Why Some Pop Acts Are Heading East to Break in the West

The Danish singer Maximillian has never been to the Philippines, but he’s wildly popular there. “Beautiful Scars,” a bright pop song preaching self-acceptance, cracked Spotify’s Top 10 in the Philippines at the end of April, and it’s been hovering there ever since, earning over 150,000 streams a day on the platform in that country alone, and more than 50 million total around the world. Rank the cities where Maximillian has the most monthly listeners, and the top 10 are all in the Philippines, followed by Jakarta, Indonesia, at number 11.

The success of “Beautiful Scars” is the latest demonstration of the “Trigger Cities” concept, which has long been in play but was formalized last year by Chartmetric, a music analytics company. Think of it as the Butterfly Effect for music streaming. 

In a world now interconnected by platforms like Spotify, YouTube, and TikTok, all fans are created equal — a listener in Malaysia or Mexico is as reachable as a fan in Los Angeles or London. What’s more, in any given week in 2019, there might be more Spotify activity in Jakarta than San Francisco, and many more YouTube views are generated by listeners in Bangkok than Boston. Add to that the fact that it’s far cheaper to reach potential fans with digital marketing or influencer campaigns in the former cities than in the latter. 

While the Western music industry has always focused most of its attention on fans in places like Los Angeles or London, proponents of the Trigger City theory argue that it may now be more efficient to build a listener base in, say, the Philippines’ Quezon City, with a population of nearly 3 million. This can theoretically “trigger” a wave of interest that moves frictionlessly from one interconnected market to the next, eventually washing ashore in the U.S. — still the end goal for many commercially minded acts, since it’s the biggest market for music on the planet. 

“If you’ve got a new, young male pop artist from anywhere in the West, do you want to do three years of promo with them to try to get them on every single radio show, in front of every single journalist, all in your home country?” asks Chaz Jenkins, Chartmetric’s chief commercial officer. “Or is it better to put them on a plane, send them to the Philippines for three months, and see what happens? I think the impact you might have back in your home market would be greater by sending them to the Philippines.”

Before the widespread adoption of streaming, some acts were already aware of the importance of countries outside the U.S. and Western Europe. In the Sixties and Seventies, for example, rock groups like the Ventures and Cheap Trick enjoyed major commercial success in Japan. “There are always artists who have done better in Southeast Asia than their home countries,” says Edwin Waliman, whose Singapore-based company Secret Signals works with Western acts looking to build a presence in the region. “One band that comes to mind is the Click Five: Their fan base here was massive, so they put out an album in 2007 with a whole version just for Southeast Asia.”

But today’s artists have two advantages over groups like the Click Five. The first is access to granular regional data from streaming services that shows them where fans are listening on a daily basis — a pocket of popularity in Malaysia, for example, can be immediately identified and then targeted with low-cost ads. The second advantage is access to a global listening network that removes inter-country friction. There’s no need to manufacture CDs and rush them out to Quezon City; through streaming services, a “snowball” of fandom can roll from users in the Philippines to their counterparts in Brazil and in turn to their counterparts in America. 

The streaming services are actually built to facilitate that transfer of fandom, finding something that’s generating excitement in one place and spreading it elsewhere. Once an act scores a rapidly growing fan base in one country, expanding that in neighboring territories is “almost an algorithmic step,” says Ry Peterson, managing director for Stellar Trigger Marketing, which helped Maximillian gain traction in the Philippines. As “Beautiful Scars” sparked more and more enthusiasm there, Spotify’s recommendation engine automatically started to serve the track to new listeners in other countries through functions like the Discover Weekly playlist. 

The people with power over Spotify’s in-house playlists took note of Maximillian as well. When the singer initially put out “Beautiful Scars,” he appeared on two of Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists around the world; after the single picked up momentum in the Philippines, another Maximillian release landed in 25 different countries’ New Music Friday rankings. Between the programmed recommendations and the human ones, the singer’s monthly listener count in the United States has risen from 8,000 to 177,000.

The Western music industry is especially interested in the Philippines because the population is heavy on Spotify users — which increases the chance that a ripple in listening habits in Manila causes a tornado of consumption Stateside — and many Filipinos speak English. According to Morten Winther, who heads up Stellar’s management company and works with Maximillian, “straight pop music” tends to resonate with the Filipino audience — the type of tunes that might play in the U.S. on a “Hot Adult Contemporary” radio station. “Beautiful Scars,” with its clean, soft guitars and reassuring lyrics, fits that template perfectly.

Winther spent a good chunk of early 2020 hunting for the owners of two music-oriented Facebook pages in the Philippines. They had each posted a snippet of “Beautiful Scars,” leading to an unexpected bump in streams for the track — the first sign that it had the potential to become a hit thousands of miles from home. 

Winther was eventually able to track down the responsible parties, and Stellar now owns part of a slew of music, lyrics, and mood-focused Facebook pages, which have a combined reach of more than 20 million around the Philippines, according to Peterson. The company’s “platinum campaigns” involve posting a song as many as 30 times across these various pages during the course of several weeks.

This summer, Stellar was competing with itself: While “Beautiful Scars” was dawdling in the Philippines’ Top 10, the company also ran a campaign for the R&B singer Pink Sweat$’ “At My Worst,” which came out in July and just reached Number One in the country this month. 

“At My Worst” — an acoustic lullaby with textural similarities to “Beautiful Scars” — entered the Top 10 in the Philippines in September. It was added to Spotify’s most prominent playlist, Today’s Top Hits, on October 23rd, three months after release. It’s now a bona fide hit, earning close to 800,000 streams a day on Spotify. “No matter where you’re building fans, you can snowball it over into other territories and get a spark that allows you to build everywhere,” says Josh Feshbach, who manages Pink Sweat$. 

Peterson says “Beautiful Scars” and “At My Worst” offer “proof of concept” for the Trigger Cities theory (and, of course, for Stellar Trigger Marketing). Still, the Trigger Cities movement in the music industry is nascent. “The people who contact us right now are all younger managers who are in the know,” Winther says. 

That’s partially because the Western music industry has historically disincentivized thinking globally. The major-label royalty-rate system is set up so that a label makes more money when music is consumed in its home territory. This impacts which projects become priorities at the companies. 

Meanwhile, the number of successful Trigger City case studies ticks up slowly. Another is Lauv — Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia were some of the first markets to fall for him in 2017, and he can now fill arenas in Southeast Asia. 

Steve Bursky, whose company Foundations Music manages Lauv, recently enlisted Stellar Trigger Marketing to run a campaign for “Fake” — another swaying acoustic track — in the Philippines. “If you’re not thinking about records globally in the streaming era,” Bursky says, “you’re a step behind.”

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