¡Olé! Industry experts on Latin music’s inexorable rise
Madison Square Garden, NYC’s legendary venue, has borne witness to just about everything over the years: debauchery, madness and all manner of weird and wonderful stage shows. But until J Balvin rocked up this September for an eagerly anticipated sold-out show, it had never played host to enormous, inflatable, pop-art sculptures, a squadron of puffy, bouncy mascots that looked like sentient clouds, or a singer riding across the stage on a huge yellow duck.
“¡Por la cultura!” (“for culture!”), he declared, before departing, raucous applause and calls for another encore ringing in his ears. It was yet another milestone in the reggaetonero’s meteoric rise to arenas and the top of the charts, and something of a dream for the Colombian star. But then Latin music – música urbana – is enjoying a surge in popularity all over the globe and giving birth to a new generation of superstars.
Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper, sold out MSG back in April; Rosalía, the Spanish singer who combines flamenco with pop, has taken Europe by storm. “I believe we are experiencing the best time for Latin music ever,” says Dody Sirena, a founding partner of DC Set Group, one of Brazil’s biggest promoters.
“If you look at the 2019 RIAA mid-year report, you’ll see that Latin music is continuing to grow at a double-digit pace.”
Henry Cárdenas, CEO of the Cárdenas Marketing Network and the recently crowned Billboard Latin Power Player Executive of the Year for 2019, agrees. “Latin American music is the fastest-growing genre in the world, and it has a tremendous commercial force,” he says. “We have witnessed general market artists venturing into the Latin American market, which continues to expand and pique mass appeal.”
música urbana is enjoying a surge in popularity all over the globe and giving birth to a new generation of superstars
That’s an observation echoed by Nelson Albareda, CEO of Miami-based sports and entertainment operation Loud and Live: “Latin music has quickly become the fastest-growing genre in the global market,” he says. “As it pertains to Latin America, genres such as reggaeton, cumbia, bachata and merengue dominate in major markets including Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Venezuela.”
That mass appeal means that the genre is “more popular globally than ever before,” according to booking agent Jeremy Norkin of United Talent Agency (UTA). UTA is home to both longstanding Latin music stars such as Pitbull and Sean Paul, and break-out artists like Lali, and Norkin notes that “Latin music has gained a strong presence among multi-genre events that previously haven’t featured the genre.
“For example, Spanish-speaking talent had a significantly larger footprint at 2019’s Lollapalooza festivals in South America.”
The absolute biggest artists remain those who came to prominence during the late-nineties ‘Latin explosion’ – household names who long ago crossed over to ubiquity (think Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias). But a new generation of musical talent is selling out arenas in Latin America and beyond while racking up staggering streaming numbers and video views; J Balvin and Bad Bunny are just the tip of the iceberg.
Ozuna, Maluma, Luis Fonsi, Becky G, Manuel Turizo and Sech are the most common names cited as representing the future.
A new generation of musical talent is selling out arenas while racking up staggering streaming numbers and video views
“They have tremendous talent,” says Cárdenas, of the latter three in particular, “and they are leading the way for a new generation of stars.”
“Ozuna, Lunay, and Rosalía” are Phil Rodríguez’s choice regarding those ready to ascend to the next level internationally. But Rodríguez, founder of Move Concerts, also notes that it can vary from country to country; in Puerto Rico, for example, trap and reggaeton stars top the charts, while in the USA it’s a more balanced mix of urban acts.
Albareda, whose company recently agreed a deal with Rodríguez’s promoting powerhouse Move Concerts, cites Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Pitbull, Maluma, Ozuna, Daddy Yankee, Romeo Santos, Karol G, Nicky Jam, Farruko, Becky G and Natti Natasha as some of the genre’s biggest stars.
Fernando Moya, of Buenos Aires-based Ozono Producciones cites Maluma, Sebastian Yatra and Tini as his picks, but states, “Paulo Londra, Duki, Wos, Louta and other trap artists are pushing and changing the music charts, having more listeners than pop, reggaeton and Latin music.”
While Latin music has always enjoyed a certain level of popularity – Bruno Del Granado, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, points to Julio Iglesias and Gloria Estefan’s Miami Sound Machine “blowing the door wide open globally” in the 70s and 80s – Cárdenas points to successes by “the Godfathers, Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam” as opening the floodgates more recently.
“I believe we are experiencing the best time for Latin music ever”
Bad Bunny, too. “You could say he is a poster child for the movement,” says Cárdenas.
And then there’s ‘Despacito’ (which, ironically, translates to “slowly” in English). The song, released in January 2017, was a phenomenon; the official video now has over 6.4 billion views on YouTube, and over 2bn streams on Spotify. It was also the first track primarily sung in a language other than English to pass the billion mark, a game changer that signified a paradigm shift – no longer was an English-language version a necessity for artists looking for hits abroad.
‘Despacito’ also underscored a change in consumer and listening habits. In this brave new world, streams outrank sales and power a model where singles, or a constant flow of new material, matter way more than the narrative and commercial build-up around traditional album campaigns.
Much like in the world of rap and hip-hop, Latin music’s rise has mirrored that of technology and social media, platforms that today’s savvy stars know how to game to their advantage.
“YouTube is the platform of choice for consumers of Latin music,” argues Michel Vega, CEO and founder of Magnus Media, a global management and representative company. “If you look at the top 25 videos globally on any given week, a disproportionate amount will be Latin music.”
“Look at Nicky Jam or Bad Bunny – before, it would have taken an artist years to gain that kind of traction”
Moya believes that radio’s local language format historically held back Latin repertoire. “Digital platforms changed the market, as the audience started to choose what to listening and not just what the radio plays,” he says.
“Before, radio [stations] only played music in English and the native language of the country – they did not experiment with new varieties or styles of music or artists of different countries, regions or cultures. Now, there are no limits. On the contrary, consumers are able to reach random options based on their tastes and have the possibility to discover new types of music, new artist, whatever they want.”
Cárdenas agrees. “Streaming has changed the landscape of the industry for new artists, as these methods of distribution make for easier consumption for the listener. Look at Nicky Jam or Bad Bunny – before, it would have taken an artist years to gain that kind of traction.”
And, as Norkin notes, while word of mouth has always been key, “the difference is that today there are a wide variety of platforms that allow recommendations to be communicated instantaneously and on a massive scale.”
“They have more options than ever to become very popular as an independent”
Such a shift has also seen the new breed of stars ripping up the rulebook and essentially creating new norms as they go. Traditional routes to the top are not as relevant, and artists know their worth.
“Most of them are not interested in advances, 360 deals or traditional media,” says Sirena. “They have more options than ever to become very popular as an independent through distributors or with a major.”
Norkin notes that within this brave new world, some artists got their start – and continue to operate – as their own publishers, record labels and producers. “Many of them even own their own masters,” he says.
A DIY ethic is also strong. While bigger stars still tap into traditional record label systems, Del Granado believes that many new talents “are cognisant that we’re living in a DIY world and so need to do things themselves. From recording to shooting videos to handling social media, they have become masters of their domain.”
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