Music and country branding : a new type of marketing

5 min read

Music and country branding : a new type of marketing

Music has a great potential for positive country branding. As such, music branding offers a strategic way to successfully export local acts and reach new audiences, in Europe and beyond.  

Music is a fundamental channel of communication: through music, people can share emotions and thoughts, even though their spoken languages may be mutually incomprehensible. But how is music connected to country branding? We all know that music can be a source of a wide range of associations: in case of the Beatles’ songs, the pop culture of the United Kingdom unfolds, meanwhile Ólafur Arnalds’ icy tunes bring Iceland to mind. And now, there’s the rise of the musical country branding as a new type of marketing, in order to motivate export activities, encourage investment, reach new audiences and increase the country’s revenues, simply because music is a universal language.

In Europe, countries like France, Portugal and Poland have found ways to market their unique musical identity — and an industry has sprung up to put it on the map. To understand more about music recommendation brands and how they work, we addressed the people behind the platforms which play a much-needed role in music recommendation through national branding: What The France, Don’t Panic! We’re from Poland and Why Portugal. All three target in the internationalization of their local music cluster. Let’s see how they do it.



Why Portugal sounds like a question, really, that makes my eyebrows rise and naturally think “why do you even ask? Of course Portugal!” For a million little things: the food, the wine and, definitely, music — all of them successfully exportable products and delightfully consumed by all of us. Particularly in terms of music, the country has some pretty impressive numbers to show: Considering the population of 10 million, the 300-plus summer festivals, and the estimated audience of three million festival-goers make Portugal a country ideal for music. Portugal’s creative scene has bloomed with an abundance of exciting musical talent and the DIY scene remains as active as ever. For more than 10 years, Nuno Saraiva, Executive Director of the new-model music exchange platform Why Portugal, has been promoting local artists and updating the country’s image internationally.


WHY Portugal is Portugal’s music export office, although we prefer to see it as ‘music exchange’”, Saraiva explains. “The platform fosters ties between music artists and professionals in Portugal and abroad. By promoting the export of Portuguese music as well as facilitating import, we promote musical creation insofar as music becomes more sustainable when you open up new markets”. There’s far more to the country’s music scene than the bittersweet fado genre and this where Why Portugal came in and spread the word about the new local talent. “From a Portuguese standpoint, the co-founding of AMAEI in 2012, followed by Westway LAB in 2014 (Portugal’s first pro-active ETEP member) led to Portugal being invited to be the country focus at Eurosonic in 2017. So we set up WHY Portugal as the export office in 2016 to lead on that mission. I’d probably say that was one of my top personal moments, putting Portugal on the map, so to speak. The main difficulty still consists in uniting a small country, rallying behind one project. There are people who are not team players, and different government branches not really talking to each other. The challenge continues: how to do the best for Portuguese music, implementing the best strategy for all, collectively, whether some realize it or not.”


WHY Portugal is co-financed by funds from the European Union, via Portugal2020. Of course, when it comes to money, things are a bit more complex and there’s much work to be done. “Our under 100k investment in the ESNS country focus yielded over 900k in return to the participating artists and companies. So, we have already effectively demonstrated that music export works when done right. As for the investment, well… the sector itself also needs to fund itself. There is still too much aversion to risk in Portugal. The Creative Europe & EIF bank loan guarantee has just come to Portugal via the CGD bank; I’d like to see our labels and management companies actually taking more risks, beyond the obvious need for more public funding that is specific for music. On a European level, we are headed in the right direction with the Music Moves Europe preparatory actions. In Portugal, on the other hand, there is no specific DGartes council funding for music yet. There is a film institute, but no music institute. Only the GDA, the performing rights societies for artists, is actually investing in music in a clear and transparent way. Audiogest, the producers society, also, but without set programs. There is a lot of work to be done at the national level, still” says Saraiva.


The music industry would only benefit from simplifying this crowded and overcomplicated environment by implementing the right tools for the promotion and visibility of music repertoire across national borders. “Yes – there are still very different realities in music for artists, labels, managers, publishers, agents working in different EU countries. There are good EU-wide associations working to improve this reality, such as IMPALA – European Music Companies Association for the labels and EMEE – European Music Exporters Exchange for the export offices. So I think it will improve… also, there are great Creative Europe programmes like ETEP – European Talent Exchange Programme and the new Music Moves Europe preparatory actions, like Europe in Synch, and the European Music Export Study that are working proactively towards the goal of uniting European Music”, Saraiva explains and adds that he’s particularly interested in co-creation: “At Westway LAB in Portugal, we have long since promoted multinational artist residencies for the co-creation of new European works, we hope to see that concept spread across Europe”.

DONT PANIC STOPKA 820x150px since 20084


Poland is one of the countries that brands itself through promoting local music and positions the country brand in a transnational cultural marketing context. According to a late-2018 report, the country is Eastern Europe’s second largest recorded-music market behind Russia, and the region’s leader for trade earnings from the sale of physical formats and revenue from performance rights. Plus, it’s the only EU country not to have fallen into recession following the global financial crash 10 years ago.  Undoubtedly, that makes it Europe’s growth champion.


In 2018 DPWFP celebrated its 10-year anniversary. From the beginning, they’ve managed to make Poland visible at international events, where the market was dominated by music from Western countries. The program is initiated by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a public institution which for 20 years has been promoting Polish culture abroad through active participation in international cultural exchange. Over time, DPWFP has become a brand recognized for its work in promoting fresh and promising music from Poland. Karolina Malaczek, Program’s Manager, and Barbara Feliga, Communications Specialist stress that “Many Polish artists have shown promise abroad, and some have managed to get through with the support of DPWFP, e.g. Perfect Son, Trupa Trupa, ZAMILSKA or Maciej Obara. We have been present at showcase festivals including Eurosonic, MENT Ljubljana, Tallinn Music Week, Primavera Sound, the Reeperbahn Festival, Zandari Festa in South Korea and Budapest Showcase Hub”.


The role of DPWFP is to help artists to consistently build their position on foreign markets. So far it has presented more than 300 selected performers at more than 500 events in 21 countries. Surely, gaining the interest of other countries can be a very challenging process. “First of all, we think of ourselves more as a provider of tools necessary for gaining the interest of other markets. We wish that artists and managers acted independently. Of course, we support their actions if we can, yet any kind of success is a result of many components. Polish music is seen on foreign markets, yet it’s an effect of a partnership between us and the artists which have done a lot of work on their own. Second of all, if the budget allows us to, we try to work with a local PR agency every time we send out Polish artists to showcase festivals. The challenges that are still visible, most often have to do with the “exotic” aspect of music from Poland. Yet, it’s definitely changing!”, they say. And they’re right.


Over the last years, something exciting is happening across the whole of Eastern Europe. Bands are shaping up fast and where once there was a slow-moving cultural growth that kept the Bloc decades behind the musical curve, now there is the internet surge that has hurled CEEC’s music into the modern age. Malaczek and Feliga point out that “What is encouraging is that, the past years, we have noticed a large exchange between countries in our region”. Yes, sonic creativity is thriving, it’s just that there should be a way to help the Western markets take Eastern European bright-eyed music even more seriously. One could argue that obstructing bands from such countries from being easily exported to the West is the fact that they are mostly committed to singing in their own language and that’s ok, really, after all they’re not looking to make their music more commercial abroad by making it more accessible through adopting a European lingua franca. And that makes it powerful, via its diversity. In the case of Poland, music is not a poor reflection of the Anglo-Saxon world but rather an intelligent and entertaining articulation of its local culture. It is definitely something more than the sum of western cultural influence plus indigenous socio-political backdrop. An important tool for the current and future music export strategy is “Education, education, education. Surely, it’s different for each country, yet we need young, educated music industry representatives in Poland. In order to export music, an artist needs a base, a support team behind him/her”, they say.



The news about recorded-music figures for 2018 in France are pretty positive: a third consecutive year of growth, albeit a relatively modest 1.8% rise. For the first time, the revenue generated by digital has exceeded that of physical sales and now accounts for 57% of global sales — with the real driver of this growth being streaming. What’s more, paid streaming subscriptions now account for 41% of French recorded-music revenues, which is up from 8% five years ago. No wonder why export is a major part of the development of the country’s music.


In this framework, Le Bureau Export successfully exports its acts through its headquarters in Paris and its satellite offices around the world. Corinne Sadki, Head of Research, Communication and Digital Development Division at Le Bureau Export Paris stresses that “(In Europe) there are markets which are mature and others who remain immature. Language used to be a barrier, but now not so much. Things changed due to streaming services”.


As streaming boosts music industry, Le Bureau Export decided to develop What The France, a brand adapted to new modes of consumption. This initiative offers three types of music contents: playlists (40 exclusive playlists curated by artists, more than 100 playlists on major streaming services), blog (featuring news about made-in-France acts) and branded events (such as What The France Festival in Berlin).


As Ben Ling, Popular Music Expert at Le Bureau Export Berlin explains: “What The France is an interesting phenomenon. First of all, it’s a music industry creation from France and not an independent media, it’s influenced by a certain editorial line from our members. But we see that locally, in Germany, it is now considered like a proper media partner. We’ve managed, in a very short time, to position ourselves as a kind of go-to brand for anything, even if we’re slightly French”. Ling also organizes the What the France Festival in Berlin. “Since Popkomm passed away and Berlin Music Week disappeared there was no longer a showcase opportunity. So we found a way there to bring together the public, bands and music professionals in a two-day event full of music and fun. What The France is a consumer-facing brand, we give away tickets, you can’t buy tickets for the shows. And that creates a real buzz around the event, which is great”, he says.


Good playlists are crucial for artists trying to break into the music industry as it allows their fans to learn more about them. According to Ben Ling, “It’s very gratifying because artists share their playlists with their fans and that gives much more traction to the playlists and, consequently, to What The France brand”. Right there, a question pops up in mind: how can a brand collaborate with a streaming platform which already has its own curated playlists? Ben Ling smiles, “It’s a matter of co-existing, really”.

Sergio Marigomez, Playlist Project Manager at What The France, stresses that creating the perfect playlist takes a lot of study to target the right audience: “Helping the right owners to bring their catalogues abroad is not only about successfully exporting projects, it’s also a matter of better circulation and visibility of an artist’s repertoire”.


Currently, Le Bureau Export works with over 600 members from different labels, promoters, publishers… If you’re an artist who wants to become a member, it all comes down to whether the rights holders are French and already members of the organization. “We have big funding for our organization, there are about 2.5 million euros on the table at this moment to help French produced artists to tour. Christine & The Queens, for example, were doing a huge tour in the States and that project cost an enormous amount of money for their French label. They did two tours where they were losing money and this is where we come in to lessen the financial risk for their label. For all of our members, we’re there to help them strategically and offer guidance and expertise. In all this, What The France plays a very important role”, Ling says.


If you’re French all this sounds ideal, but for everybody else the French music market is pretty hard to break.One reason is the slightly artificial nature of the market. It’s heavily subsidized, which is good for local artists, technicians, venues, and this is culturally very healthy. But that makes it harder for foreign artists to break through in France. The amounts of funding that you can find in France makes it an artificial market”, Ling explains.


In the end though, all brands share the same goal – to support their finest local music and develop the international career of their artists. All agree that the basic tool for the promotion of music within Europe and beyond is the knowledge of the market. As Corinne Sadki stresses, “You should know where you go. You need to have a story as an artist to tell it to the audience. Yes, marketing and good PR are important, but the artist’s content is everything”.