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Latin Artists Dominate Streaming, But Few Are Invited to Play Festivals

Playing the summer festival circuit in the U.S. is a standard audience-building strategy for Anglo acts. It remains off limits to most Latin performers

INDIO, CA - APRIL 21:  Beyonce Knowles (L) and J Balvin perform onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 21, 2018 in Indio, California.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella)

Beyonce Knowles (L) and J Balvin perform onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 21, 2018 in Indio, California.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Latin music has been generating dazzling commercial statistics for several years now: Artists rack up ridiculously high stream counts on multiple platforms, especially YouTube, and the live circuit has been similarly profitable. “We’re booking shows from the club level to the arena level in record numbers,” says Michel Vega, who led WME’s Latin music department for over a decade before co-founding Magnus Media with Marc Anthony.  

But despite these impressive gains, one ceiling remains: Latin artists are still largely excluded from the U.S. festival circuit, which is gearing up for another summer run. “Do a cursory review of major festivals in this country — you see such a blatant absence of Latin talent,” Vega says. “Governors Ball: 70 acts, zero Latin acts. Lollapalooza last year: 183 acts, two of which were Latin. Austin City Limits last year had 132 acts, three of them were Latin.”

“We’re talking about [festivals in] New York, Chicago, Texas [all areas with sizable Latino populations],” Vega continues. “It makes little sense to me when you look at the penetration the music is having, especially now, that it’s just not reflected in the lineups of these festivals. When I’m talking to some of my colleagues, the sad reality is that it’s easier to book a Latin act on a festival in Germany or France than it is in the United States, which has a huge Latino population.”

Unfortunately, this is not all that surprising: Most of the major festivals in the U.S. started with a similarly narrow purview. “When I think about the rebirth of Lollapalooza in Chicago in 2005, it was [focused on] guitar-based rock that probably was a descendent of or even the same bands who played the original,” says C3 Presents’ Huston Powell, who handles the lineup for the festival — and its various overseas offshoots — today. Meanwhile, Coachella brought together rock and electronic; Bonnaroo leaned jammy and un-jarring. “The festival scene has always been more for people who like alternative music,” sums up Hector Ruben Rivera, VP of A&R for Warner Music Latin.

That means festivals have long focused on a certain type of consumer. In 2016, Nielsen found that 69 percent of festival attendees were white. Another 2016 survey by Eventbrite found that the most active festival-goers — “hardcore festies” — were 59 percent male, had an average income of $75,000 and favored “alt. modern rock, classic rock, and pop.”

The major festivals have widened their focus over time, though old habits die hard. Chris Sampson, EVP of programming for Superfly Presents, says that, “at those festivals, and we’re a part of some of them, the idea of transitioning to having a pop star being a headliner wasn’t something people automatically went to. Then you realize: pop’s short for popular.”

Thanks to this insight, today most major festivals aim for a big-tent model, presenting themselves as a one-stop-shop for all your music needs. Lineups include some buzzy indie rock and Americana, a sprinkling of more commercial rock, an electronic-music-focused stage, major-label pop acts, old artists monetizing nostalgia on reunion tours and rappers with a hit single to promote or a new album on the way.

Why hasn’t that catholic taste extended to Latin acts? Powell from C3 Presents believes “the music has a ways to go before it is completely crossed over.” “The ticket sales are much stronger in markets where there’s a good Latin base,” he explains. “You’d expect Latin acts to do well in Miami, New York, Chicago, L.A. Whether it can permeate middle America? I don’t know.”

Many in the live music business appear to feel similarly. “There’s always been a lot of trepidation, hesitancy, fear [around booking Latin performers],” says Rebeca León, who spent 11 years working at Goldenvoice, the organization behind Coachella, and now manages Rosalía and J Balvin, who guest starred in Beyoncé’s second Coachella set last year. “I also represent Juanes,” Léon continues. “We’ve had success on big mainstream festivals, but it was a big push getting those shows confirmed when we did.” The difficulty of getting Juanes onto a major festival lineup — in Texas, no less — is shocking when you consider that he has sold millions of albums and scored 11 Number One radio hits in the U.S. Acts like Car Seat Headrest, Mac Demarco or Odesza have no comparable commercial milestones, yet they appeared at numerous festivals in 2017 or 2018.

Part of the “trepidation” León identifies appears to stem from lack of knowledge on the part of talent buyers. “It’s about educating ourselves, making the whole team aware of what’s out there,” says Sampson, who has been actively trying to increase the presence of Latin music in the lineups he oversees.  

Before streaming became popular, this education process required some work. “For a long time publicists didn’t want to take on Latin artists — they didn’t know what to do with them,” explains Amy Davidman, a booking agent for Paradigm who works with multiple Latin acts. “If you don’t have a publicist, how are you getting people to pay attention to what you’re doing?”

Some festivals put in the effort to find Latin acts anyway. “Coachella has shown some leadership in this area,” Vega says. “This year Coachella has seven Latin acts from different genres. That’s a good story to tell. Jazzfest in New Orleans has been booking Latin talent for decades.”

And now, the conditions are in place for other festivals to join the early adopters: Today it requires basically zero effort to hear Latin stars. “Bookers can go into the playlists like ¡Viva Latino! on Spotify and they see who’s hot,” says Henry Cárdenas, the founder and CEO of Cárdenas Marketing Network, Latin music’s largest production company. “They didn’t have that option ten years ago with Juanes. Then if you wanted to listen Juanes, you gotta go and buy a record.” Ease of access helps ensure that “our artists are resonating not only with the Latin community,” Warner’s Rivera adds. “A lot of people in the general market can also identify those names now.”

Still, the impact in the festival space has been limited. Not long after Coachella announced its lineup, Governors Ball followed suit, with only a single Latin performer on the bill: the singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. Even American pop radio, known for its conservative ways, is more friendly to Latin pop than that. “I’m surprised there aren’t more [Latin acts] on festivals this year,” Davidman says. “Maybe it’ll take a couple years to see more in a headliner spot.”

In 2019, The Strokes will be headlining Governors Ball for the third time in five years. But in a statement to Rolling Stone, Governors Ball said it “always strives to book a diverse lineup of musical styles each year. There are several Latin artists on our wish list for the festival that we were not able to book this year because of scheduling conflicts in 2019, but we hope to be able to welcome them and others in years to come.” 

The continuing exclusion of Latin artists from festival lineups has ramifications. Anglophone acts routinely use the extensive festival circuit to build their following each summer, especially early in their career. Last year, Adam Foley, who manages the electronic duo Odesza, called an extensive post-album festival run in 2015 “a key thing that helped [Odesza] really explode to where they are now.” That option is simply not available to all but the biggest Latin stars.

The irony, of course, is that those stars don’t really need the festivals — J Balvin and Bad Bunny are already two of the biggest acts on the planet, capable of U.S. arena tours, and they will remain in the upper echelon regardless of whether or not they play Coachella. But for less popular artists, and for singers who don’t make heavily-streamed reggaeton and trap, the opportunity to hit the U.S. festival circuit would be valuable, in the same way it would be for countless U.S. indie rock groups.

And it’s not like the festivals themselves have nothing to gain, as the Latin circuit in the U.S. is “incredibly healthy,” according to Vega. “We just closed a massive deal for Marc Anthony, a $160 million touring deal — it’s the biggest touring deal for a Latin artist for sure in history, but it’s also one of the biggest touring deals for any artist in any language in history,” he says. “We used to produce 200 concerts in the U.S.,” adds Cárdenas. “We produced 340 last year.”

Cárdenas is sure that this will trickle down to the Anglo festival scene eventually. How does he know? Because now, “Live Nation and AEG [major live events companies] are trying to engage Latin performers to tour for them,” he says. “They notice there’s a big revenue stream coming out of the Latin side, and they want to get a part of it. That’s where we find the competition, Latino promoters like me.” 

León is also confident that Latin representation at Anglo festivals is due for an increase — she’s watched the live scene change for Latin acts before. “When I started [at Goldenvoice], I was like, ‘hey, there’s this big market [for Latin artists], we don’t have to just do L.A. and New York,'” she recalls. “Again, a lot of it is fear of the unknown and not understanding things about Latin culture. Latin shows usually sell out late. With a general-market show, you’re three weeks out and you haven’t sold 50 percent of the tickets, you’re talking about cancelling. In the Latin world, that’s when it gets good.”

“‘It’s gonna sell out, I swear’ — you don’t know how many times I had to say that,” León continues. “And I was right.” Now she tells festival talent-buyers the same thing, hoping to be proven right again.

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