Billboard Latin Music Awards reveal industry’s struggle to find new stars

Viewers of Thursday night’s Billboard Latin Music Awards, broadcast live from Coral Gables on Telemundo, might get a strong feeling of déjà vu. On stage will be longtime salsa-pop favorite Marc Anthony (that was him, too, in 2012, 2011 and 2010), pop diva Paulina Rubio (a repeat from 2012 and 2010) and reggaeton star Don Omar and veteran Mexican pop-rockers Mana (both appearing for the third year in a row).

Almost every artist who will perform at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center comes from a rotating cast of longtime stars who dominate this and similar shows such as Univision’s Premio Lo Nuestro and the Latin Grammy Awards.

TV awards shows are always packed with favorite celebrities to deliver ratings. But even though the mainstream music industry relies on longtime names like U2 and Jay-Z for events like the Grammy Awards, it also regularly breaks in a Bruno Mars, Arcade Fire, Nicki Minaj or other new blood. The Billboard awards, which recognize the top acts on the magazine’s sales and radio charts and round out this week’s Billboard Latin Music Conference in Miami, reveal an industry in which a new act cracking the mainstream has become extraordinarily rare.

Even as Hispanics have become the largest minority in the United States and a dynamic player in national politics, music — a central part of Latin culture that fueled a pop crossover explosion more than a decade ago — seems to have stalled.

“We’re not in a coma, but we’re pretty stagnant,” says Diana Rodriguez, a former Latin label executive who now runs the independent marketing company Criteria Entertainment. “That doesn’t mean there’s not new talent. … But the outlets are so driven by results that it becomes harder and harder to break in.”

Latin music executives say the scarcity of new names at the top of the charts reflects necessary caution after they were hit with a double whammy in the 2000s. Physical and online piracy hit Latin music harder than the U.S. mainstream, followed by the economic downturn in 2008.

Latin labels reacted by reducing staff and cutting back on signing new acts, hunkering down with proven stars.


“The industry overall was going through difficult times, and [that] made investing in new talent more challenging,” says Skander Goucha, senior vice president of digital business for Universal Music Latin Entertainment. “Superstar artists are more resistant to crisis.”

Latin labels have been slower than their mainstream counterparts to make the shift from CD to online sales — and more recently to the newly burgeoning realm of music streaming services like Spotify, which began its launch in Latin America with Mexico last week.

Goucha says labels have begun to adapt to the present reality — digital sales now make up half of sales at Universal — but that breaking in new acts will take time.

“We can invest again in finding new talent and taking more risks,” Goucha says. He pointed to his label’s 3BallMTY, a hot Mexican electronic music group that was a rare recent breakout act, as one example. “Lots of things are happening … that might not be visible until you see the results in the market. Maybe there aren’t enough of these stories yet, but we’re working on it.”

At the Billboard conference, once filled with panels on touring, radio and songwriting, the focus was on marketing, finding new digital outlets for music and partnering with corporations that provide the marketing money that has become a critical part of record label budgets. One event, “Pepsi’s Journey through Latin Culture,” was devoted to the soft drink maker’s sponsorships of Latin artists; a Music Marketing Awards ceremony honored alliances between AT&T and Romeo Santos, and State Farm with Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias.

“Labels are looking more and more for marketing and branding partners to promote albums,” says Leila Cobo, Billboard’s executive director of Latin Content and Programming, who oversees the conference. “We are trying very much to be about what’s happening now,” says Cobo, a former Miami Herald music writer.

But big corporations, and the TV networks seeking their advertising, want big names. “If you’re Telemundo and you need Pepsi to give you money, you want Shakira and Juanes,” says Diego Prusky, president of online marketing company InPulseDigital.

“These award shows are under intense pressure to deliver ratings, so to have someone who is not a household name is a risk,” says Gil Gastelum, manager of newcomer artist Carla Morrison. The innovative Mexican singer had critical acclaim, a strong grassroots following and four nominations for last November’s Latin Grammys — winning two awards but not a spot on the Univision telecast.


For Thursday night’s show, executive producer Tony Mojena resorted to mixing and matching to create something different from the same ingredients. So he paired Anthony with reggaeton singer Tito El Bambino, and Mana with alternative tropical artist Robi Draco Rosa (who appeared with Ricky Martin on Premio in January). Mojena put top-selling heartthrob Romeo Santos, also on Premio three months ago, with revered Dominican artist Juan Luis Guerra. Carlos Vives, a Colombian pop-tropical star returning to the U.S. market after half a dozen years, is performing with Brazilian singer Michel Telo — who made his U.S. debut on last year’s Billboard awards with his global hit Ai Si Eu Se Pego.

“We don’t want to repeat, and we don’t want people to have the impression we’re repeating,” said Mojena, part of the show since its inception in 1998. “Maybe 10, 15 years ago we would have two or three new names every year,” Mojena said. “Now we have a new name every three to four years.”

Bringing in household names works for the networks. Billboard viewership has risen from 1.9 million in 2010 to 2.3 million in 2011 and 2.4 million last year, their best ever.

But those advocating for new musical talent say U.S. Latin TV networks and record labels risk being abandoned by younger, bilingual and bicultural Latinos who are as partial to Kanye West as to Daddy Yankee. Those younger listeners, like their Latin American counterparts, are also more likely to find music online and through social media.

“The next couple of years will be very important for the Latin music industry to push new music and flavors,” says artist manager Robert Somoza, who was at the conference to promote Domino Saints, a young, bilingual Puerto Rican duo recently signed to Capital Latin. “Especially with all the brands and things you can do in the digital world.”

“Mass media is always the last to catch on,” says one longtime Latin music producer Sebastian Krys. “But eventually it will reflect changes and new artists. They have to. If they don’t, how much longer can they keep going?”