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Reggaeton fuels Latin music boom despite lack of award recognition

The rise of music streaming services and reggaeton’s growing mainstream appeal have contributed greatly to the renaissance of the Latin music industry.
19th Latin Grammy Awards- Show - Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
Ozuna performs "Farsante and Unica" at the 19th Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas on Nov. 15, 2018.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters file

As fans around the globe have shown, Latin urban music is here to stay. But it's not always obvious from the roster at the big mainstream award shows.

For Billboard’s Leila Cobo, that's a reason to make sure the 2019 Latin Music Billboard awards, set to air on April 25, puts a spotlight on artists like Ozuna, J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Anuel AA and the many others who have given Latin music the boost it needed.

“We have an industry that really has finally taken off after years of not doing well, and so now, more than ever, it's important to continue to support it,” Cobo, vice president of Latin content and programming for Billboard, told NBC News.

The U.S. Latin music business has seen significant and steady growth. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, known as RIAA, Latin music finished 2018 with $413 million in revenues, from $243 million in 2017 and $178 million in 2016.

Consumer demand for Latin music has been steadily growing since 2014 after hits like “Bailando” from Enrique Iglesias and “El Perdón” from Nicky Jam reached huge mainstream success. Reggaeton artists like Maluma and J Balvin kept the momentum going until 2017 when “Despacito” — a world hit from Puerto Rican musicians Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankeeessentially broke all charts and became the most streamed song in music history just six months after its release.

Kevin Carson, senior vice president of global artists and industry relations at Smule, an online music social network where people can sing to their favorite songs alongside the singers, told NBC News that “the song really blew up across the world” after Fonsi covered it for the platform.

“It's safe to say that probably over half our performances happen in non-Latin countries. I mean it's Eastern Europe, it's Australia, it's Asia, like it's crazy,” said Carson about the appeal of Latin songs within Smule.

He was getting ready to launch their version of “Calma (Remix)” with Puerto Rican singers Pedro Capó and Farruko. The song topped Billboard’s Latin Pop Songs and Latin Airplay charts this month and it’s on track to reach a billion views on YouTube. Both singers recently teamed up with Grammy-winning artist Alicia Keys to release a bilingual version of the song.

“Latin music really is crossing over," Carson said. "It's not just people in Latin markets singing it. It's here in the U.S. market, it's in global markets and other places."

Both the rise of streaming services, like Spotify, YouTube and others, as well as reggaeton’s mainstream appeal have contributed greatly to the Latin music renaissance.

"So there's the streaming, which puts it in the forefront. But I think reggaeton had a lot to do with it because reggaeton is danceable and it's a very universal and global beat,” said Cobo.

“When you hear reggaeton in France, you can dance to it. You hear reggaeton in Australia, you can dance to it anywhere," she added. "So it was a mix of streaming and of having music that was very easy to digest.”

In 2018, streaming services accounted for 93 percent of all Latin music revenues, with paid subscription services fueling most of the growth. At the same time, reggaeton artists like Bad Bunny, Ozuna, J Balvin and others dominated music charts and globally.

The three Latin urban artists finished 2018 as part of Spotify’s top 10 most streamed artists worldwide.

Ozuna surpassed Justin Bieber’s record in 2019 as the artist with the most YouTube videos with over 1 billion views after finishing 2018 as YouTube’s most viewed artist in the world. The Puerto Rican-Dominican reggaeton Latin trap artist now dominates the list of finalists for the 2019 Billboard Latin Music Awards with 23 nominations across 15 different categories — a record.

Female urban artists such as Anitta, Becky G, Karol G and Natti Natasha have also forged their own space in the male-dominated genre over the past couple of years.

What about the español?

Most Latin artists have been able to cross over into music markets in the U.S. and other countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia by singing in Spanish.

While Spanish-language music has not been an obstacle to catapulting reggaeton into the mainstream and fueling Latin music's consumption growth globally, Cobo said she thinks “some people are still very reticent about Spanish” when it comes to recognizing Latin music in big awards shows like the Grammys.

The Cuban-American singer Camila Cabello made history during the 2019 Grammys as the first Latina to open the awards ceremony with a Latino-themed performance of her English-language hit "Havana." Bronx-born rapper Cardi B, who is of Dominican and Trinidadian descent, became the first solo female artist to win Best Rap Album. However, nominations and wins weren’t fully representative of the Latin music boom that has percolated into the mainstream music industry.

“I think they have a problem with it and think it still sounds foreign to them,” Cobo said of Latin music. “It is music in another language, I understand that … but by virtue of representation, the fact that Latins are more than 16 percent of the population, I wish that there was Latin music in every award show."

"I'm not saying the whole show," Cobo added, " but I think that having one Latin song or Latin representation in every award show should be like a given.”

The lack of mainstream awards recognition has fostered several events focusing on different Latin music genres, especially reggaeton.

The first edition of “Premios Tu Música Urbano,” which awards reggaeton and Latin urban artists, took place in Puerto Rico last month, and old school and new reggaeton artists came together to recognize musical contributions. The award show’s producers and Telemundo Puerto Rico decided to do a second edition of the “Premios” in 2020 after tens of millions of viewers from 52 countries tuned in this year.

The Billboard Latin Music Awards, which will air on Telemundo (Telemundo and NBC News are part of Comcast-NBCUniversal) will honor several entertainers such as Marc Anthony, Carlos Vives and Juan Luis Guerra, who will get a lifetime achievement award, as well as younger artists like Becky G and Nicky Jam.

“Certain kinds of Latin music have demonstrated to be very appealing, and those are going to continue,” Cobo said. "I don't see it fading away."