How Latin radio lost its pop love sound and how to get it back.
But wait a minute: While first single "Humanos a Marte" cracked the top 10 of our Latin Airplay chart, it never made it to the top five, much less to No. 1, the spot where Chayanne has placed a string of hits in the past.
That's because even though "Humanos a Marte" is a lilting, mid-tempo pop/reggae track, Chayanne is viewed as a romantic crooner and that's a no-no in U.S. Latin radio today. In fact, Latin pop in general faces a very uphill battle on its way to getting any airplay here.
Programmers argue that ballads just don't do well in radio (U.S. Latin radio, that is). Their main contention is that "young" listeners -- meaning the 18- to 34-year-old sweet spot advertisers chase -- don't want to hear traditional love songs. All they want is reggaetón and dance and urban-tinged uptempo fare like "Bailando" and "6 AM."
But while such uptempo fare most definitely has an audience, so do the more mellow, pop-leaning tracks. If only radio allowed them to be heard.
Instead, the medium has aggressively and wrongly reduced Latin music in this country to a single sound and experience, even as all the other measurements of success -- including album sales and streaming -- tell a bigger and more exciting story.
How did we come to this?
Historically, the Latin crooner has defined Latin music perhaps more than any other act. From Carlos Gardel in the 1920s to Luis Miguel and Cristian Castro in the 1990s to Luis Fonsi and Camila into the 2000s, our Latin balladeers made our hearts skip a beat and their songs made our world go 'round.
And it went beyond the balladeers. Most Latin pop and even rock acts boast hit ballads, because Latins are suckers for romance. Even our current chart kings -- Romeo Santos and Prince Royce -- do best when they sing about love.
If we're so lovestruck, why are our crooners having such a tough time on radio? On the one hand, U.S. radio today works with PPM -- the dastardly Portable People Meter that measures exactly what you're listening to, anytime, any place. So programmers use this to justify their playlists. Goodbye instinct, hello science.
In the best-case scenarios, tracks get dropped if they don't garner immediate success, even though everyone knows the number of PPM users in the Latin universe is ridiculously low and can't possibly reflect the broad listenership. In the worst-case scenario, downtempo tracks don't even get a chance. In fact, I can't even remember the last time a bona fide ballad was released as a first single for any pop act.
This, quite frankly, sucks, especially when we look across the road at what mainstream radio is playing. There, we find a steady string of huge hits that are ballads. Granted, they don't abound, but they are most certainly there. This week, Sam Smith sits at No. 4 in the Hot 100 with "In the Lonely Hour," having peaked at No. 2. John Legend hit No. 1 with "All of Me" -- a piano-voice ballad, of all things.
And here's the supreme irony of it all: Those Spanish-language stations that shut the door on ballads in Spanish? Many of them play ballads in English. So why the allergic reaction to slow love songs in Spanish?
It all began with the reggaetón explosion a decade ago, which slowly but surely saw the pendulum swing in the charts, from romantic pop to virtually all danceable urban. Today, reggaetón is balanced by pop/dance fare (think "Bailando") and by a healthy dose of contemporary bachata, a genre that in its U.S.-made incarnation (Santos, Royce, etc.) is often labeled "urban." But ballads very, very seldom make the mix, because programmers believe listeners tune out the moment they listen to anything downtempo.
And what programmers think is key. This is particularly true today, because overwhelmingly, this is a singles -- rather than an albums -- market.
So, what to do?
Work twice as hard. Many acts have circumvented radio's initial reluctance by notching hits in other ways. Jesse & Joy's "Corre" was a soap opera theme and a smash hit in Mexico and on YouTube before U.S. radio finally relented and played it.
Insist. Ricardo Arjona has continued to top the charts with relentless promo (courtesy of this own team) and great songs while refusing to make a single bachata remix.
And of course, Chayanne is No. 1 this week, no small feat.
So be patient. That pendulum swung a decade ago. It's time for a change.
Latin Noise is a column by Leila Cobo that provides the real buzz in Latin music.