America or Buster
Poor Busted. After four number one singles, three million albums sold worldwide and 11 sold-out nights at Wembley, they finally get their chance to break America as Britain gnashed its teeth and waited for them to come back with their tails between their legs. And after watching the final episode in MTV's documentary series America or Busted, two things become screamingly clear: one is that Busted have what it takes to break the world's number one market, and the other is that there was no way their record company was going to let them try. And now it's over.
Desperate to retain the miniscule shards of credibility the UK music snobs have begrudgingly coughed up, the band made themselves fairly clear from the beginning what they wanted. The series shows clips of James stalking the grounds of the estate where the three of them used to live, pleading with manager Fletch over his mobile to "make sure we don't just get seen by 12 and 13 year old girls"; on the way to Heathrow, Charlie explains that he'd prefer the band try to make it as a credible act and fail rather than go on the Smash Hits carousel of horrors again, and Matt -- ominously using the past tense before he's even left the UK -- rants to a mate that Busted were originally perceived as a joke band and they never got any respect, "...so the last thing we wanted was to go to America and start exactly the same way as we started out here."
Sadly, none of these seemed to penetrate. They go through the humiliating rigmarole of ElleGirl beach parties and pointless promenades down MTV's red carpet but it's clear they were doomed from the start, especially as the shenanigans begin at airport when their limo driver asks, "Are you Buster?"
The laughs keep on coming as they are taken directly to Universal Records for a meeting where senior marketing vice-president Kim announces, as if this was the most cunning strategy ever, "We're going to market you as a pop band, so everything we do from every single department is going to reflect presenting you this way." This leads into the teen press presentations and the introduction of Dave, the affably savvy if goofy plugger responsible for pushing "What I Go to School For" into the playlists of radio stations around the country. Dave tries to convince the band of their impending success because his 11-year-old daughter loved their record. "Daddy you gotta put these guys on the radio," he says. "Daddy you gotta make these guys number one."
Although it's mildly entertaining to watch the expressions of Matt, Charlie and James crash as Universal Records team explains their brilliant marketing strategy to make all the teenyboppers go crazy in love, one can't help but feel for them as they repeatedly and patiently explain that appearances on Nickelodeon and what-do-you-look-for-in-a-girlfriend roundups in CosmoGIRL! are not the strategies they want.
As every armchair music marketer knows, the only way to break a single is to play it live so people can hear it and then call in to the station to request it. After two months of radio promotions for a single nobody could hear -- if the series is to be believed -- Busted played live a total of seven times: three times on air, two promo shows of varying success, once in a proper venue in front of an actual audience; and an impromptu busking session in Times Square the second day off the plane that they initiated themselves.
Universal sent the 'ted to remote markets with Dave, who earnestly tries to break them as a Top 40 band with no crossover potential in a radio market dominated by hip hop. He explains on camera how radio works: "Most of the hit songs in the top 40 come from other formats, like crossover alternative rock. These guys are solely depending on top 40 radio and it's very rare you break a pure top 40 act, let alone a group from England that nobody knows."
Pop music, as I have tried to explain to every Briton I meet who sneers at my ever-expanding British singles collection, has no life in America; not like it does in the UK. There is no MTV Hits in America, there is no Top of the Pops, no CD:UK. Singles do not enter the charts at number one because singles do not sell. The term "Christmas number one" means nothing in America. UK video channels outnumber American channels by 3:1. Getting a video added to MTV means little since MTV U.S. is dominated by "real" programming, and their clip's addition to MTV2 undoubtedly helps a little but wouldn't guarantee them the same saturation as a UK channel would.
So without video rotation, without radio airplay, without live performances, just how the hell was Busted going to break America?
To watch the guys frog-marched through Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma is painful. They meet program directors that say they're a top 40 station, the band is pushed on air with ridiculously stupid DJs (who lack the basic geographical concept that the Atlantic is an ocean, not a sea -- good god) and ask unresearched, clueless questions while admitting their playlist is predominantly hip hop; Dave schmoozes the uninterested program directors with little success. Matt, James and Charlie repeatedly ask why the hell they're sent on these pointless missions but despite Dave's taxing enthusiasm and Fletch's occasional bouts of brilliant arseyness, there are no answers.
The most disturbing and yet strangely hopeful moment is when the guys visit a high school radio station in the Pacific Northwest and the teenaged DJs ask intelligent, researched questions that treat the band as artists rather than product. In return, they provide thoughtful, intelligent answers that explain exactly what kind of music inspired them and brought them together, what kind of music they make and what kind of band they want to be: American pop-punk.
And no visit to Seattle for indie kid nerds would be complete without a pilgrimage to Gen X Mecca; one can't helped by be touched as Charlie perches on the fence, staring at the house where Kurt Cobain died, and marvelling that this is the location where Nirvana songs were born. And as Matt and Charlie scribble their thank you's on a bench nearby, the sincerity of the moment is powerful: the music fan and his or her touchstone; that was me on my first visit to London, scribbling memorials on the street signs of Abbey Road.
The brutal irony is that Busted could have been a big hit in the American pop-punk market. Every summer, there is that one snotty boy bubblegum punk song with hooks so huge you can hang a side of beef off them that just puts American radio in a headlock and drives everyone bonkers by autumn. That song could easily have been "Crashed the Wedding," it could have been "You Said No," it could have been any of the irritatingly catchy (and you know you liked them) singles they've released over the past two years.
Putting Busted on the road as an opening act at the bottom of the bill for bands like Green Day or Blink-182 would have exposed them to the audiences most likely to buy their records, audiences not dominated by children; widespread ranging in age and taste. The most blindingly obvious move would have had Universal productively using Busted's three Stateside months by securing a spot for them on the Warped Tour, which hits every market in America; hauling them off for radio spots as needed.
Universal president Monte Lipman takes a moment to put it all into perspective: "I just have to point out that the list of casualties of British pop acts is too long to mention. The one that comes top of the mind is Robbie Williams, who basically came over here first class, made the announcement 'I'm gonna conquer the U.S.' and we sent him back on a coach ticket." Well, why did Robbie fail? The same reason why all British bands fail: he didn't want to play every shithole dive club in every red-state backwater for a year and a half. NME buzz bands can sell tickets to the same 1000 Anglophiles in the same major cities year after year -- the same people who went to see Kula Shaker are the same people who sold out Starsailor shows before the record was even released stateside, they're the same people who will hop on their Vespas to catch The Libertines, or, blurrgh, Babyshambles -- but after the dual-coast dates with a few stops in the Midwest, those bands are back to Britain no better off. The bands that succeed in America are the ones who are tourmonsters: Oasis spent a lot of time in America; Blur didn't. Coldplay toured America and worked that adult-album-alternative market for all it was worth, and what do they have to show for it, besides A-list actress wives and homes in Belgravia?
Universal didn't give Busted that chance. They didn't examine the American market for a place where Busted would fit in and help the band build a career; they weren't interested in a long-term relationship of mutual benefit and profit. Instead they went for the get-rich-quick pester-power of the teen pop market, knowing full well they'd probably send Matt, James and Charlie home on coach tickets, used up, spent.
Matt, James and Charlie spent the entire series of America or Busted travelling around the United States bitching about the wasted opportunities and begging to just play their music. They did their job professionally, sucking up every potentially humiliating disaster and shrugging it off as dues paid. They expressed their willingness to start at the bottom and work their way up so long as they could do so with integrity. And it could have worked. After two months of radio promotions tours, they launched their record at Planet Hollywood with a live set that prompted senior marketing vice-president Kim to exclaim how really good they actually were (a comment that not only clearly demonstrates how record company marketing has nothing to do with the quality of a band or its material, but also warrants a priceless look of mixed incredulity and disgust from Charlie). And every time Dave listed Busted's worldwide album sales to bored radio program directors, the response was always the same: Britain doesn't matter here. Nobody knows who they are. So why couldn't Universal take Busted's proven track record of success and use their willingness to work hard and use that to launch the band into a different market in the States? How fucking hard would that have been? It's not that cute boypunk bands don't exist in America -- Good Charlotte on a good day doesn't have a speck of the credibility Busted deserve. (I mean, come on: they're little more than Blink-182 through a Tim Burton lens, and how they manage to make that combination uninteresting requires a really special kind of lame skill.) And it's not like the band wouldn't have found an audience, given time: At present, Busted sits at number 4183 on the Amazon.com sales chart, selling to customers who bought records by Bowling for Soup, Good Charlotte and Sugar Cult.
In the end, the 'ted return to Britain flying Upper Class, but that's not surprising considering the rates of exchange. And although they try to appear upbeat about the experience and the label -- Matt's dramatic training at Sylvia Young comes in handy with his it's-an-honour-to-be-mentioned graciousness -- Busted isn't in the Billboard top 100 less than three months after release (if it was ever there at all) and is being outsold by Spongebob Squarepants. Hold out for the inevitable regime change and try again, fellas. Some of us have faith in you.