in most cases, it doesn’t make sense to scatter it everywhere. People’s attentions shift quickly – If you manage to build momentum with your artist in a market, keep driving it forward whatever it takes.