Luis Fonsi: The Billboard Cover Story

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, with the strains of his new single, "Gritar" (Shout), playing in the background, Luis Fonsi - the Puerto Rican heartthrob with the plaintive voice and earnest, boy-next-door good looks - stood in front of a video camera in a park in downtown Miami and said in Spanish: "Congratulations to all moms. Let's all shout in happiness!"

"And shout, shout, shout!" played his song in the background, as Fonsi displayed his very white, open smile.

Fonsi's endearing. He's entreating. He sings and writes mainly in Spanish, but thinks in Spanish and English-a result of having been raised in Orlando, Fla., most of his life. And the duality spills into his music, which is Latin pop with hues of R&B in the vocals and rock in the arrangements. Fonsi has the sort of wide appeal that both labels and sponsors find increasingly valuable-a fact AT&T first seized upon in 2008, when the company used him and his single "No Me Doy Por Vencido" (I Won't Give Up) for a major campaign tied to the Summer Olympics. At the time, sales of Latin music in the United States were already on a downward spiral, but Fonsi bucked the trend. "Palabras del Silencio" (Universal Music Latino)-the album linked to the AT&T campaign single-sold close to 250,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, more than any of Fonsi's previous albums.

In fact, many things didn't happen five years ago, despite labels' best efforts. As recently as 2007, major pushes behind bilingual acts like Kat De Luna (who's now resurfacing) and the Dey fell short. Part of the reason, George says, is that those artists didn't have a Latin base to begin with.

While Spanish-language radio plays tracks in English, the reverse doesn't happen, so for Latin acts to get recognized in the mainstream, they have to record in English or get promoted on mainstream outlets. If an artist already has a Latin or bilingual base, the task is easier.

"It's tried and true. Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin; they've all had that Latin base first," George says. "Once you build that, you have that solid following. But pretending to hit the American and Hispanic market at the same time, it's never been done. Or I don't know about it."

Now, with radio a more willing player for such acts, with increasing online access for Hispanics, and with a younger U.S. Hispanic population ready to consume, simultaneously breaking acts in pop and Latin markets becomes more feasible.

If one looks at Billboard's Latin Digital Songs chart, the top-selling Latin digital tracks of the year have consistently been those by crossover artists like Iglesias, Shakira and Pitbull.

According to "The Latino Digital Divide," a study published last July by the Pew Hispanic Center, the U.S. Latin population still lags behind the overall population in Internet and cellphone use; according to this and past Pew studies, 64% of Latinos aged 18-plus go online, compared with 78% of non-Latinos. And 76% of Latinos use a cellphone, compared with 86% of non-Latinos.

But nativity is a key factor in determining who uses cellphones and the Internet, according to Pew. Only half (51%) of foreign-born Latinos go online, for example, while 85% of U.S.-born Latinos do so. The figures are in line with numerous studies that have found Internet use is higher among younger Latinos-of which more are born here-than older Latinos, of which more are born abroad. According to this particular study, almost two-thirds (65%) of all Latinos aged 16-plus go online, at least occasionally, but use varies with age: 84% of Latinos ages 16-19 report that they email or use the Internet while only 74% of those ages 20-25 do so. Only 61% of those aged 26-plus use the Internet at all.

The nativity gap persists across age differences. Among those ages 16-19, for example, 92% of those U.S.-born use the Internet, but only 59% of those foreign-born do so.

Bicultural Orientation

Last February, meanwhile, Telemundo Communications released what it called its "GenYLA" (Generation Young Latino Americans) study that delved into the preferences of young Hispanics ages 18-34. The study measured a sample of 400 in that age bracket-hardly definitive, but perhaps enough to provide interesting insight.

Slightly more than 37% of those surveyed identified themselves as both "Hispanic" and "American," identifying with both cultures equally; only 2% felt more American than Hispanic. Likewise, those surveyed said they moved easily between cultures, had both Latin and non-Latin friends and spoke both English and Spanish. Spanish dominated with family (55%), English at work (74%) and school (79%). Between friends, Spanglish was cited as common.

Within this panorama, Fonsi is a sort of poster boy who travels with ease between both worlds. Even though he sings mostly in Spanish (he's released one English-language album, the little-noted "Fight the Feeling," in 2002), he sees his music as akin to country, "because it's song-driven," he says. "There's storytelling, there's emotion."

At a practical level, "I talk bilingual," Fonsi says. "I am 100% proud Puerto Rican, but have lived two-thirds of my life in the United States. So, there will be some things I write in English, but my main way of conversing with my audience is in Spanish, because at the end of the day, I'm a Latino. But I also understand how U.S. people think, because I've lived here so long and so many of my friends are 100% Americans."

Such understanding is often subtle. But it connects, says Jesus Lopez, chairman of Universal Music Latin America/Iberian Peninsula, "because of the type of music, the production, the sound, the themes he touches upon-and of course, we have future collaborations planned with English-speaking acts."

"Fonsi is a crossover artist because he's a second-generation Latino, bilingual, bicultural and raised in the U.S.," Lopez continues. "He uses Spanish to communicate his art, but he also uses English when we've thought it could be useful to his career."

On his social sites, Fonsi communicates mostly in Spanish, but tweets occasionally in English. Moreover, much of the warm-up campaign for his new album has taken place online, beginning in March when Universal released a teaser video on YouTube to promote "Gritar." Other elements followed, including personal messages from Fonsi to his nearly 900,000 Twitter followers and his Facebook fans (3.9 million "Likes"), asking them to register on his website to get the full lyrics to "Gritar," which premiered on both radio and iTunes on April 11.

Because Fonsi has such a visible online presence, the digital sales of "Gritar" will be an important marker, particularly because the Latin digital marketplace is still being developed. Last year, for example, overall digital album sales in the United States tallied 86.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a 13% increase over the 76.4 million tallied in 2009.

In contrast, of the 12 million-plus Latin albums sold in the United States, only 917,000 were digital, up by 201,000 units (or 28%) from the 716,000 copies sold in 2009. While the percentage growth was much higher than the overall market, it was still a drop in the bucket compared with the 4 million physical units lost.

But Sony's Page sees a Latin digital buyer beginning to emerge, and calculates that approximately 35% of his Latin music sales-which skewed heavily toward Latin pop-are digital. Earlier this month, for example, the top-selling album on the iTunes Latino chart was "Morir y Existir" (Del Records/Sony) by regional Mexican up-and-comer Gerardo Ortiz, who also debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart. Of the 8,000 units Ortiz sold the first week, roughly 20% were digital, Page says, unusually high for a regional Mexican act.

In promoting Ortiz's release, Sony aggressively promoted it on all of his social networks, including Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, but always making the connection back to retail, in particular iTunes and Amazon, which allow for immediate purchase.

"Gerardo is reaching that acculturated audience that enjoys his music but is more [digitally] 'advanced' than the typical Latin consumer," Page says. "Gerardo Ortiz has been basically underground. It's only now that he's reaching that critical mass and exploding. We had very good digital numbers with his first album, so with the second album we knew what to expect. We knew that audience was there and we went after them."

Luis Fonsi will speak at the Billboard Latin Music Conference as part of BMI's "How I Wrote That Song" panel.