What's the dream of every ambitious recording artist in the world? That's easy: Making it big in America.
It's not hard to understand why. Amid all the convulsive changes wracking the music industry, one of the features of the business that remains unchanged is that the U.S. is still the largest and most important market.
Sales of recorded music in the U.S. accounted for one-third of the worldwide total in 2006, the most recent year for which full-year statistics are available, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Coming in a distant second was Japan with an 18% market share, while the United Kingdom was third with a 10% share. No other country had more than a single-digit market share.
Not only does the U.S. boast the largest market, but strong sales in the states can also provide a vital springboard to commercial success elsewhere in the world, says Larry LeBlanc, a former Toronto correspondent for Billboard magazine who now pens a newsletter about the Canadian music industry.
"America is still the mecca of the music industry,'' LeBlanc says. "The U.S. is key to worldwide [sales]. Period."
So which foreign recording artists sold the most music in the U.S. last year? In terms of musical style, our top foreign music stars were all over the map--everything from the loud guitar sounds of Nickelback and Three Days Grace to the indie-rock stylings of Feist, the swing vocals of Michael Buble and the infectious R&B of Corinne Bailey Rae, Joss Stone and multiple Grammy Award-winner Amy Winehouse.
But if our list is an eclectic bunch in terms of musical genres, it was pretty homogeneous by national origin: All of the recording artists on the list were from Canada and Britain, no great surprise given the natural cultural affinities that those two countries share with the U.S.
To compile our list, we examined Nielsen SoundScan sales data for 2007 album sales and single-track download sales. Then we calculated their estimated U.S. recorded-music revenue based on pricing data from the NPD Group.
We limited our search to still-active recording artists who first established themselves in their local markets before breaking out in the U.S. That meant excluding pop stars like Rihanna and Avril Lavigne. While they hail from Barbados and Canada, respectively, both are primarily products of the American recording industry because they enjoyed their first taste of commercial success in the U.S., not in their home countries.
Do foreign recording artists have a tougher time cracking the U.S. market than a homegrown act? "It's so hard to break an artist, it almost doesn't matter where you're from,'' says Chris Castle, a music industry attorney based in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "It's very hard to break into radio. It's very hard to move units. Tours--it's very competitive."
But if a foreign music act sings in English, "the fact that they're from somewhere else can actually be a plus" in terms of marketing a band in the U.S., Castle says.
"You have a very good story to tell,'' he says.
That said, the predominance of Canadians and Brits on our list doesn't mean that any Canadian or British hit-maker will necessarily resonate with a stateside audience.
Castle points out a prominent example: Robbie Williams. A massive star in his native Britain, the ex-Take That vocalist is his nation's answer to Justin Timberlake--a former boy band singer with the charisma and singing chops to make it on his own.
And yet, despite the best efforts of his record company EMI Group, Williams has been a sales bust in the U.S. And he's hardly alone. Dance-music artists who enjoy commercial success in the U.K. and Europe also have a hard time finding a mass audience in the U.S., Castle says. These examples underscore the trickiness of trying to replicate in the U.S. the same commercial success that a recording artist has enjoyed in another country.
As for Canadian recording artists, the U.S. continues to exert a strong pull, but that pull isn't quite as strong as it used to be, LeBlanc says. Part of the reason is that scheduling American tours has become a bigger headache because of greater difficulties in procuring the necessary visas.
"All they thought about was, 'I gotta get to the U.S.,'" LeBlanc says of Canada's recording artists. "Now it's, 'Yes, I gotta get to the U.S., but I can tour Japan and England too.'"