Record Labels

As Latin Goes Mainstream, Labels Want In

Uchis, Anitta, de Oro, Silvana Estrada and Khea.
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Clockwise from left: Uchis, Anitta, de Oro, Silvana Estrada and Khea.

The breakout success of Bad Bunny, Luis Fonsi and others has led to a flurry of new deals and divisions -- but can they translate to hits?

"When you see Bad Bunny is the most streamed artist on Spotify, people wake up and see dollar signs,” says Interscope Geffen A&M executive vp Nir Seroussi. “But it’s a very unique space.”

Latin music has been mainstream in some ways since the 1950s, when mambo king Dámaso Pérez Prado’s cover of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” topped the Billboard pop charts. But it has always stood apart from the rest of the music business in some ways: Mostly based in Miami, it has a global reach, as well as its own recording academy and Grammy Awards. Not since the so-called “Latin Explosion” that had Shakira, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and others singing in English in the early 2000s has the music and its artists had as much influence as today. This year Latin music is hitting new milestones, driven by the popularity of Latin trap and reggaeton, making up 30% of YouTube’s top 100 global music videos for the year and growing faster than all other genres in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data (up 26.4% as of Nov. 19). No wonder companies that had never paid Latin music much attention are now showing interest.

When Seroussi joined Interscope in February 2019, the former president of Sony Music US Latin launched what he calls “the first full-fledged Latin operation within a major label” (as opposed to the major label divisions that have long existed) and now has acts with crossover appeal like bilingual Colombian-American Kali Uchis and Argentine trap singer Khea on the roster. Interscope was ahead of the curve but not by much. Caroline, the independent distribution and label services arm of Capitol Music Group, has been growing its Latin roster for the past 18 months, signing deals with Puerto Rican trap and reggaeton artists Brytiago and Omy de Oro and Bronx-based Dominican rap collective The Sie7eTr3 crew, led by Chucky 73. And this year, Cash Money and Glassnote Records have signed their first Spanish-language Latin acts, Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak label launched a new “En Fuego” Latinx-focused imprint and Warner Music Group’s ADA opened a Latin new division.

“Welcome to the party,” says Warner Records co-chairman/COO Tom Corson, who worked with Ricky Martin at Columbia in the late 1990s. “Some of us have been here for a while.” That’s even more true of the Latin divisions of the major labels.

These newcomers are reaping what longstanding Latin labels, even major labels, have worked decades to achieve.

“Before, we were a small part of the business and it was difficult to get the attention of the ‘big brothers,’” Jesús López, Chariman/CEO of Universal Music Latin America/Iberian Peninsula told Billboard in September. “Now ... we are really players. We are completely integrated.”

In 2019, the U.S. Hispanic population reached 60.6 million, comprising 18% of the country’s population as the largest ethnic minority. It is far from a monolith -- and neither is Latin music, which comprises many genres. Couple that with the huge clout wielded by Latin American countries who consume similar music as a massive block and the strategy is clear: Break a Latin act through the U.S. mainstream and perhaps the rest of the Spanish-speaking planet will follow.

That’s not, however, how this has been done historically. As mainstream labels get into the game though, there are questions about whether, and how, they’ll compete with the majors’ Latin divisions. Traditionally, Latin artists who have gone mainstream -- from Ricky Martin and Shakira to Bad Bunny -- have launched their careers in their home countries. Even homegrown U.S. stars, like Selena and Romeo Santos, were first signed to Latin labels.

Mainstream labels will still collaborate with their Latin divisions, of course, where the biggest Latin stars are signed. Sony Music Latin alone counts Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Shakira, Maluma and Ricky Martin on its roster. “We have a strong Latin company,” says Corson, speaking of Warner Music Latina, home to Maná. “We’re not going to rush into the market” without them.

But the dynamic is changing. “We used to have to beg our English counterparts for collaborations,” says one former major-label marketing executive. “Now that we have the metrics, everybody wants to jump on that train. You have a ton of non-Latin people working these artists, and a lot of times, these campaigns are tone deaf.”

Companies are trying to hire executives who understand the nuances of Latin music and its audience — for example, the vast differences between U.S. reggaetón listeners and Latin American fans of Spanish-language singer-songwriters. When Caroline began to expand, it hired as its director of marketing Patricio Sánchez, the former director of digital marketing at Universal Music Latin Entertainment. ADA launched with Juan Paz as its managing director; he previously led digital marketing for Sony U.S. Latin.

“It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to Nashville to do country,’ ” says Seroussi. “It’s another code.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020 issue of Billboard.