Getting down to business in South America

Travelling on a train from London Fields to Liverpool Street last week, I came across this article via Pitchfork’s Twitter feed, focused on English band Arctic Monkeys and their success in South America.

http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/848-how-class-videos-and-goth-aesthetics-made-arctic-monkeys-huge-in-south-america/

I got 2 paragraphs down and emailed the link and a note to a friend.

One paragraph more and I followed up to the same email with two more notes.

Another two paragraphs, another note. I decided to read the rest before brain-dumping any more ideas to my friend who already suffers from inbox overload (and the train had arrived at my stop).

This article really resonated with me and I found myself generating ideas with more fervour than anything else I’ve read recently, so I thought I’d write a few words around why that may have happened, and some of the ideas I had.


Happy accidents

Some of the people who knew me in my time as a music agent will be aware that I ended up (half by design, half by accident) booking tours in a really broad range of territories.

In 2014 I booked shows in about 65 countries; I’m sure there are a bunch of agents that do more than that, but relative to my experience and size of roster it was still pretty high.

There were a number of reasons I ended up working this way. Two of the main ones that were more by design than happy accidents were;

  1. I felt there was growth in developing areas within a consolidating industry, and that there was a need to diversify a client and customer base in line with that
  2. If I could help develop a live career for an artist that was strong and stable across many different countries I felt they would experience more longevity and be more immune to the trends, cycles and fads that inevitably come and go (now more than ever)

Most people often actively avoided this way of working, and with good logical reason; higher risk of failure, more unknowns, customers you haven’t worked with before, challenges with currencies and exchange rates, difficult logistical hurdles, things being lost in translation/time difference between teams, etc.

(Sounds kinda like working at a startup, no?)

Despite all these challenges (some more clear and present than others) I still dived in, and one of the most challenging yet also rewarding territories I did business in was South America.


From Angel Falls to Patagonia, plus Bebeto’s baby

Like a lot of people, I love to travel, and have been intrigued by South America in particular for years. The landscapes, the food, the people, the music… and the football.

I think my interest first came about through watching the 1994 World Cup — Maradona in overdrive, the tragedy of a Colombian defender who was murdered for scoring an own goal, Bebeto and the ‘baby’ celebration, and Jorge Campos’ dayglo goalie kit. Growing up in suburban England, these guys were like something from another world.

Jorge Campos keeping it real

South America was also one of the reasons I started learning Spanish (I’m still pretty rickety but can keep it together in most everyday conversations), and I got to make a visit a few years ago which was a genuine life-changing experience.

One of the things that was really stark whilst on that trip is that there are a ton of parallels between music and football, and in South America I think the two are as closely linked as almost anywhere in the world.

Now I’ve got my minor football digression out of the way, it’s time to go back to the Pitchfork article.


Ways of working

There are a bunch of learnings from the Pitchfork piece which I think are worth expanding on a little bit with regard to breaking the market.

Leverage partnerships, think laterally

  • There are a lot of products and services that may not be well known in an artist’s home country but are huge elsewhere. Think about combining medium and message, like the actress in the Arctic Monkeys’ music video (see below)
  • For example, services like Uber are becoming very popular in Mexico (yes, they are in most places — but it’s worth looking at what’s nascent in the region and thinking about strategic partnerships that can increase reach and visibility far more than a targeted Facebook post can)

Don’t ignore or shun cultural differences, embrace them

  • Arctic Monkeys used a very well known telenovela actress in a recent music video — this kind of leverage can be huge.
    Local star + band seen as aspirational to their fans + high growth video delivery platform = Crash Bandicoot.

Another obscure 90’s reference…

Street cred and star quality

  • Jason Borge of the University of Texas says; “[Brazilian] middle class kids, young people and intellectuals, mostly white, establish street cred through their embrace of foreign popular culture,” Borge explains. “It allows them to perform or display a rejection of the status quo, particularly if they’re embracing rebellious-seeming celebrities like James Dean or Elvis or Mick Jagger.”

I wrote about star quality in another article, doesn’t matter whether it’s a muddy field in England or an sports arena in Rio…

Watch out for streaming, and not just on the big players’ services

  • Smart phone ownership is growing enormously in the region (there’s still growth in Europe/North America but the curve here is much steeper), and streaming services are going hand in hand with that. There are a handful of services that are either native or lesser-known in Europe/North America that have serious traction in South America. Also watch out for video, streaming music services don’t necessarily just mean audio.

<plug> One of the companies I work with, F#, are experts in the digital music landscape and how it all fits together. If you want to know more about all this stuff, ask us, we do workshops 🙂 </plug>

Never forget how passionate the fans are, especially the core

  • Another football parallel; musicians can have their own section of Ultra fans, and in South America the people are enormously passionate. I know of several artists who have been playing shows in the region for nearly 20 years and the fanbase shows no sign of dilution, boredom or losing their fervour — I can testify that stuff like this that’s mentioned in the article really does happen, and you don’t need to be an arena band for it to be you. Cultivate and connect with the fans in an authentic way and they will stick with you, just like they stick with Boca Juniors, River Plate…or Crystal Palace.

For example;

Before Murphy’s final tour date, in Lima, Peru, a fan posted the arrival time for Murphy’s plane to his Facebook page. Upon his arrival, 100 to 150 screaming fans were waiting for him, the kind of scene one expects to hear described when One Direction touch down anywhere in the world.

The example above is actually a good marketing tactic that artist teams should look at — pop-up gig in the Arrivals hall? If you want to look at the sharing economy model, airports have a ton of excess floor capacity that could be filled…

a summer’s morning in Cordoba, Argentina with Nick Warren on the decks

Booking an artist in South America is (generally) no different than anywhere else in the world

  • The agent mentioned in the article states that all the money needs to be paid at least a week in advance. I’d times that by 4 and say a month ahead (at the minimum). Otherwise though, it isn’t that much different to elsewhere around the globe — just make sure common sense prevails.

Present brand and creativity in a way that appeals to the market

  • I’m not sure if Arctic Monkeys deliberately stylised themselves around this campaign to appeal to the specific audience in South America, but I see a lot of artists who don’t adjust their messaging to suit the market. Sure, sticking to what you’re about creatively is core, but there’s a spectrum and nudging towards one end of that for a particular market can pay dividends.
    A lot of the most successful electronic artists actually do a really good job of this through their social media and the design and targeting around the content they produce.

I’d like to see more clever marketing ideas in this vein — as a basic example, a couple of years ago emojis became particularly big in Singapore so the SingTel telecoms company ran a campaign where fans could enter MMS-based competitions by guessing a movie title only through a couple of emoji clues. This also ties into looking at the main media channels in a market and leveraging them.

SingTel’s ‘Movie Emoji’ campaign

Have that key person on the ground

This is important. There are unfortunately some unscrupulous people out there, and having a trusted and reliable partner protects against many potential pitfalls, some of which are easy to forget about because they just don’t happen all that much in developed nations.

Finding that partner can be difficult, but a good booking agent will likely know a few — and one with the right connections is worth their weight in gold.
The right agent (and also the right point person in the territory) will understand the nuances between competing promoters, the politics where multi-national brands are looking to enter markets to the chagrin of the incumbents, are likely have a cross-agency map of who’s reliable and who’s not, and should have a good feel of where there are rafts of non value-adding middlemen in a process.

Most importantly, a reliable and trustworthy host can really make an artist’s tour; the benefits of local knowledge and a warm welcome is never to be underestimated.


I’m by no means a master of doing business in South America, but I’ve worked with quite a lot of people there and have seen just how amazing it can be when tours are executed well.

I think that every modern music business person should seek to gain an understanding of the market there; the mechanisms, the fans, the business, and the wider cultural touch points that make it one of the most exciting places in the world.

Things are going global, but at the same time they’re also going more local — to succeed a strong understanding of both is needed.

And if you needed any more motivation, just think about the authentic Peruvian Ceviche, Brazilian Feijoada, Venezuelan & Colombian arepas, and the unbeatable Argentinian parrilla that’s waiting for you… hopefully I’ll see you there sometime.

Buen Suerte!


What do you think? Let me know on Twitter (@howardgray) or in the comments below…

This may be the future of UK music

Dem Man Der…the first single released via ELAM

The Bard would be proud

Not so long ago, when someone said ‘Stratford’ to me the first thing that came to mind was not William Shakespeare’s hometown but the Stratford Rex venue which became synonymous in the late 90s and early 2000s for its jungle and garage raves.

Now when I think about this part of East London it’s a bit of a different story — the small matter of the 2012 London Olympics, the gigantic Westfield shopping centre, heavily upgraded transport facilities and of course a lot of new high-rise apartments (with many more still to come).

Tucked away behind the older of the two shopping centres is an arts venue that opened just before the Olympics. Stratford Circus is a contemporary performing arts venue, and it was there last Thursday that East London Arts & Music (ELAM) held their inaugural industry awards.

A little about ELAM

ELAM is an academy for 16–19 year old talent who want to break into the music industry, either as a performer, producer or executive. The trainees work alongside industry professionals on real world projects and work placements, as well as having regular mentoring sessions to help them develop.
The academy is a Free School funded by the Department for Education, inspected by OFSTED and completely free to attend. And it’s not just music — every trainee works towards Maths and English qualifications too.

By 2017, the Academy will have 300 full-time Trainees studying on either the Music Programme or the Digital Arts Programme (launching in 2016 — this is a really exciting addition).

Frankly it’s something the industry has been crying out for (maybe not loudly enough), and the event in Stratford was to celebrate their first 75 trainees completing their first year at the academy.

The Awards

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I felt strangely nostalgic about being at my first ‘school’ awards for nearly 15 years, but I was.

What made this a little different to my previous outing back in the late 1990s was that the standard of production and talent on show was on a different level (apologies to my alumni).

The live music of course was fantastic (with my personal favourite performances being ‘Dancing’ by John Parry, Tamika Watkin-Wallace and Louisa McClure, and a cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Shannon Brown), and there’s no doubt that a lot of the musicians who played on the night are going to forge careers in the future.

What was also very impressive was how confident, articulate and fearless so many of the trainees were when it came to public speaking. The majority of us (including me) get pretty petrified when it comes to speaking formally in front of an audience, but not many of these guys…

The other thing that came across so clearly was the bond that the teachers, students and academy as a whole seemed to share. The word ‘family’ gets bandied about far too much in organisations, but with ELAM I really got the feeling that what has made its first year so successful is a positive and supportive culture where the F-word doesn’t seem like it’s being thrown around cheaply.

It was a genuinely inspirational evening, full of talented, positive and determined people following their passions — both teachers and pupils.

What happens next

The trainees from this year’s intake will be back at ELAM’s new space in September, along with a new group working in both music and digital arts.

Even in a very tiny way, I’m delighted to be involved — something like this is long overdue.

ELAM may well be the pathway for the future of UK music…watch this space.


Got an opinion? Let me know on Twitter (@howardgray).

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