Why Labels Are Partnering With Zumba to Break Artists

BB18 2017 - DO NOT USE
Brian Smith
“It’s like the Rocky movie where the music highlights the training scene,” says Perlman (right), photographed with Perez on July 13 at Zumba Fitness in Hallandale Beach, Fla., about their Strong by Zumba campaign with new artist partner Steve Aoki. “It makes you want to work out.”

The fitness-craze creators on breaking tracks by Pitbull and a new partnership with Steve Aoki.

When Shakira and Carlos Vives released their global hit, "La Bicicleta," in May 2016, the Colombian diva followed up with a personal request to her Zumba instructor, Marta Formoso: Could she do anything with the song?

As it turns out, she could do plenty. Formoso was in the midst of a global tour with Zumba co-founder/chief creative officer Alberto "Beto" Perez, 47, who spent that night feverishly ­choreographing the track with cumbia steps and sexy hip swivels. The next day, Perez premiered the dance in front of 4,000 people at a Zumba class in Italy, adding encores in Brazil, Japan and Argentina. Shakira posted a video of the debut on her YouTube ­channel, garnering over 2.6 million views. Two days later, "La Bicicleta" debuted atop Billboard's Latin Airplay chart.

"Shakira's team was going crazy," Perez says with a laugh. "So when [the single] 'Chantaje' launched [in October], they said, 'Can we do it again?'"

Such is the power of Zumba, the ­fitness -- and increasingly musical -- empire launched by Perez alongside business ­partner and company CEO Alberto Perlman, the corporate ying to Perez's creative yang and president/COO Alberto Aghion. The program is now taught at over 200,000 locations in 186 ­countries, with approximately 15 million people attending a class on any given day. While Zumba won't disclose how many ­instructors it has licensed worldwide, the number has multiplied tenfold in the last decade, and each teacher pays to subscribe to the Zumba Instructor Network (ZIN), which provides access to original music and choreography routines.

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The program produces much of the music used in its classes in-house, with a team of 10 producers and songwriters. It also has partnered with major Latin stars like Don Omar and Pitbull, whose ­respective hits "Zumba" and "Pause" (the latter reaching No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100) were created specifically for Zumba routines. On July 28, fellow workout favorite Daddy Yankee will perform his Zumba hit, "Hula Hoop," at the company's annual convention in Orlando, Fla. The songs now soundtrack an untold number of routines uploaded to YouTube, providing a promotional platform for the song and program, and a headache for the creators.

"We calculate that on YouTube there are 7 million videos with 7 trillion views of user-generated Zumba content that has nothing to do with us," says Perlman. "We think YouTube should pay us, but there are fair-use issues."

Now the company, which houses 250 employees at its Miami headquarters, is doubling down on its Strong by Zumba fitness program, which incorporates music into already-established routines in a kind of reverse choreography. Launched in 2016 with music from Timbaland, Strong will now premiere music from its latest partner, Steve Aoki, in hopes of diversifying its demo and reach beyond Latin dance fans.

"We thrive because Zumba is like water," says Perlman. "It goes everywhere."

Zumba has been a fitness company for over 15 years. When did you ­realize you were also a music company?

Perlman: When Pitbull came to our office in 2010. Ted Nugent's wife -- she's a Zumba instructor -- went up to him at the airport and said, "Thank you for 'Calle Ocho.' " Pitbull came to us and said, "You guys are the radio station of the future. People are dancing to my music in your classes, and they can't change the station."

How do you choose the songs?

Perez: First of all, I need to love the song. If the song doesn't work for Zumba, we don't do it, even if it's a famous artist. It needs to be catchy. It's not about speed, it's about happiness, celebration, party. Zumba music director Sergio Minski gives me 500 songs, and we whittle it down to 13 that I think make the perfect class. Sometimes I test a song in class and it doesn't work. Sometimes we hear a song and we say, "This song is created for us."

Perlman: We give instructors three types of music: original music that our producers create; discovery tracks, as in "You should listen to this new artist"; and famous music. A remix also works really well. With "Despacito," we didn't [give] it to the instructors; the instructors picked it up. So we went to Universal and they said, "We have an exclusive remix -- the salsa version -- for you." And we're increasingly getting songs before they're released.

Do you make money from the plays you generate?

Perlman: No. We license the song at a good rate because the labels now know [the value we bring]. And we have different rates for different artists; if the artist is little known, they usually come and say to us, "Take my song with no fee."

So how do you make money?

Perlman: It's hard to be able to pay for music if you're just doing fitness DVDs; you won't be able to make the investments we make. We have instructors all over the world paying for this content. There are official and unofficial routines. But you have to be an official Zumba instructor to have the right to teach a Zumba class and have access to all the tracks and choreos.

Perez: If you want to create good music for a fitness program, you need to spend money.

Strong by Zumba launched a year ago, and you already have 25,000 instructors. But the musical concept is completely different from Zumba.

Perez: We always create choreography with something that exists. I said, "This time, we'll do the routine and the musician will create music for my routine."

Perlman: Every song is a world. You have to match every move; we sit for three days creating one track. Each class consists of 75 percent original music and 25 percent licenses. Sometimes we find a song with the right structure, like "Freaks" by Timmy Trumpet and Savage. We licensed it and added accents for the workout.

What is Steve Aoki's role?

Perlman: We sent him the choreography, and he's doing a five-minute track. We'll promote across our channels, and he'll ­promote as well. In October, we'll do an experience with a class and have him there.

Since these are songs you ­commission, how are the deals structured?

Perlman: Every deal is different. ­Sometimes there are complete buyouts. A big artist usually keeps their publishing and we get the right to release and exploit the song; sometimes the label gets a piece. We're trying to do something special with music in the fitness world. I think Steve Aoki is excited about the concept, and the label is excited, too. Same with Timbaland. He was the first artist to do a track with Strong. He said, "This is a challenge, and I think fitness is the future."

Perez: For musicians and producers, it's a new way to make music; we give them a guide. Their creativity matrix is amazing.

What about streaming. Will that encroach on your turf?

Perez: With Strong, we wanted to create a program that couldn’t be copied. Because we’re the owners of the music, no one can use it for something else. You like the program? Let’s see you try and do it with your own music. One of the toughest things about Strong is making music designed for the program but that you can also enjoy in your car. That’s the trick. 

One could argue Zumba worked because of the danceability of the music. What will make Strong work?   

Perlamn: We want to get as big as Zumba. We want to have massive workout sessions. It’s like the Rocky movie where the music highlights the training scene. It makes you want to work out. 

Perez:  15 years ago was the perfect moment for Zumba. Ricky Martin opened the MTV Awards, Jennifer Lopez sang in English. It was the boom of the Latin movement. It was cool. At that moment Latin music was new for the rest of the world, and we were there. Now, the moment is fusion. Now we have flexibility, a huge library of sounds. I play with all that. With Timbaland, we took two bass lines he did and added a cumbia. It sounds amazing. 

Why doesn’t Strong use Latin music? 

Perez: It can be Latin but I need to think more global. When I’m training I like to hear electronic music. I need a special sound, a special bass, a special beat. 

Perlman: Electronic music is perfecto for repeat sequences. 

We want to attract different artists and producers, like Krewella. They want to showcase their music and we want great music to showcase. 

What is the Strong business model?

Perlman: It's democratic, like Zumba. You could be in Cypress and take a Zumba class in a little hut. For us, fitness is inclusive and you can do it anywhere. We already have 10,000 Strong classes happening in Thailand, in Argentina.

Perez: In my studio, I've had Naomi Campbell take a class next to my ­housekeeper. Rich, poor, all races can do Zumba. I was in Israel, and it was amazing to see everyone -- old, young, Palestinians, Jews -- dancing and smiling. I'm happy it can help bring a little peace to the world.

This article originally appeared in the August 5 issue of Billboard.