The top nominee at Thursday’s 23rd Annual Latin Grammy Awards is Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny, with 10 nominations for “Un Verano Sin Ti,” his chart-topping, streaming-dominant release that is the most popular LP of the year.
But for the wider Latin music business, Bad Bunny is the icing on the cake of an extraordinary year on streaming services and on tour, featuring artists such as Colombian singers Karol G and Brazil’s Anitta; genre-bending innovators like Spanish pop disruptor Rosalía; and regional Mexican bands such as Grupo Firme.
Long seen as a niche area, Latin music continues to break into new markets, with streaming platforms helping artists reach a wide new audience, which in turn buys hundreds of millions of dollars worth of concert tickets.
“Latin music is having a moment,” said Gary Gersh, a longtime music executive who is the president of global touring and talent for the concert company AEG Presents. “But it won’t go away. The doors have been blown off.”
In the first half of 2022, sales of Latin music recordings reached $510 million in the United States, a new peak, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, and could exceed $1 billion by the end of the year. Of that total, 97 percent came from streaming, indicating an audience that is young and technologically connected. According to Spotify, half of its users around the world stream at least one Latin song every month.
In the past, Latin American artists have been scarce among the industry’s top tours, but that’s changing. According to data from trade publication Pollstar, the top 100 tours around the world for the first three quarters of 2022 include 13 Latin American artists who have sold a combined $436 million in ticket sales – up nine with $205 million in sales for the same period in 2019, the last comparable year before the pandemic. (Pollstar’s tracking period begins at the end of November each year.)
Bad Bunny, 28, is the leader of the current Latin wave, with sales and tour numbers routinely rivaling and beating English-language pop titans like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. His latest album spent 13 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, more than any other title this year. According to industry estimates, his two 2022 tours — one in arenas, the other in stadiums — will top the year-end global tour chart with combined sales of about $400 million, placing him in the class of giants like Swift and U2.
Born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, Bad Bunny – his stage name comes from a child’s costume – represents a new breed of pop star, with an eclectic style and broad, global appeal. After emerging in 2016, he built his career as a featured guest, rapping and singing to songs by artists such as J Balvin and Cardi B, before releasing his first album, “X100PRE”, in 2018.
Since then, it has become inescapable, appealing not only to Hispanic listeners, but also fans whose personal playlists can also be littered with hip-hop, K-pop, and everything else. Meanwhile, Bad Bunny has grown into a global brand. He has an Adidas sneaker partnership, has wrestled in the WWE and will star in Sony Pictures’ new Marvel superhero movie “El Muerto” – while also being outspoken about the political and social strife in Puerto Rico.
“I don’t think pop culture really has more boundaries or language barriers,” said Jbeau Lewis of United Talent Agency, who books Bad Bunny’s tours. “I don’t know if a fan necessarily differentiates between BTS, Taylor Swift, or Bad Bunny.”
When tickets for his arena outing, El Último Tour del Mundo, went on sale in April 2021, it became one of the fastest-selling tours in Ticketmaster history and a key metric that showed fans eager to return to concerts. in the middle of the pandemic.
Lewis said that while those tickets were selling, he could see in Ticketmaster’s back-end system that for some shows, up to 300,000 fans were waiting to buy more — a sign of huge demand. That day, Lewis said, he and Noah Assad, Bad Bunny’s manager, had a discussion and realized, “Oh man, we need to hold onto some stadiums for next year.”
Recent Latin touring powerhouses span a broad spectrum of aesthetics and traditions. Known for her neon-colored wigs and her Caribbean-flavored hit “Provenza,” Karol G made an impression at Coachella in April — paying homage to previous Latin crossovers like “Macarena” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” — then selling for $70 million in tickets for her North American tour. That might be the biggest catch in history for a Latin female act.
Maná, a veteran Mexican rock band, played 12 times this year at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, California, as part of a residency, and just announced a North American arena tour for 2023. Grupo Firme, a Mexican banda group who have collaborated starring pan-Latin pop stars like Camilo and Maluma, has sold $57 million worth of tickets by 2022, according to Pollstar.
Historically, artists who sang primarily in Spanish—or any language other than English—faced a huge barrier to success when it came to radio. But streaming has provided a path around that obstacle, and many Latin acts have thrived as a result. An early indication of this shift was “Despacito”, the 2017 song by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, which became a huge hit on YouTube – although its success was due in part to a radio-friendly remix featuring Justin Bieber.
“The barrier isn’t the same as it used to be, that you had to have a song on the radio so you can sell a lot of tickets,” says AEG’s Gersh. “I think we’ll see more music that isn’t sung in English reaching English-speaking children, and we’ll probably see more English-language music reaching other countries where English isn’t the first language.”
“That to me is the real alternative music – it’s the alternative to the mainstream,” added Gersh, who was one of the figures who started the alternative rock explosion in the 1990s by signing Nirvana to DGC Records.
Radio is still lagging behind this wave. While Bad Bunny is the king of streaming – he was the most streamed act on Spotify in 2020 and 2021, and stands a good chance of retaining the title this year – he’s only the 119th most played artist on Top 40 radio stations to date this year, according to the tracking service Mediabase.
To some extent, demographic shifts can help explain the growth of Hispanic music. As of 2021, 19 percent of the total U.S. population identified as Hispanic, up from 16 percent in 2010 and just 5 percent in 1970, according to Census data and the Pew Research Center.
Those fans can span across multiple genres and cultural spaces, said AJ Ramos, a longtime radio and streaming programmer who heads artist partnerships for Latin music on YouTube. Using himself as an example – born in the United States, speaking Spanish at home in a Salvadoran family, but raised as a hip-hop fan – he describes those cross-cultural fans as representatives of “the 200 percent.”
“You have Mexican artists like Yahritza y Su Esencia and Fuerza Regida, embracing American culture and embracing Latin culture, living in both spaces,” Ramos said. “That audience goes from a Kendrick Lamar record to a Fuerza Regida record.” (Yahritza y Su Esencia, a trio of siblings whose Mexican families migrated to a farming area in Washington state, are up for two Latin Grammys, including Best New Artist.)
That success — enabled by streaming and social media, and now widely visible on tour — will only continue into the future, said Maykol Sanchez, an executive at Spotify responsible for collaborations between Latin American artists and labels.
“It used to be harder,” said Sanchez. “Today you can have an artist from Chile who has a hit song, and that’s happening globally on Spotify, creating space for that artist.”