How to Succeed in Europe Without Really Trying
The phenomenon of the American musician who’s bigger in Europe than at home is nothing new. In the early decades of this century, it largely turned on race; Ernst Ansermet, the Swiss conductor, opened the floodgates when he heard soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet with the Southern Syncopated Orchestra on their 1919 European tour and declared that “this large, black boy with his flashing white teeth and narrow brow” who was “unable to describe his art, other than explaining that it is his ‘own way'” was on to something. “We ought perhaps to reflect that his ‘own way’ could well be the major direction of tomorrow,” Ansermet wrote prophetically.
What surprised Bechet, and many others to come, was the fact that their music was taken as seriously by these Europeans as they took it themselves — a far cry from the white American audiences who saw it as a soundtrack to slumming. Europeans, it seemed, were color-blind, and many a black opera singer boarded a steamer for Paris or Hamburg to take advantage of career opportunities they could never have had at home.
In a way, it was about envy: Europeans saw a creativity that sprung from an openness and lack of restraint they thought they did not possess. Jazz was a music they could never have invented themselves: Duke Ellington was considered a serious composer in Europe long before he was at home. The list of major American jazzmen who settled in Europe starts with Bechet and continues through Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster.
With the coming of rock ‘n’ roll, the choices widened, especially after Alexis Korner alerted Britain to the electric blues being ignored by white Americans. While Muddy Waters was treated regally, others, like Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree and Luther Allison, held court in their Paris homes. Europeans became major collectors of blues records well before the American folk revival, and then moved on to rockabilly. Of course, there was a down side to this, too: Many mediocrities have capitalized on the lure of the exotic and become major European stars, which is why today’s blues festivals feature such deservedly unknown American musicians as Guitar Crusher and Marla Glenn.
But one kind of music came much later: country. Lyric-intensive, and perhaps just a bit too American to translate, it caught on in a very weird way, as a lifestyle music. Long-haul truck drivers adopted country’s trappings in the 1960s, as did some working-class people who saw it as the music that supported racism, white supremacy, and opposition to immigrants taking their jobs. Within a decade, there were sincere country fans, but they tended to equate it with cowboys. Throughout Europe, there are people who, inspired by films and the insanely popular novels of the German Karl May (who never left Germany but whose tales of the Old West are still in print), dress in ersatz cowperson gear (or, even more embarrassingly, ersatz Indian gear), carry replica guns, and, in extreme cases, spend the entire summer living outdoors in teepees and log cabins. There weren’t many of these folks, in any event, and to be successful, a promoter had to balance the truckers, the right-wingers and the cowboy nuts to make a profit on a country show. And, again, a certain number of singers who were washed up or had never been successful in the States found the circuit lucrative: Faron Young, Dave Dudley and Boxcar Willie spring to mind.
This, then, is the cultural landscape a rockabilly act, singer-songwriter, roots-rock group or undepressed band enters after clearing customs in Europe. They’ve got their record sales, they’ve got their itinerary, and what lies ahead of them is a mass of very weird expectations. And, while a band like Giant Sand or a songwriter like Townes Van Zandt might not draw the right-wingers or truck drivers, instead drawing in a part of the alternative-rock crowd, a first European tour can be an unsettling experience. What are these people hearing? Where did they get these crazy ideas? Interviews can be exercises in opacity, as cultural expectations clash.
Numbers, too, can be confusing: There sure aren’t many of these fans, but their rabidity makes up for it. Still, with a proper economic preparation, this can work in the performer’s advantage. “Some of the artists I work with only sell 2,000 copies in the States,” said songwriter Pat Thomas when I talked to him some years back, “and we can sell 6-7,000 copies of an album here.” At the time, Thomas was coordinating releases for the Bonn-based Normal label, although he has since moved back to San Francisco. “I’ve been surprised by the number of bands I’ve had to beg to come over to tour. A lot of bands are self-defeatist about this; the Bedlam Rovers were like that, and they wound up having one of the most successful tours they’ve ever had: they sold 1,000 CDs at their gigs.”
In fact, on-site record sales are an important part of building and maintaining European popularity. Sales of this music are restricted to specialty stores, accessible only by mail-order to the majority of the audience, but because of such radio shows as Wolfgang Doebeling’s in Berlin and Thomas Meinecke’s in Munich, people hear the music and want to get as much of it as they can. T-shirts, posters and CDs can often bridge the huge difference between what you make at the door and what you leave the gig with in your pocket, as the small number of folks in the audience line up to complete their collections. Plus, with CDs averaging $24 each in most European countries, they often can be sold much cheaper, so that both performer and fan can think they’ve made a killing.
But all of this leaves unanswered the question of just what it is these people are looking for. What the band is selling, onstage and off, is a mystery that appeals to Europeans in a way that Americans have a hard time comprehending until they look around Europe and see the fascination with the wide open spaces (“Americans couldn’t understand why I wanted to go to the desert,” my friend Steffen commented this summer after his first American visit. “It was the fact that there was nothing there for kilometers around me! That felt great! You can’t get that anywhere over here.”), the Levi’s-and-Coca-Cola informality, the bigness of everything from the portions at restaurants to the distances between places. It’s simply a reversal of the love-affair Europhilic Americans have with Europe: They see great cities and a culture that seems more refined than their own. The Europeans see space and a culture that’s wilder and freer than their own.
What’s the formula for achieving all of this? There isn’t one. Some great bands fall flat on their faces, despite good intentions. If there’s a single key word, I’d say it’s authenticity, or, as Bechet put it, your “own way.” If your audience senses that you’re coming from a place that’s rooted, that you understand that rootedness and draw inspiration from it, and are able to express it onstage, they’ll meet you halfway.
Of course, nothing takes the place of careful planning, airplay, press, and a certain availability of your music on the radio and in the marketplace. But if you can take care of that, you’ll never have to learn, for instance, the Danish word for beer, because your fans will see to it you’ll never have to order one by yourself.
Ed Ward is “rock ‘n’ roll historian” for NPR’s Fresh Air and a writer on many topics who contributes to publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast Traveller to Addicted to Noise and MOJO. He left Texas for Berlin in 1993 and currently has a show on Jazz Radio Berlin three nights a week.