The Story Behind Regional Mexican’s Global Growth
How a new generation of artists is selling out arenas, drawing the attention of collaborators like Bad Bunny and Snoop Dogg, and connecting with listeners around the world.
On July 30, a band took the stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the first time in more than 16 months. The crowd of 12,500 roared with joy as the charismatic frontman of the group they had come to see grabbed beers from fans at the front of the stage, then chased them with tequila shots from his own bottle onstage. You might have thought you’d left lockdown and landed in a Guns N’ Roses or Post Malone show, except instead of electric guitar there were trumpet solos and a tuba was pumping the bass. The stomping music driving this frenzy was the accordion- and horn-inflected banda and norteño of Grupo Firme, a regional Mexican septet from Tijuana that has rocketed to stardom over the past year.
Grupo Firme’s first U.S. show was in February 2019, at a nightclub in San Diego where 40 people showed up. “We thought only our family had come to see us,” says Isael Gutiérrez, the band’s manager and CEO of its independent label, Music VIP. But the group’s July 30 Staples Center show was its first of seven consecutive nights at the arena — the only artist who has done more nights there in one calendar year is Adele, with eight.
That opening night saw Grupo Firme frontman Eduin Caz celebrating his 27th birthday in a beer-soaked scene that could have come from one of the band’s videos. Young fans have embraced Grupo Firme’s party-hard attitude, as well as the act’s TikToks, which often feature Caz and his older brother Jhonny, who also sings in Grupo Firme, lip-syncing or executing TikTok dances. In one recent viral video, the band is onstage with the crowd behind it while Jawsh 685’s “Laxed (Siren Beat)” plays and the whole group does the hip-swaying dance that helped make that song a hit in June 2020. Recorded at a concert in Texas, it has over 2.2 million views.
Grupo Firme’s success is the leading edge of a new wave of regional Mexican music that sees a sound that has dominated Latin music in North America — regional Mexican remains a dominant Latin radio format in the United States, with 150 stations reporting to Nielsen BDS — extending its reach both geographically and artistically. The music is connecting outside of Mexico and the southeastern United States, long its strongholds, and attracting the attention of urbano artists who did not grow up with it. In the past two years, reggaetón stars like Bad Bunny and Karol G have both embraced acoustic corrido ballads and Snoop Dogg has recorded with Banda MS, known for its horn-drenched heart-wrenching songs of heartbreak. According to MRC Data, last year regional Mexican on-demand audio streams rose 29.9% — the biggest jump since 2016 — while in 2019, overall on-demand streams (video and audio) saw a 35% rise. To date this year on YouTube, Grupo Firme’s songs have garnered 1.2 billion views, and the group recently held three spots on YouTube’s U.S. Top Songs chart. “They’re sitting next to artists like Cardi B, Travis Scott and Dua Lipa,” says Kevin Meenan, music trends manager at YouTube. “Regional Mexican is ready to be as big as any other global genre.”
Part of what’s driving that growth is a new generation of performers who have brought new textures to a music that for decades has been the tradition-based sound of home for nearly 40 million Mexican Americans living in the United States. Regional Mexican is an umbrella term that encompasses Mexican folk genres such as mariachi, corridos, norteño and banda, among many others, with each of the subgenres representative of different regions of Mexico that reflect the country’s diverse culture. With legacy acts such as Vicente Fernández, Los Tigres del Norte, Jenni Rivera and Joan Sebastian, the genre was once defined by — and maybe confined by — its roots. But in 2019, when Bad Bunny jumped on a remix of Natanael Cano’s “Soy El Diablo,” it put a spotlight on trap corridos, a fusion of traditional Mexican guitar sounds with trap beats. This year, Christian Nodal — known for his mariacheño mix of mariachi and norteño — teamed up with Mexican rapper Gera MX for the drinking-your-way-through-a-breakup anthem “Botella Tras Botella” (Bottle After Bottle), a country-tinged, acoustic ranchera with hip-hop beats. In May, “Botella Tras Botella” debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and made history as the first regional Mexican title to chart on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, where it reached No. 60.
“For many years, Mexican music was just banda, norteño and mariachi,” says Jimmy Humilde, CEO of indie label Rancho Humilde, home to urban corrido artists such as Cano and Junior H. “Artists weren’t experimenting with different sounds. It felt like we were stuck. But now the new generation is willing to explore with different sounds, and it appeals to a wider and more international audience.”
Sometimes those different sounds are subtle. Teenage brothers Pedro and Brian Tovar of Mexican American duo Eslabon Armado have placed all bets on the nascent, sad sierreño subgenre, melodic tunes powered by a requinto or bajo sexto in addition to an electric bass for a contemporary twist. Eslabon Armado has placed four albums in the top 10 of Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart in less than 13 months. The latest, Tu Veneno Mortal, Vol. 2, entered the chart at No. 5 and has earned 44.8 million on-demand streams in the United States, according to MRC Data.
But when Pedro Tovar spoke with Billboard last year, it wasn’t Eslabon Armado’s chart success he was most excited about — it was the way the group’s music was being embraced by audiences outside the United States and Mexico. “The other day I was doing a live chat on social media and people from Colombia, Venezuela and Central America were connecting saying that they listen to our music,” he said.
Social and streaming are also key factors driving the growth of regional Mexican. “Technology has made it easier for this new generation [of fans] to consume new music constantly,” says Angel del Villar, founder/CEO of DEL Records, Eslabon Armado’s Los Angeles-based label. “Millennials are always on their phones, on social media and on digital platforms.”
At Spotify, “regional Mexican’s share of listening has grown in the past year 10.4% at a global level,” says Antonio Vázquez, the digital service provider’s U.S. Latin editorial lead. “In the last year, an average of over 34 million people streamed at least one regional Mexican track per month on Spotify. The new sounds of regional Mexican such as corridos tumbados, mariacheño, mariachi pop and sad sierreño have been a big part responsible for breaking down these barriers.”
Some of those barriers are geographic, with regional Mexican crossing out of North America for global success. On YouTube, Christian Nodal and Gera MX’s “Botella Tras Botella” was No. 1 in nine Latin American markets, including Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador and Honduras, and it topped YouTube’s Global Top Songs chart — the first-ever regional Mexican track to do so. “There are no limits to the genre anymore,” says YouTube’s Andrea Barbosa, content partnerships manager for Latin America.
That has meant more collaborations with artists outside the genre, who recognize the growing power of regional Mexican. The Colombian singer Karol G teamed up with rising singer-songwriter Danny Felix for her corrido anthem “200 Copas,” and Chilean singer Mon Laferte pays homage to the corrido tumbado sound on “No Lo Vi Venir.” Meanwhile, Camilo teamed up with norteño duo Los Dos Carnales for a more traditional track titled “Tuyo y Mío,” featured on the Colombian singer’s Mis Manos. And Spanish artist C. Tangana wrote a corrido for his El Madrileño album, “Cambia,” tapping regional Mexican acts Adriel Favela and Carin León to help bring it to life.
In Tangana’s hometown of Madrid, radio station Kandela Te Prende recently changed formats, switching from all vallenatos (a Colombian folk style) to a more inclusive playlist of other Latin genres, in particular regional Mexican. “I started working at Kandela when I moved to Spain from Colombia over a year ago, and I proposed a change in our station’s DNA,” says Harold Acosta, artistic director at Kandela. “I thought, ‘Why are we not playing regional Mexican given the phenomenon that it has become?’ I worked at radio stations in Colombia where I witnessed the regional Mexican explosion there around 2015. Here we have many people migrating from Central America and Mexico where regional Mexican music is a reality.” In fact, Spain now has a Mexican community of 57,000, the third-largest in the world after Mexico and the United States. “So, let’s give them what they want to hear.”
While the music itself is gaining in Spain and elsewhere, global touring remains a dream for most regional Mexican acts. The live circuit is mostly local and rural, limited to the United States and Mexico, and Eddie Orjuela, the Nederlander Concerts promoter behind Grupo Firme’s run at the Staples Center, says that group’s jump to arena dates is the exception to the rule. The path to bigger venues is step by step: “The more organic way of developing an artist in regional Mexican is you go through the ranks: You start playing radio festivals to get exposure, then a nightclub. From there you do a [three- to four-act] lineup in a bigger venue. It’s what could maintain the artist in the long run.”
But there’s the hope that Grupo Firme’s seven nights at Staples Center will open doors for regional Mexican artists, or simply raise the stakes. “The industry needed a major boost like this to inspire the new generation of regional Mexican acts,” says Gutiérrez. “In Grupo Firme, I see a Latin, Spanish-speaking group that plays traditional regional Mexican music and that is liked by many people in different Latin American countries. It’s incredible. Our genre is no longer limiting.”