Opinion

How Streaming Helped Turbocharge a Latin Cultural Wave in the U.S.

For most of music history, the crossover success of Latin musicians in the United States was the exception, not the norm. There were iconic trailblazers whose epic talent broke through barriers — the likes of Gloria Estefan, Selena, Ricky Martin, Shakira and Enrique Iglesias and his father, Julio. Major commercial success in the United States was uncommon and usually required singing in English. Even then, it was often treated as an anomaly. A few prognosticators may have hoped these artists were bellwethers of a permanent wave, but they were mostly rare instances that never quite became an established trend.

Fast forward to today and the story around Latin music in the United States is dramatically transformed. The category’s standouts — Karol G, Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Maluma, Sofía Reyes and many others — now frequently top the music charts and are known to music fans throughout the country. Latin was the fastest-growing category of music in the United States last year, according to Nielsen and the Media Rating Council. And the market for Latin recorded music grew faster than the overall market in 2020, thanks entirely to streaming.

Demographic changes and a growing Latin population certainly are part of the story, but there’s more to it than that. M0re than 40 percent of Latin music fans in the United States do not identify as of Hispanic, Latin or Spanish origin.

So what explains this cultural and commercial phenomenon that is now Latin music? We know that music often sits at the vanguard of cultural shifts, both spurring and reflecting changes in our society.

As our country has changed demographically, “Latin culture is an extension of U.S. culture and is finally being reflected consistently as such,” according to one of the experts . There’s also the increasingly popular trend in music making — more frequent fusion of genres and collaboration among artists — that matches the dynamics at the heart of Latin music.

Lastly and arguably most importantly is the widespread embrace of streaming. Perhaps more so than any music category or form of entertainment, Latin music, its artists and their teams have harnessed the connectivity and experience enabled by streaming platforms and their billions of users throughout the world. Think of it as a form of musical diplomacy, said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.). “Streaming is the new embassy and the music the new ambassador to the world,” promoting greater understanding and appreciation of the genre.

Consider how simple, easy and convenient it is for an existing or would-be fan of Rauw Alejandro to instantly listen to his music. The traditional barriers of geographic borders and limited shelf space are gone. Streaming services provide endless opportunities for individual curation and personalization, with extensive catalogs of those artists and thousands of others. Or as Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico) told us in a recent interview: “You don’t need to wait for a local store to have your music. You don’t need to wait to know what’s trending. It’s an opportunity to listen to it right away.”

Streaming serves the highly engaged Latin music fan. The extensive biographical content and artist storytelling, as well as the deep currents of discovery and rediscovery enabled by streaming services, are a perfect match for these devoted fans.

There is an expression that music is universal. In the past, this was perhaps more of an aspirational promise — but the advent of streaming is making it a reality. We may not speak the same language, but I know how it makes me feel when I hear J Balvin and Willy William sing “Mi Gente.” That feeling is universal.

As we recognize National Hispanic Heritage Month, it is worth pausing to celebrate a milestone in the evolution of Latin culture and music: Streaming has enabled local musicians to become global ambassadors, immeasurably enriching both art and culture. The music of Bogotá, Colombia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, is now the music of Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Oregon.

Garrett Levin is president and CEO of the Digital Media Association, which represents Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Amazon and YouTube.

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