Apple Music's Head of U.S. Latin Jennifer D'Cunha On Playlist Strategy, Bad Bunny's 'Transformative' Crossover

Jennifer D’Cunha
Damon Casarez

“Our strategy is not to just make one marquee playlist but to go really deep with specific genres of music,” says D’Cunha, photographed on April 4, 2019 at Apple Music in Culver City, Calif. “A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to be enough.”

Latin music may still be small, but it is Apple Music's fastest-growing genre by number of streams. For 2018, the genre accounted for 69% more total streams on the service than in 2017 in the United States, outpacing the overall growth in streams of Apple Music (up 57%), Latin music on-demand (up 37%) and the U.S. music industry as a whole (up 43%), according to Nielsen Music.

The trend is continuing this year. In the first quarter, Latin music grew by a greater number of streams over the same period of 2018 -- 44% -- than any other genre.

This success came on the heels of Apple Music's appointment of Jennifer D'Cunha to the newly created post of head of U.S. Latin business in October 2017. The intent was to focus on the genre with an expanded staff, broader marketing efforts and playlists that dig deep into different subgenres.

D'Cunha had been immersed in Latin music before joining Apple in the fall of 2006. She moved to Mexico City and worked at Spanish- and Portuguese-language internet media brand StarMedia in 2000 before joining AOL Latino three years later to work on music programming. She then moved to Apple, working in marketing for iTunes in Mexico before returning stateside in 2009, rising to head of marketing in Latin America and, most recently, head of marketing for emerging markets, before taking on her current role. So it's surprising to learn she isn't Latin.

"I grew up in Southern California. My mom is American, and my dad is of Portuguese descent," says the elegant, soft-spoken D'Cunha, a University of California, Berkeley grad who speaks Spanish like a native. As a good Southern Californian, she grew up listening to The Cure and Morrissey on KROQ but discovered Latin alternative acts like Café Tacuba and Soda Stereo in high school. Her time in Mexico cemented her love for the culture.

Damon Casarez
A poster celebrating artists and performances from the first five years of the iTunes Festival, now the Apple Music Festival. 

"I've always been passionate about Latin music, about the culture and the language," says D'Cunha. "It's exciting that now you have people from Los Angeles to New York to Brazil to Lisbon all able to get behind the same song."

Your job was created in October 2017. What was behind that decision?

The incredible music that was becoming not just a force to be reckoned with in the U.S. but around the world. Everybody started to take notice. Sometimes it takes creating a vision and having a team focus on building a business, especially in a big company like Apple. We had amazing team members focused on Latin for 14, 15 years -- it's not like Apple was ignoring the Latin business. It just was not organized the same way. The company really wanted to give Latin music a bit more focus and a dedicated team that was really eating, breathing and sleeping Latin music.

What changed specifically?

Treating Latin music in the U.S. like a business unit. We have the editorial team, label relations, artist relations, business, and we work with people all over the world: Mexico City, Madrid, Rio, São Paulo, Miami. The objective was creating a team that can connect Latin music consumers with the music they love, and making sure we can nurture the artist and label community. Artists come visit us in our Culver City offices every day, talking about their inspiration and campaigns with their teams. Building those artist relationships is really important, and it takes time and people. With streaming, the sky's the limit.

Damon Casarez
Artwork from Apple Music’s new ¡Dale Play! playlist, including the first cover with Bad Bunny and Drake.

What's an example of a "sky's the limit" success story?

In February of last year, Bad Bunny was the first Latin artist to be selected for our Up Next program. In one year he went from being an Up Next artist to the most-streamed Latin artist worldwide. We went to Puerto Rico, shot a documentary where he talked to fans and people who had never heard him before, and he let us look into his life. We went to his hometown, heard about his influences and created a documentary piece, the first of its kind on Bad Bunny. We also did a global marketing campaign -- he received main-page placement even in markets where Latin music is not predominantly featured. When he came out with his debut album, X 100PRE, Apple Music did a massive campaign all over the U.S. where we featured him talking about it and put him on the cover of ¡Dale Play!, our No. 1 Latin editorial playlist worldwide.

It was about staying committed and accompanying him from developing artist to his debut album. He was one of the first artists to pass the billion-stream mark and only one of three Latin artists to do so.

Do you program your playlists globally or locally? How does that work?

The programming is done in collaboration with our team in Latin America and our team in the U.S., but the audiences are absolutely global. ¡Dale Play!, for example, is a collaboration between one of our editors in Mexico and [U.S. Latin music programmer] Marissa Gastelum. Every day, they're talking about the songs that they love that are bubbling up.

Damon Casarez
D’Cunha’s Apple 10-year award. 

There's a common perception that Latin music is very segmented by genre and territory. How does the playlist team respond to that?

If you go to Apple Music, you can see our top charts in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. So you can see what Apple Music listeners around the world are enjoying. For example, when the Luis Miguel [TV] series was the only thing people were talking about in Mexico City last year, you saw a lot of Luis Miguel songs jumping up the charts, whereas in the U.S. we didn't see that same phenomenon. In the case of ¡Dale Play!, it's a collaboration. It's not just programmed from a U.S. perspective. But you're absolutely right: The markets are different. We want these playlists to be relevant all over the world. It's an opportunity for us to present what we think is the best of Latin music and what our fans are going to love. It's big hits and it's artists we want to give an opportunity.

When you discuss Latin music internally, what surprises your non-Latin colleagues?

When you look at the global Shazam charts and you see Daddy Yankee's "Con Calma" is the most Shazamed song in the world, that's surprising to people. I'm not surprised, but others are. We have fans all over the place saying, "I love this."

Damon Casarez
Glass paperweights with eye images from John Derian.

Will bilingual music get bigger?

Artists like Bad Bunny have decided to do their things in Spanish, and that has been transformative. We are used to these artists singing in Spanish and embracing it. They don't feel like they have to sing in English to cross over. We're not asking artists to sing in a language to fit into a playlist.

What are the goals and challenges that you have in your role?

We wanted to make some of our Latin music playlists [like ¡Dale Play! and Corridos Al 100] brand names that really resonated with the culture, so we spent a lot of time on curation. But Latin is a culture, not a genre. We want to be sure that we're not [just] creating a Latin playlist but amplifying some of these very important genres. The artist community really loves and respects the fact that we are getting granular. We're going deep in these subgenres and creating a space where people who love them can get lost.

Damon Casarez
”Our design team gave me these Mundo Tropical and Trap Kingz playlist covers to hang in the office,” says D’Cunha.

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