This story is part of Billboard’s third annual package spotlighting the trends defining the independent music business.
Within latin music, sales of regional Mexican repertoire as of Sept. 30 (including video streams) may still fall behind pop and urban, according to MRC Data, but they have risen 21% compared with last year — more than any other subgenre.
Independent labels have always played a large role in launching regional Mexican artists: Musart backed Paquita la del Barrio and Pepe Aguilar early in his career; Jenni and Lupillo Rivera were initially signed to their father’s indie, Cintas Acuario; and Fonovisa grew to become the genre’s largest label before it was purchased by Univision and, later, Universal in 2008. But in the past five years, a new crop of indies has risen to prominence approaching the business with a digital-first mentality.
Last year, seven of Billboard’s top 10 regional Mexican tracks were by artists like Natanael Cano, El Fantasma and Lenin Ramírez — all of whom are independent, signed to labels including Rancho Humilde Records, Afinarte and Del Records. So far in 2021, the same statistic applies, only now it features Grupo Firme and Carin León’s smash “El Tóxico” (on Tamarindo Rekordsz) and Eslabon Armado, a teenage trio known for guitar-driven, emotional songs (also signed to Del Records) that has topped Billboard’s Regional Mexican Albums chart four times in just over a year.
“There’s a range of indie labels right now, and we’re all doing very well,” says Ángel del Villar, who founded California-based indie Del Records in 2008. “The big difference between 13 years ago and today is the internet — otherwise, this would have been impossible. YouTube, Instagram, TikTok — all that is big for us.”
Jimmy Humilde, who founded Rancho Humilde in 2011, agrees: Because his client Cano “is [hardly] played on radio,” he relies on platforms like YouTube for promotion. “I swear, I begged [radio programmers],” he says, “but I’m proud of the fact that rejection made me look for alternatives, and that’s when I started to mine social media.”
YouTube music trends manager Kevin Meenan says regional Mexican music has experienced a surge in interest on the platform in the past year. Rancho Humilde’s YouTube channel in particular has been “critical to this story,” says Meenan, earning over 5 million subscriptions and 3.3 billion views since its launch.
In 2012, Javier “El Tamarindo” González, a former Acura auto technician in Austin, launched his Tamarindo Rekordsz as an offshoot of his hobby as a YouTube blogger-influencer. He had $12,000 in the bank at the time, most of which went toward securing a work visa for his first signee, Remmy Valenzuela. Now, in September, the label earned its second No. 1 hit on the Regional Mexican Airplay chart with Grupo Firme’s “El Tóxico,” featuring labelmate León.
“I knew how to expose an artist — I just didn’t know all the things behind the business, so I learned,” says González. “The hardest thing as an independent is to be seen — by the big brands, the big awards — but with the way social media is now, you can’t ignore talent that’s so good and so authentic.”
Even so, Germán Chávez, who in 2012 launched Remex Records (and whose father, Domingo Chávez, founded Disa Records in 1970, the powerful Mexican independent label that in the early 2000s grew to nearly 10% of U.S. market share), believes that when it comes to being seen, major labels are the ones falling behind.
“The majors still don’t fully understand the Mexican [music] market,” says Chávez. “That’s why there are so many independent Mexican labels. [The majors] are good at following up, but they don’t understand how to develop artists from scratch. Signing an artist, fighting to build them up from zero, that’s what we do.”
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2021, issue of Billboard.