When Atlantic Records released “Sweet but Psycho,” the breakout single from new signee Ava Max, in August 2018, the song quickly swept through Europe, reaching No. 1 in 20 countries on the continent that fall, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden. Ultimately, it would take almost a year for the song to reach its peak in the United States, topping out at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 2019, 23 weeks into its 35-week run on the charts.
Over two years after its release, “Sweet but Psycho” enjoyed another run on a Billboard chart: the new Global Excl. U.S. ranking, where it spent 10 non-consecutive weeks this fall, one of two Max songs (alongside “Who’s Laughing Now,” which spent eight weeks on the Global Excl. U.S. chart) that have performed better outside the United States.
Max’s Europe-first success story isn’t novel — the Backstreet Boys followed a similar path in the 1990s, as did Dua Lipa more recently. “She makes big, dance, great vocal records that have always worked in Europe and outside of America,” says Atlantic co-chairman/COO Julie Greenwald of Max. “She went over there and worked it and did a ton of promo and put herself in those markets and really connected with the song. All of a sudden, the record was working there and it gave us the proof of concept for over here to be able to go and do what we needed to do.”
Max is one of several artists whose songs have consistently performed better on the Global Excl. U.S. chart than on the Global 200, on which “Sweet but Psycho” spent two weeks in October and “Who’s Laughing Now” never appeared at all. There are a variety of reasons why certain acts do better than others outside the United States, even when they’re perennial chart-toppers stateside. Sia’s “Cheap Thrills,” for instance, topped the Hot 100 when it was released by RCA in 2016, and this fall, had a 12-week run on the Global Excl. U.S. chart despite never reaching the Global 200. Similarly, Sia’s 2018 collaboration with Zayn, “Dusk Til Dawn,” another RCA release, has landed on the Global Excl. U.S. chart but not the Global 200.
“When you get big, worldwide streaming songs like these, they gather their own momentum, and the bulk of streaming play comes from people’s collections versus playlists,” says RCA co-president John Fleckenstein. “It comes down to massive audiences loving a song, saving a song in their collections on these platforms and listening to them over and over. You’re getting that kind of scale and you’ll probably stay in there for quite a long time.”
Sia, Max and Lipa all benefited from Europe’s embrace of dance pop. “Dance music has always been more successful outside the U.S. — it’s European culture, with those big festivals,” says Jonathan Daniel, founder/partner of Crush Music, who has managed Sia since 2010. The scale of the United Kingdom or mainland Europe makes creating a sensation easier than in the U.S. “You can go to the U.K. and you can make a lot of noise with a two-week tour, whereas two weeks in America, you’re not even hitting all the media cities,” says Daniel. As Greenwald puts it, in Europe “if you get on national radio, you can knock down a market much faster.”
And, Daniel adds, overseas audiences are loyal. “Doing that work in other places will keep them successful in those places for a long time — maybe forever,” he says. Remixes with artists in local territories, or with artists in other languages, can serve to both cement that loyalty and expand markets. A Lipa remix of her song “Fever” in November alongside French-speaking Belgian artist Angèle debuted at No. 53 on the Global Excl. U.S. chart and No. 84 on the Global 200, one of a half-dozen of her songs that have performed better on the former chart this year than the latter. It was also her second foreign-language collaboration of the year, following “Un Dia (One Day),” in which Dua sings in English alongside Spanish contributions from J Balvin and Bad Bunny. Latin artists like Sech, Camilo and Maluma — whose “Hawaí” topped the Global Excl. U.S. chart in September and then got an assist from The Weeknd that reignited it — have also used remixes to cross-market across genre and region.
“The [remixes] that work the best are interesting, native-feeling collaborations that tend to be additive to the regional hit potential of the song itself,” says Fleckenstein, who saw the Sean Paul-assisted remix of Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” become the version that exploded internationally. “I don’t think there are any rules there, but we do do it a lot, and sometimes it’s for a local audience reason, or someone does a really great remix and we want a new spin on that for a part of the world. But there’s any number of reasons; it’s hard to draft a formula there.”
With the increasing globalization of the music industry that was accelerated by the rapid rise of streaming services, it’s easier than ever for artists to pop across the globe in numerous markets simultaneously. But that is seldom a replacement for the old tried and true: on the ground, nitty-gritty promotion from market to market, the same way that artists have always broken on a massive scale.
“The story isn’t just that it streamed or it was big on radio,” says Greenwald, pointing to the work Max did to promote “Sweet but Psycho” across Europe. “You can’t just break an artist just by having a song stream, you’ve got to put the artist in the marketplace, they’ve got to touch the fans, they’ve got to perform — there’s a lot that goes into it. If you want to break a global superstar, you’ve got to look at what the artist is doing in the local marketplace.”
Additional reporting by Eric Frankenberg and Steve Knopper.