As Latin music has moved ever closer to the pop mainstream, the definition of Latin pop itself has evolved, increasingly shifting from balladeer artists like Ricardo Arjona and Juanes to urbano stars like J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Maluma. The top 34 entries on Billboard’s 2018 Hot Latin Songs year-end chart were all reggaetón, and major non-urban Latin artists like Juanes and Arjona didn’t even make the list. In the same year, a record 22 Latin songs appeared on the Hot 100 -- 20 of which were by urbano artists.
Though the shift hasn’t upended the whole business -- the latest round of Latin Grammy nominations features almost no urbano artists in its major categories -- it is posing a challenge to many artists and label execs who operate in the traditional pop realm. “While reggaetón continues to thrive, there is less wiggle room for other genres,” says Diana Rodríguez, CEO of management agency Criteria Entertainment, whose roster includes Chilean singer-songwriter Francisca Valenzuela and Grammy-winning rocker Draco Rosa. “Labels and publishers are searching for [new Latin talent], but for the time being, ‘Latin’ refers to reggaetón. Until that attention shifts to the discovery of all genres that encompass Latin, we will be hard at work.”
On streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, urbano leads the global playlists. Spotify’s ¡Viva Latino! is the third-most-followed playlist on the platform, with more than 10 million listeners; Baila Reggaeton is close behind, with over 9 million. Apple Music’s reggaetón-dominated ¡Dale Play! is its top Latin playlist globally, according to Jerry Pulles, a Latin music programmer at Apple. “That’s what listeners and artists are moving toward,” he says.
To some, this move away from traditional pop is just another step in the ongoing evolution of Latin music -- one that already has seen urbano fluctuate in popularity. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, crossover pioneers like Shakira and Juanes ruled Hot Latin Songs with pop- and rock-leaning tunes. Reggaetón remained in the margins until Daddy Yankee’s 2004 breakout hit “Gasolina,” which peaked at No. 32 on the Hot 100 and paved the way for artists like Wisin y Yandel and Tego Calderón to dominate radio.
By 2005, Univision had launched 10 all-rhythmic stations called La Kalle in major markets like Chicago and New York. But over the following years, the pendulum swung back. La Kalle rebranded as a more diverse format that played pop, bachata and reggaetón. “Reggaetón softened down, and we ended up evolving to a broader pop/rhythmic station,” says Ismar SantaCruz, vp/managing director of radio strategy at Univision. “Sometimes we forget that pop music literally just means ‘popular.’ It’s not just reggaetón or urbano or traditional pop. It’s all of those collectively.”
To reflect urbano’s current dominance, Univision switched six Latino Mix radio stations from pop to fully rhythmic, though it still has pop-only and pop-leaning playlists on its Uforia app. “Music naturally evolves, and that is exciting,” says Valenzuela. “Ideally, there would be space to pursue a creative career without having to be like everyone else or do what everyone else is doing.”