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Latin Music Is Reaching More Listeners Than Ever — But Who Is Represented?

Some in the industry are concerned that the dominance of reggaeton and trap leaves little room for other style

J Balvin, Ozuna and Karol G

J Balvin, Ozuna and Karol G have all become global hit-makers with reggaeton and trap songs.

Liliana Ampudia Mendez/REX Shutterstock, Gustavo Caballero/South Beach Photo/REX Shutterstock, MediaPunch/REX Shutterstock

One of the most important narratives in contemporary pop has been the emergence of Latin music as a potent commercial force in the United States. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of Spanish-language entries on the Hot 100 jumped from a mere four to 19. So far this year, there have been at least 16 more charting singles. After years of calling up English-language acts and trying to convince them to collaborate, veteran A&Rs in the Latin music industry can now enjoy being chased by Anglo artists desperate for a streaming boost.

But some industry figures are concerned that Latin pop’s gains are too heavily concentrated in just one area — what’s known as “urban” music, which primarily encompasses reggaeton and trap. As songs in this space rack up stream counts in the billions and labels follow that money, some fear that other Spanish-language music genres will no longer be seen as profitable and may become niche products, abandoned by the mainstream.

“It’s a conversation I hear everywhere, but especially in the U.S.,” says Juan Paz, a former major label employee who now works with Trending Tropics, Monsieur Periné and Superlitio, none of whom adhere to the standard urban sound. “Even Mexico — which used to be a pop and rock market for a long time — is turning into an urban market. When everything becomes a monoculture, it’s dangerous for the sake of artistry.”

Fears of imminent musical monoculturalism are not confined strictly to Latin music. In the United States, pop, rock and country are all borrowing heavily from hip-hop, to the point where the beats in supposedly different genres can be nearly indistinguishable. At this point, Halsey, Imagine Dragons, Kane Brown and Lil Wayne could all feasibly use the same instrumental.

But American music has long been one of this country’s most popular global exports, so genres receive individual recognition worldwide. In contrast, the Anglo market tends to lump Latin music together under one massive umbrella, making urban music’s monopoly that much more threatening. In addition, Latin music’s emergence as a commercial phenomenon in the U.S. and globally is more recent, and thus its gains seem potentially more fragile.

Unsurprisingly, the extent to which Latin music is perceived as becoming increasingly homogenous depends on who you ask. Respondents tend to split by age. Veteran artists are concerned about what the kids are doing to the culture — just as they were when rock and roll hit the U.S. in the Sixties, or, more to the point, as they were when hip-hop started to take over in the Nineties.

“We’re only writing songs for one generation right now,” worries Descemer Bueno, a 47-year-old Cuban artist who has enjoyed success as an artist and as the co-writer of international smash hits like Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando.” “Spanish for me is the most rich language with a lot of opportunity for communication,” he adds. “The Spanish language is suffering a lot.”

Class and race are likely even deeper fault lines than age. Much like hip-hop was once derided in the U.S., for much of its existence reggaeton has been looked down on as dangerous music made by poor people — in places like Puerto Rico, it was actively sought out and confiscated by the police. Surely not everyone is pleased that this music is now ascendant, least of all the artists who’ve been pushed aside.

“Four or five years ago, pop music was still the ruling genre, it was the king, it had the radio stations and the magazines,” explains Jesús Navarro, lead singer of the band Reik, a Mexican pop and rock trio that has embraced the sound of modern reggaeton and earned the biggest hits of their career as a result. “Pop artists used to look down on reggaeton artists. And when they finally start to collaborate with those acts, some are still not very willing to immerse themselves in the sound and the nuances.”

There’s another reason that some listeners might be uncomfortable with the dominance of reggaeton and trap in the Latin market: Again, like American hip-hop, these genres are male-dominated and have been accused of disseminating misogyny. The Colombian star Maluma was rebuked in Spain for participating in a track titled “Cuatro Babys” that a petition claimed “incited direct violence towards women;” Puerto Rican rapper Anuel AA recently apologized for releasing a song that was deemed both homophobic and misogynist.

“I’m not against any genre,” says Erika Ender, who co-wrote a little song named “Despacito.” “The only thing that I do not promote is something that goes against moral values or human beings.” She adds, “Sometimes people that do this kind of music might not be so careful with the message.”

Concern about single-party musical rule is not new within Latin music. “Salsa music for Latinos was urban music back when [the famous salsa label] Fania started [in New York in 1964],” says Hector Ruben Rivera, the senior director for A&R at Warner Latin. “They were as rebellious and revolutionary as the reggaeton guys. Back then I’m sure everyone felt the same way — ‘Everybody’s paying attention to salsa, bro, but I’m trying to do ballads!'”

“Unfortunately at the end of the day, record labels’ jobs is not to expand culture,” adds Tomas Cookman, head of the Latin-music-focused indie label Nacional Records. “They’re out to make a buck. If Maluma’s big [and he is] you’ll find other labels trying to sign their version of him.”

But the streaming infrastructure which has helped Latin music achieve remarkable levels of success separates this pop moment from what came before. Streaming service playlists are now more popular than albums, according to some surveys, and flagship playlists like Spotify’s Baila Reggaeton and Viva Latino! can almost single-handedly create hits in the U.S. and around the world — see Danny Ocean’s “Me Rehúso.” On YouTube in 2017, 45 of the Top 100 most-viewed videos globally were made by Latin artists; that number climbed past 50 this year.

That reach is unprecedented in Latin music: The difference between now and previous high water marks is one of kind, not degree. “Salsa, vallenato [a style popular in Colombia], even the reggaeton movement back in the day: Those started to gather success within Latin music, but they weren’t necessarily gathering success in global culture,” says Lex Borrero, head of Roc Nation Latin.

But this unprecedented reach is matched by unprecedented centralization: Every single one of the Latin hits on the Hot 100 this year would be classified as reggaeton or trap. Though the two most popular Spanish-language music playlists on Spotify, Baila Reggaeton and Viva Latino!, are not identical, they may overlap as much as 70%, and they both focus primarily on the urban sound. (Spotify declined to comment for this story.) Warner Latin’s Rivera counters that, “no one’s imposing anything on anyone in the digital world — people can choose not to listen to a playlist.” However, the two most popular curated playlists focused on the English-language market are much less similar: The overlap between RapCaviar and Today’s Top Hits this week is around seven tracks out of fifty, or 14%.

Instead of playlists, YouTube relies more on its own algorithms to take passive listeners briskly from one song to the next, but the end result appears roughly the same. Sandra Jimenez, Head of Music, LATAM, for YouTube and Google Play, says that, “when you analyze the data that we have, especially in Latin America, there are possibilities for all genres.” She also points out that the genre known as “regional Mexican” performs strongly on YouTube, where a young star like Christian Nodal easily out-streams well-known American rock bands. In addition, she says there is still a “strong rock listenership in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.” But the prevalence of regional Mexican tracks on YouTube’s U.S. and global charts lags behind that of reggaeton and trap singles, while Latin rock is basically a non-presence.

Over at Deezer, a streaming platform more popular in Europe, Henrique Fares Leite (Head of Music Industry Relations, Latin America) is seeing “electronic artists such as Alok, Mariana Bo and Vintage Culture now able to reach global audiences, and they all started out very local within their respective markets.” “In alternative music,” he adds, “Bomba Esteréo uses traditional Latino genres to reach an audience beyond their home country of Colombia.” But it’s worth noting that Bomba Esteréo’s biggest hit to date is a remix of “To My Love” by the reggaeton hitmaker Tainy, which transforms their jaunty electronic single into an urban juggernaut.

Cookman believes that the flexibility of the contemporary Latin urban sound more than offsets its wider reach — or, possibly, tighter stranglehold. “Let’s use salsa as an extreme example: It’s either salsa or it’s not,” he explains. “Urban music is more forgiving. Maybe the casual listener won’t notice them, but there are variations.”

Leite, from Deezer, agrees. “A large amount of reggaeton and trap is produced in Latin America with local musical roots, which includes strong genres such as ranchero and vallenato,” he says. That “forgiving” quality allows Becky G, for example, to break out with a single that mixes elements of cumbia with reggaeton.

However, it’s not hard to find artists with opposing views. Eduardo “Visitante” Martínez is a versatile musician who has racked up numerous awards for his work in the group Calle 13 and as a producer for more traditional sounding albums by Vicente Garcia and Monsieur Periné. He has made his share of reggaeton as well, but he fears that, “Latin music right now, all the sound is the same.” “It’s all the same harmony, the same arrangement, the same key,” he said this summer.

“In the year 2013, we had two ballads on the radio, [Iglesias’] ‘El Perdedor’ and ‘Loco,'” adds Descemer Bueno. “In 2014, you could at least hear bachata on the radio [thanks largely to Romeo Santos, who is now making trap (the “El Farsante” remix) and reggaeton (the “Ella Quiere Beber” remix)]. You don’t have that anymore — only music for dancing and mainly reggaeton. I don’t have time to write those songs [ballads] because I know that they aren’t going to find any stations at radio.”

Some industry figures believe that a trickle-down mechanism will gradually assert itself. “Urban-leaning tracks are driving Latin music, but as Latin music has started to cross over and artists like Bad Bunny and Balvin have started to break barriers, it’s opening the door for other artists to come up and have the opportunity to shine with music that’s not necessarily urban,” says Roc Nation’s Borrero.

The primary example presented as evidence of the trickle-down theory right now is Rosalía, the Spanish singer praised for her revisionist approach to flamenco: In the U.S., it’s hard to imagine her getting support from, for example, Apple Music without the initial breakthroughs of various reggaeton and trap artists. But despite all the praise Rosalía has earned for her new album, El Mal Querer, it has not yet become a streaming success on par with many of the trap or reggaeton records, and it is most definitely not on the radio.

If you peg the emergence of Latin music as a global force to the year 2015 and the American “ah-ha!” moment to last year, then this upheaval is still in its relatively early stages, and worries about the dominance of any one style may prove to be premature. “Any change is good,” says Cookman. “Imagine if we lived in a universe where everyone wanted to copy ‘Macarena.’ That would be a tragic place. The urban hits now have a good melody that people can hum along with in the car and dance with in the clubs. Once they stop innovating, that’s when they’re going to start having problems.”

In This Article: Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Latin, reggaeton

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