How Puerto Rico’s Music Turned the Small Island Into a Global Force
Executives discuss how artists, including Bad Bunny, have led the territory to hold such a big influence in the industry.
When Bad Bunny picked up his best música urbana album award at the Grammys in February, he dedicated his win to “Puerto Rico, the cradle and the capital of reggaetón worldwide.” The superstar wasn’t grandstanding. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is tiny. According to the most recent U.S. Census, there are a mere 3.2 million people on an island that measures 111 miles by 39 miles, roughly one-third the size of neighboring Haiti and one-fifth the size of the Dominican Republic. When it comes to music, however, Puerto Rico is a global giant — and not solely because of Bad Bunny’s record-breaking achievements over the past three years.
“Puerto Rico has been one of the main exporters of music for decades now,” says Paco López, founder and president of concert promoter No Limit Entertainment. “We’re very small in terms of territory, but very big in talent.”
Puerto Rico’s outsize influence can be found throughout Latin music history in the works of Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Ricky Martín, Elvis Crespo, Marc Anthony and Jennifer López, as well as the current wave of urban music. Although reggaetón originated in Panama, it became globally popular thanks to Puerto Rican acts such as Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Wisin y Yandel and Don Omar, and has reached new heights thanks to newcomers like Bad Bunny and Rauw Alejandro.
That impact on the music industry is not limited to artists. Puerto Rico is home base for a growing number of recording studios, independent labels and concert venues that are supported by the growing number of music schools, educational initiatives and government incentives that keep the industry on the island evolving.
Between November 2021 and October 2022, the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot alone grossed more than $40 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. And according to ASM Global regional GM Jorge Pérez, who oversees the fabled venue, the island’s live-entertainment industry created 30,000 jobs and generated $2 billion annually over the past two years. In that time, Puerto Rico also began hosting major televised shows, including Premios Tu Música Urbano (Telemundo), Premios Juventud (Univision) and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, that were broadcast from the territory. (Billboard parent company Penske Media Corp. partially acquired dick clark productions in January.)
Billboard spoke with 14 Puerto Rican industry leaders about the present and the future of the world’s most musical island. -LEILA COBO
Rimas Entertainment head label manager Raymond Acosta says the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot is a local treasure that hosts at least one show a week. The venue (known locally as “El Choli”) has become the island’s most iconic venue, with elite acts including Rimas artists Bad Bunny and Arcángel performing sold-out runs there. The venue is “a synonym for prestige for local acts who work day to day to give the Puerto Rican audience a groundbreaking show,” says the executive, who works under Bad Bunny manager Noah Assad. Acosta also points to the island’s ever-evolving use of technology as a factor in its growing global impact, stating, “We have been improving our skills around the music-creating process and learned how to translate our culture and traditions into music.”
‘Hotbed Of Artistic Creativity’
LaMusica vp of content development Bianca Alarcon, who says the island’s global influence is undeniable, describes Puerto Rico as a “hotbed of artistic creativity. … If there’s one thing Puerto Rico knows how to do best, it’s to create and evolve a genre of music and make it universally successful. It happened back in the ’50s and ’60s with the Cuban mambo, the boogaloo, the cha-cha-cha and Latin jazz, which Puerto Rican artists then morphed into what became known as salsa. Ditto with reggaetón. The Panamanians invented the sound, and the Puerto Ricans tweaked it and ignited it at a global level.”
What’s Next for Puerto Rico?: “Female artists are also getting some serious traction, which makes me super enthusiastic,” says Alarcon. “Artists like Young Miko, Villano Antillano, Catalina, Cory, paopao and RaiNao are killing it and creating some nifty collaborations in the process. ¡Gracias al canto de la isla del encanto!”
It’s Not Just The Artists
According to Duars Entertainment founder/CEO Eric Duars, the star power emanating from Puerto Rico would not have happened without the executives who guide artists to success, such as managers Raphy Pina and Noah Assad, who launched the careers of chart-topping acts Daddy Yankee and Bad Bunny, respectively. “The global industry must know that the talent in Puerto Rico is not limited to the artists,” says Duars, who knows the territory well. He manages Puerto Rican star Rauw Alejandro, whose Saturno peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart in November. Duars adds, “We have a range of behind-the-scenes talents that have been just as relevant when it comes to developing new artists and launching them worldwide.”
Ties To The Mainland
The fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory means it’s a “friendly” destination that shares the same currency and passport requirements as the 50 states, says José “Pepe” Dueño, president of concert promoter José Dueño Entertainment Group. Located just over two hours from Miami by plane, “Puerto Rico has been the vacation/concert destination for many international acts, such as The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Billy Joel, Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Maroon 5 and AC/DC,” Dueño says. He adds that “with the social media revolution, fans all over Puerto Rico are connected with a wider variety of global talent. Puerto Rico is a friendly destination for young artists as well as for those megastars.”
Artists For The History Books
Puerto Rico’s vibrant music scene is growing faster than ever thanks to digital advances and streaming platforms, according to Nanette Lamboy, CEO of marketing agency Artist Solutions. “We have top Puerto Rican superstars proudly representing the island all over the world,” she says, as well as writing their names in the pages of popular music and political history. In 2019, several musicians, including Ricky Martín, Bad Bunny and Residente, spearheaded anti-government protests after politically damning chats between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his staff leaked, resulting in Rosselló’s resignation.
Decades Of Puerto Rican Excellence
“When you talk about music, you need to talk about Puerto Rico,” says No Limit Entertainment’s López. He explains that the path for the latest generation of stars was paved by Menudo in the 1980s and by salsa stars and merengue artists like Elvis Crespo and Olga Tañón in the 1990s. “By the end of the 1990s, Ricky Martín and his ‘Livin’ la Vida Loca’ and ‘The Cup of Life’ made it to the World Cup and also got the audience on its feet at the 1999 Grammy Awards,” López says. As a result, the popularity of Puerto Rican artists and music has spread throughout Latin America and Europe, with a big boost from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” in 2017. And “today, we boast the No. 1 artist in the world, Bad Bunny, who leads both streaming and touring artists.”
What’s Next for Puerto Rico?: “I heard from an indie impresario who wants to create traveling music studios in trucks and take them to housing projects and poorer neighborhoods to give young people with few resources the opportunity to display their talent,” says López. “If he’s able to pull this off, young people with scarce resources would be able to experience being in a music studio and recording their own music.”
Investing In New Talent
“We have demonstrated [the] fact that we are a very important place to develop talent,” says Andres Martinez, who manages Yandel and co-founded Jak Entertainment, of his native Puerto Rico. He praises the region’s Act 20 Decree of 2012 as a factor for helping boost the industry as a whole. The decree offers tax incentives for Puerto Rican companies to export their services, resulting in an estimated $210 million as of 2019 in added fiscal revenue, according to the Puerto Rican government. Many in the industry — including performers, producers, promoters and other executives — “have developed a financial organization chart around the law” to help fund projects and invest in talent, says Martinez.
Still The Reggaetón Kingmaker
According to Molusco, a TV, radio and YouTube host, Puerto Ricans aren’t concerned that the reggaetón popularized by Don Omar and Daddy Yankee is being effectively re-created in other countries. After all, the genre’s artists still have to “get their due” on the island and play iconic venues like Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot. “The genre evolved in Puerto Rico, but it was so big, and Puerto Rican artists so inspired artists from other countries that today, they do it everywhere and very successfully,” he says. But “once you make it in Puerto Rico, it’s like a seal of approval.”
What’s Next for Puerto Rico?: “There are thousands of opportunities in Puerto Rico at any given time,” Molusco says. “There are producers like Gaby Music and Chris Jedi who have built their recording and video studios for artists from Puerto Rico and outside artists who come to record here. We have tons of producers and composers on the island. We’re a hotbed of talent in every sense of the word.”
Just The Beginning
Puerto Rico “still has a lot to show,” according to La Buena Fortuna Global CEO Nelson “Polo” Montalvo. Thanks to the variety of music produced on the island, the amount of “per capita” talent across the music industry and its astonishing filming locations, Puerto Rico “could very well be a music-creation and distribution hub, sort of a one-stop shop,” he suggests. Key to this development, he says, is the next generation of emerging music executives and entrepreneurs. “There is a unique group of industry leaders coming out of this small Caribbean island who are changing the landscape of the music business industry,” Montalvo says. “New, creative ways of doing business are being developed from here.”
What’s Next for Puerto Rico?: “As an artist, I would say [rapper and Billboard Latin Artist on the Rise] Villano Antillano is the most promising rising talent right now out on the island,” Montalvo says. “She has broken and redefined, or just plainly thrown all rules out the window, thus changing the music industry landscape and opening doors for many new, creatively different, out-of-the-box artists. This is a new world of possibilities.”
80 Years Of Understanding
Nevarez Communications owner Mayna Nevarez says the global success of the music of Puerto Rico began over 80 years ago with Rafael Hernández’s 1937 triumph “Lamento Borincano” and World War II classic “Mi Viejo San Juan” by Noel Estrada. She attributes the island’s cultural success to Puerto Ricans’ understanding of the Latino market and the “incredible influence” from the English-speaking market. In recent years, Nevarez has seen independent labels reemerge and more Gen Z and millennial women lead important projects globally in the industry. Financial incentives that the island offers are also attracting more film and TV crews, she says, and opening doors for the local talent, as well as the recent transmission of live events from Puerto Rico, including the first Spanish countdown for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve last year.
Island Of Gold
Carlos Ortiz Rivera (known professionally as Chris Jedi), co-founder/producer of record label La Familia, is passionate about supporting the talent emerging from Puerto Rico, especially female artists. “It has been a long time since we’ve had a female superstar from Puerto Rico. We’re looking for that,” he says. And despite the global success of Bad Bunny and other Puerto Rican artists over the last few years, Jedi contends that the local music business remains underappreciated on the world stage. “Puerto Rico is the key piece. We are the influence and the guide to follow,” he says. “It’s an island where gold comes out all the time.”
‘Large And Significant Impact’
Following Bad Bunny’s historic successes in 2022, ASM Global regional GM Jorge L. Perez says Puerto Rico is “producing a slew of promising newcomers projected to have worldwide reach in the next 12 to 24 months,” including Mora, Eladio Carrión and Young Miko. The Coliseo is a growing worldwide presence with 60% non-Puerto Rican performers and roughly 100,000 fans from outside the island gracing the venue in 2022, according to Perez. With the addition of the recently opened entertainment complex Distrito T-Mobile managed by ASM Global, “our aim is to use our venues in Puerto Rico to increase hotel occupancy through world-class live events” to increase the average length of stay which is currently just under three days, Perez says. “Every additional day will have an economic impact of $750 million for our island.”
Demand Keeps Growing
Puerto Rico’s cultural impact on a global scale is undeniable, and the growing demand for its artists and regional genres like reggaetón and Latin trap continues to boom, says Omar “Omi” Rivera, founder and talent manager at Omi Management (Arcángel). The industry infrastructure (in a region that has more music studios than schools) widely supports its local talent and vibrant music scene, “making it a hub for music production and an incubator for emerging new artists,” he adds. In turn, this has drawn the attention of international awards shows like Premios Juventud and Premios Tu Música Urbano. The exponential growth of music from the island in recent years has led to “the rise of new artists from [Puerto Rico] and other Spanish-speaking countries, creating opportunities for the local music industry to expand and reach new audiences [while] attracting more investment [in] and attention to the island’s local scene.”
Not An Overnight Success
With a career trajectory that spans over 20 years, José “Pompi” Vallejo, co-founder of global live-entertainment, marketing and media company Mr. and Mrs. Entertainment, says the Puerto Rican music industry has worked nonstop for the global recognition it has today. But now, there are more “high-caliber professionals” in entertainment thanks to new university courses and the aid provided by the island’s Department of Economic Development to creative industries and entrepreneurs. “As a professor at one of the universities that offer these courses,” he says, “I have been able to see firsthand that the best is yet to come, not only in the music creation but also in the technical part that every artist needs on their team and that’s so important in the success of a project.”
This story originally appeared in the March 11, 2023, issue of Billboard.