The Loud and Quiet Explosions

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

Pretty much everyone in the U.S. music industry agrees: Something extraordinary happened this year with respect to Latino artists and the nation’s mainstream pop charts.

Artists of Latino heritage held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard magazine singles chart for 27 weeks with songs in English. That’s 27 more weeks than last year.

Before that in the ‘90s, only “Macarena” by Los del Rio made the top spot. In fact, no other year in the 41-year history of the Billboard singles chart has seen so many Latinos hold the No. 1 spot for so long.


On the album charts, Latinos were also prominent, with two (Ricky Martin and Santana) finishing in the Top 10 and two others (Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez) in the Top 35. Their collections alone generated more than an estimated $123 million in retail sales.

This seemingly sudden emergence of pop stars of Latino heritage led mainstream media outlets to declare 1999 the year of the “Latin explosion” in U.S. pop music.

But was it?

The answer is yes, but not because of pop hits by Martin, Lopez, Santana, Aguilera, Marc Anthony or Enrique Iglesias.

For an album to be considered “Latin” by the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the lyrics must be 51% or more in Spanish. Therefore, none of the mainstream albums or singles by the artists listed above were technically “Latin.”

That said, there was a genuine “Latin explosion” in 1999--but most in the U.S. didn’t hear about it. That’s because this Latin explosion happened in Spanish, just as it did the year before, and the year before that.

Latin music--music sung in Spanish in any genre--has been growing at a phenomenal pace in the U.S. for several years, and continued to be the fastest-growing segment of the domestic market this year, according to RIAA.


Midyear Latin-music shipping statistics compiled by the RIAA this year showed 12% growth over the same period in 1998, giving Latin music a 4.9% share of the multibillion-dollar domestic music industry. This incredible growth did not reflect sales of English-language pop music or so-called crossover releases by artists listed above.

The real U.S. Latin explosion of 1999 was led by artists such as Conjunto Primavera, Elvis Crespo, Alejandro Fernandez, Los Tigres del Norte, Charlie Zaa, Los Angeles Azules, Bronco and Marco Antonio Solis--all of whom were certified gold in the U.S. by the RIAA this year, meaning they’ve sold in excess of 500,000 copies of an album here. (Zaa went platinum, with sales in excess of 1 million.)

Both the Latin explosion (in Spanish) and the Latino explosion (in English) this year are the direct result of a Latino demographic explosion in the U.S. that has been building since the 1970s.

By 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the nation’s Latino population at 22 million, a number equal to the entire U.S. population in 1850. Latinos now number an estimated 31 million and are expected to reach 81 million in the next 50 years.

For population reasons alone, no one in the music industry dares categorize either the emergence of Latinos in English pop or the growth of music in Spanish as passing trends.

“I think the general perception in the industry is 1/8Latinos 3/8 are a big part of the cultural paintbrush of our country, and it’s here to stay and it’s going to affect everything from now on,” says Ron Fair, vice president for artists and repertoire at RCA Records and the man who signed Aguilera.

Joe Trevino, vice president of Hollywood Records Latin, agrees. “Its not a fad,” he says. “It’s what we’ve evolved to as a nation.”

These two parallel and intertwined Latino musical worlds, one in English and one in Spanish, are symbolic of the diversity of the U.S. Latino population, which is as likely to buy music in English as in Spanish, and have the music industry scrambling to make sense of an ethnic group it thought it understood, but probably didn’t.

Until this year, the major labels had tried to target U.S. Latinos almost exclusively with Spanish-language music--probably a mistake considering that 75% of them were born and raised in the U.S., according to census figures.

For decades, U.S.-born artists such as Selena have had to record in Spanish for a label’s “Latin” division before being taken seriously in English. Art Brambila, owner of East L.A.’s Brown Bag Records label, says he is often referred by major labels to their Latin divisions when seeking distribution deals, even though 90% of Brown Bag’s music is in English.


That may be changing now. After this unprecedented year, most labels are actively seeking Latino stars for the mainstream English market, with several set to emerge next year. Miami-based producer-songwriter Rudy Perez says the industry has only now realized there is a huge market for English hits by Latinos.

“It’s a totally virgin market, if you can believe that exists in the U.S.,” says Perez, who has been asked by several major labels to help find bilingual and bicultural artists such as Martin. “Believe me, I work with all these label presidents. And right now? They know this is what it’s all about now.”

Says Los Angeles-based producer K.C. Porter, who has worked with Martin and Santana: “I can now walk into the office of the head of a major label and he will immediately make an offer to me to start a label, where before I had to educate them about the market.”

Publicists such as Diana Baron of D. Baron Media, which represents several Latin and Latino artists, say their job has also gotten easier. “The Anglo media are certainly more willing to at least consider stories on these artists now,” Baron says.

But if there is a downside in this industrial awakening, it may be that those artists who sing only in Spanish will now be overlooked in favor of bilingual-bicultural artists, say Fair and Perez.

By the same token, those Latino artists who perform only in English will still be expected to record in Spanish, whether they speak the language or not. It has already happened. RCA recently released “Genio Atrapado,” Aguilera’s Spanish version of her hit “Genie in a Bottle.” The singer speaks little Spanish, yet is now working on a full Spanish album.

Heads of Latin labels, such as EMI Latin head Jose Behar, say they don’t plan to change their approach to the Spanish-only artists, however. “The Spanish market is big enough and growing fast enough that we don’t need to worry,” Behar says.

Another concern is that even as mainstream pop radio stations finally open doors for Latino pop artists in English, they will remain narrow-minded about how “Latino” music should sound.

“The so-called Latin songs that have made it to the top of pop radio are very much what the Anglo guy would expect a ‘Latin’ song to be,” says RCA’s Fair. “I’m hoping that radio will allow Latin music to open even wider and wider as they do with pop, and not relegate it to stereotypical pop songs.”

Manager Tomas Cookman, who represents many of the top acts in Spanish-language alternative rock, worries that unless the mainstream labels expand their consciousness of Latin music, they’ll miss some of the best music on the Latin market--be it rock, rap, merengue, salsa or hybrids.

All this confusion in the music industry and the media essentially reflects the nation’s struggle to figure out what exactly are “Latinos” and “Latin music.” It also demonstrates how obsolete narrow ethnic and musical categories are in an increasingly multicultural world--not only for Latinos but for all human beings.

The incredible success of Latinos in both English- and Spanish-language popular music in the U.S. this year is certainly significant, but it is more nuanced and less predictable than most newcomers seem to have understood so far.

In all of this chaos, though, two things are certain. The music industry will continue to try to figure out what happened this year, and, most important, how to make it happen again.

And as long as the nation’s Latino population continues to grow, so too will industry interest in appealing to the market--whatever that may mean.