Why Crossing Over to Spanish Is Worth the Risk for Most English-Language Pop Stars

Selena Gomez
Erica Hernandez

Selena Gomez

"Thanks to the strength of the streaming market across Latin America, any English-language artist could broaden their reach multiple times over by recording in Spanish."

On March 12, pop star Selena Gomez dropped her highly-anticipated Spanish EP Revelación. The 7-track set arrived with 23,000 equivalent album units earned in the U.S. in the week ending March 18, according to MRC Data. While hardly a resounding success, it was enough to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums and at No. 22 on the Billboard 200.

Latin stars have long attempted to cross over into the mainstream, English-language market, but the reverse has not been true. Long before Gomez, 21 years to be exact, Christina Aguilera made her Spanish-language debut with Mi Reflejo in 2000 just as the Latin genre was experiencing the so-called “Latin Explosion.” That was when artists such as Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias were crossing over to English and would eventually become general market household names.

But Aguilera – a bona fide pop star in the U.S. and high off her Grammy win for best new artist – was crossing over to Spanish with a 15-track set home to chart-topping tracks including pop anthem “Ven Conmigo” and R&B-tinged “Pero Me Acuerdo De Ti.”

Although Mi Reflejo went on to peak at No. 1 on Top Latin Albums, No. 27 on the Billboard 200 (charts dated Sept. 29, 2000) and received major radio airplay on Spanish stations, the unprecedented album was an isolated event.

The next superstar to record a Spanish project was Jennifer Lopez who dropped Como Ama Una Mujer in 2007. It peaked at No. 1 on Top Latin Albums and at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 (charts dated April 13, 2007).

In recent memory, English-language superstars such as Justin Bieber and Drake have guested on Spanish-language songs scoring global hits while singing in Spanish. Bieber jumped on a remix for Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” in 2017 catapulting the track to No. 1 on the Hot 100 where it remained for 16 consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, Drake and Bad Bunny teamed up in 2018 for their smash hit “MIA,” which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs and Latin Airplay.

But Spanish-language albums or EPs from general market artists (that aren't Latin) are still an anomaly – even at a time when the genre has established a stronger foothold in the mainstream when compared to the “Latin explosion” of 20 years ago. According to Nielsen Music/MRC Data’s 2020 midyear report, Latin music grew 14.56 million units in the first six months of last year and now comprises 4.09% market share of the total U.S. music market.

“When you grow up in a Spanish-language country, the biggest influence is the U.S. and the U.K.,” says Luana Pagani, Seitrack U.S. president. “It’s aspirational to record in English and win dollars instead of pesos. And I don’t think that American’s have grown up with Latin influence embedded in their culture as much as American culture was for us.”

The common denominator between Aguilera, Lopez and Gomez is that they have Latin roots, says Pagani. “For artists like Christina or Selena, it’s more of an homage to their heritage. Or it’s a cultural need but not an economical one because the payoff is not as big. A stream in Mexico isn’t worth as much as a stream in the U.S. And, if they sing in English, they can still be No. 1 in Mexico or another Latin American country.”

But economics notwithstanding, the growing presence of Latin music on the global charts is opening artists’ eyes to the added potential of recording in Spanish.

Polo Molina, the Black Eyed Peas longtime manager, agrees that “there has to be some sort of underlying connection” for artists to want to record in Spanish. “Look at the Black Eyed Peas, for example,” Molina says of the pop group, which worked with artists such as Becky G, J Balvin and Nicky Jam on last year’s Translation album and scored their first top 40 Hot 100 hit in a decade as a result. “Will was raised in the projects in East L.A. Taboo is Mexican, Apple is Philippine but grew up around us. I’m the manager and I’m Mexican so it comes natural for us to record in Spanish. We are Latinos, raised by Latinos.”

Recording a Latin album wasn’t only a nod to Latin culture that’s influenced the global group since its genesis, it was also an acknowledgement of Latin’s rise in the market. “The Latin community has always been consuming music, but it isn’t until now that there’s data available,” says Molina. “Artists see the value of that Latin market. You can’t ignore the way they consume music anymore.”

Gomez is already seeing those benefits. Following the release of her first two Spanish singles “De Una Vez” and “Baila Conmigo” earlier this year, Gomez saw a 157.5% increase in unique listeners in Madrid and a 160.9% increase in monthly listeners in Barcelona from Dec. 3, 2020 to March 3 on Spotify, according to music data analytics firm Chartmetric.

Gomez’s first full project in Spanish has “definitely boosted her presence on Latin playlists," says Monica Herrera Damashek, head of U.S. Latin, artist label partnerships North America at Spotify. “She has appeared on the cover of ¡Viva Latino! twice during this EP cycle, and she’s been programmed in playlists from Dale Flow (Mexico) to many of the Éxitos playlists across Latin America and Spain."

On YouTube, for that same time period, her biggest spike within major Latin American markets came from Buenos Aires, where she saw around 180% increase in monthly views.

“When an artist such as Selena is dropping her first Spanish album, there’s this curiosity that comes with it,” says Haz Montana, audio and radio consultant. “How will she sound in Spanish? It’s a huge benefit for project awareness.”

Montana, who was VP of programming at Entravision Communications when Aguilera dropped Mi Reflejo, says another potential payoff is “reaching an audience of billions of people because you’re singing in their language. They’re building an even stronger connection with a fanbase in a specific region.”

Other artists that have felt inspired to record in Spanish for the first time include country music band The Mavericks who released their first Spanish album in 2020 titled En Español. The band, whose lead singer Raul Malo is first-generation Cuban American, had never recorded an album entirely in Spanish in their 30 years of existence.

Colombian-American artist Kali Uchis released her first Spanish album Sin Miedo (Al Amor Y Otros Demonios) in November. It’s home to the chart-topping and viral track “Telepatía,” which has peaked at No. 39 on the Hot 100 (her first solo entry on the chart). The album is currently No. 3 on Top Latin Albums.

"This is a dream come true, because I’ve been making music for a while, and a lot of people told me that an album in Spanish would be like moving backwards in my career," Uchis previously told Billboard. "But I ignored them, and it’s beautiful that my Spanish album is resonating with people."

Most recently, CJ, a Staten Island-based artist of Puerto Rican descent, is conquering the Latin audience with his  "Whoopty Latin Remix,” ft. Anuel AA and Ozuna, which dropped March 25. "When you reach the Latin market, it’s just a different feel," CJ told Billboard. "These are two huge superstars and I feel that it will reach a different type of lane, an international one."

It’s just a matter of time before more of them cross over to Latin, says chart-topping producer-songwriter Edgar Barrera. "I’ve been contacted by many big general market artists, who are Latin but have never sung in Spanish, because they finally want to sing in Spanish. What’s popping now is Latin music and we’ll see many of them start jumping on this boat soon. Although it has to feel natural and not forced."

Herrera Damashek echoes Barrera. "Thanks to the size of the Latinx population in the U.S. and the strength of the streaming market across Latin America & Spain, any English-language artist could broaden their reach multiple times over by recording in Spanish. But it’s still really important that English-language artists don’t treat Latin as a gimmick or rush out a remix that might feel inorganic."