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Latin In the House (of Blues): How Small Venues Are Developing the Next Generation of Superstars

Enrique Bunbury
Omar Vega/Getty Images

Bunbury onstage at the House of Blues in Dallas in 2018.

For most contemporary artists, the road to Coachella's main stage typically begins as an opening act, runs through small clubs and then theaters, and ends with a commanding view of pink-hued mountains and tens of thousands of fans. Colombian trap and pop star J Balvin, who headlined Coachella with a visually mind-blowing set on April 14 -- a historic first for a Spanish-language artist -- traveled the same route as fellow headliners Childish Gambino and Tame Impala. He just did it a lot faster.

And he's not the only one. Balvin and pop-reggaetón breakouts like Bad Bunny and Ozuna have gone from selling out 1,000-capacity clubs to 20,000-seat arenas in under three years, a breakneck pace for any artist -- let alone one who sings and raps in Spanish. Recognizing that Latin-music artists need the same development tools as their counterparts in other genres, venue chains like Live Nation's House of Blues (HOB) are increasing their focus on developing Latin acts as headliners and cultivating a new generation of fans who speak English or Spanish, or both.

In the last two years, Live Nation's clubs and theaters division has ramped up its Latin business, hiring staff in its 100 North American offices and developing new strategies for Latin artists to grow from clubs to arenas. In 2018, the 12 HOB venues grossed a combined $20 million from 400 shows (according to Live Nation) by emerging Latin artists like pop-country duo Ha*Ash and Mexican pop-rock singer Natalia Lafourcade, as well as veteran acts like Zoe, Reik, Enrique Bunbury and Residente of Calle 13.

Driving the growth is a new generation of millennial fans who are extending the limits of the touring map and fueling a Latin live-music business that's closing in on half a billion dollars in tickets among the three largest Latin-concert promoters, according to Billboard Boxscore.

"Today's Latin music fans are much more influenced by popular culture than their parents," says Live Nation's Manuel Moran, vp touring for its clubs and theaters division, who is helping lead the shift in priorities for the HOB chain, which Live Nation bought from Seagram's Universal Concerts group in 2004. Conceived during the early-1990s chain-restaurant boom that also launched Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe, the HOB brand started as a restaurant/concert hall, then a few years after its acquisition shifted toward incubating emerging artists to play Live Nation's international portfolio of 247 venues and 104 festivals.

"The tour map for Latin acts has grown from five or six major markets to 20-25 cities," says Han Schafer, head of Live Nation's Latin division, which produced four of the top five Latin tours in 2018. Data from streaming services has helped talent buyers for HOB identify Latin fan markets in parts of the Northeast and Midwest that had largely been bypassed.

Moran says HOB and Live Nation's clubs/theaters division is forecasting 550 shows for 2019, growth of nearly 37% spurred in part by the boom in crossover hits and a fan base that's not beholden to genre.

"Fans realize that they're now driving the mainstream," adds Schafer, who thinks Spanish-language music is less than a year away from its next major milestone — a crossover arena tour featuring a Latin artist and a mainstream pop star.

"What's missing is something like a Balvin and Cardi B co-headlining tour," he says. "It's happening in streaming and festivals, and it's inevitable in touring."

This article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of Billboard.


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