Follow us in Tweeter @LatinBillboardsBy Leila CoboOn a recent Tuesday afternoon, with the strains of his new single, "Gritar" (Shout), playing in the background, Luis Fonsi-the Puerto Rican heartthrob with the plaintive voice and earnest, boy-next-door good looks-stood in front of a video camera in a park in downtown Miami and said in Spanish: "Congratulations to all moms. Let\'s all shout in happiness!"
"And shout, shout, shout!" played his song in the background, as Fonsi displayed his very white, open smile.
Fonsi\'s endearing. He\'s entreating. He sings and writes mainly in Spanish, but thinks in Spanish and English-a result of having been raised in Orlando, Fla., most of his life. And the duality spills into his music, which is Latin pop with hues of R&B in the vocals and rock in the arrangements. Fonsi has the sort of wide appeal that both labels and sponsors find increasingly valuable-a fact AT&T first seized upon in 2008, when the company used him and his single "No Me Doy Por Vencido" (I Won\'t Give Up) for a major campaign tied to the Summer Olympics. At the time, sales of Latin music in the United States were already on a downward spiral, but Fonsi bucked the trend. "Palabras del Silencio" (Universal Music Latino)-the album linked to the AT&T campaign single-sold close to 250,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, more than any of Fonsi\'s previous albums.
Now that AT&T has brought him back for a Mother\'s Day campaign, can Fonsi do an encore with his new set, "Tierra Firme," due out this summer?
The U.S. Latin population continues to climb-50.5 million in 2010, up from 35.3 million in 2000, according to the latest Census numbers. But sales of Latin albums-defined as those whose content is at least 51% in Spanish-hit an all-time low in 2010. According to Nielsen SoundScan, year-end sales of Latin albums for 2010 tallied 12.4 million, a 28% drop from the 16.9 million sold in 2009 (those figures don\'t include single downloads) and just a third of the 37.8 million sold at the height of the market in 2006. By contrast, overall album sales in the United States last year dipped 12.8%-from 373.9 million units in 2009 to 326.2 million units in 2010.
In the first three months of 2011, the decline has slowed somewhat. Across the U.S. market as a whole, album sales were down 5.3% compared with first-quarter 2010. For Latin, the first-quarter drop was 7.9%, from 3.4 million to 3.1 million albums sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Of those, only 266,000 were digital albums-a significant 29.8% increase over the 205,000 sold in the same period last year, but a minuscule number nevertheless.
Thus, the predicament: As the Hispanic population has grown, the market for Latin music hasn\'t kept pace-it\'s shrunk. For years, loss of retail space, the tough economy, physical piracy, immigration crackdowns and a still-developing Latin digital marketplace have all been named as culprits. But many in the industry also suspect that a potential audience for Latin music simply isn\'t being reached-either through marketing and promotional efforts or at a more visceral, emotional level, with the music and artists themselves.
One big problem, says a label executive who asked to remain anonymous, is, "We segment too much. Latino this, Latino that, and we\'re not hitting this second-, third-generation consumer that is not going to go to iTunes Latino or AOL Latino. They\'re going to go to the regular iTunes store. And yet, we continue segregating Hispanic artists from the rest of the bunch."
Labels in search of a solution are increasingly focusing on artists who have bilingual, bicultural appeal, while relying on sponsors for added exposure and expanding online marketing and sales efforts. And the emphasis, meanwhile, has shifted beyond mere music sales.
"It\'s no longer about how many albums we sell but how much we make overall," says Walter Kolm, president of Universal Music Latino/Machete, Fonsi\'s label. "How much is an artist\'s revenue from all his businesses and endorsements? Today, the marketing we do is not only to sell albums but to increase an artist\'s success and generate income of all kinds."
As a result, artists like Fonsi, who can touch fans on both sides of the language divide, are increasingly more in demand."
The [Spanish-only-speaking] niche has become smaller and smaller," says Guillermo Page, senior VP of commercial and sales for Sony Music Latin.
According to U.S. Census data published in 2010, the number of Spanish speakers in the United States stood at 34.5 million in 2007, having grown by 23.4 million between 1980 and 2007, more than any other language. But among Spanish speakers, nearly as many were U.S.-born as foreign-born-17 million vs. 17.5 million, respectively. And 53% of all Spanish speakers reported speaking English "very well."
"Nowadays you have to really work on the general market," Page says. "The increase you see of Hispanics in the U.S. Census, those guys are fully acculturated and bilingual."
Such sentiment is borne out by 2010 Latin album sales, with Enrique Iglesias\' "Euphoria" (Universal/Republic), Marc Anthony\'s "Iconos" and Shakira\'s "Sale el Sol" (both on Sony) finishing as the three top-selling Latin albums of the year, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan. No big surprise there: All three are major artists with broad crossover appeal. But similarly, the top-selling album by a new act was the self-titled debut by Prince Royce-a New York-born bachata singer bolstered by the radio success of his cover of "Stand by Me."
Despite being sung mostly in English, the track found airplay on top 40 Spanish-language stations that, especially in the past year, have become more willing to play English repertoire. Today, there are not only more English-language songs than ever on Billboard\'s Hot Latin Songs chart, but they\'re also staying on the chart longer.
n 2010, for example, 25 English-language tracks appeared on the Hot Latin Songs chart and 15 spent more than 10 weeks each on the tally, both unprecedented occurrences. By contrast, in 2009, 16 English-language tracks charted on Hot Latin Songs, but only four stayed for more than 10 weeks; in 2008, 14 English tracks charted and only one exceeded the 10-week mark.
"It was a question of timing," says Sergio George, president of Royce\'s indie label, Top Stop Music. "In the past, [Spanish-language] radio didn\'t want to play anything that was over 50% in English. But they totally embraced it. They\'re incorporating American music because they knew American kids weren\'t listening to them before. Maybe \'Stand by Me\' wouldn\'t have played on Latin radio five years ago."
In fact, many things didn\'t happen five years ago, despite labels\' best efforts. As recently as 2007, major pushes behind bilingual acts like Kat De Luna (who\'s now resurfacing) and the Dey fell short. Part of the reason, George says, is that those artists didn\'t have a Latin base to begin with.
While Spanish-language radio plays tracks in English, the reverse doesn\'t happen, so for Latin acts to get recognized in the mainstream, they have to record in English or get promoted on mainstream outlets. If an artist already has a Latin or bilingual base, the task is easier.
"It\'s tried and true. Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin; they\'ve all had that Latin base first," George says. "Once you build that, you have that solid following. But pretending to hit the American and Hispanic market at the same time, it\'s never been done. Or I don\'t know about it."
Now, with radio a more willing player for such acts, with increasing online access for Hispanics, and with a younger U.S. Hispanic population ready to consume, simultaneously breaking acts in pop and Latin markets becomes more feasible.
According to "The Latino Digital Divide," a study published last July by the Pew Hispanic Center, the U.S. Latin population still lags behind the overall population in Internet and cellphone use; according to this and past Pew studies, 64% of Latinos aged 18-plus go online, compared with 78% of non-Latinos. And 76% of Latinos use a cellphone, compared with 86% of non-Latinos.
But nativity is a key factor in determining who uses cellphones and the Internet, according to Pew. Only half (51%) of foreign-born Latinos go online, for example, while 85% of U.S.-born Latinos do so. The figures are in line with numerous studies that have found Internet use is higher among younger Latinos-of which more are born here-than older Latinos, of which more are born abroad. According to this particular study, almost two-thirds (65%) of all Latinos aged 16-plus go online, at least occasionally, but use varies with age: 84% of Latinos ages 16-19 report that they email or use the Internet while only 74% of those ages 20-25 do so. Only 61% of those aged 26-plus use the Internet at all.
The nativity gap persists across age differences. Among those ages 16-19, for example, 92% of those U.S.-born use the Internet, but only 59% of those foreign-born do so.
Last February, meanwhile, Telemundo Communications released what it called its "GenYLA" (Generation Young Latino Americans) study that delved into the preferences of young Hispanics ages 18-34. The study measured a sample of 400 in that age bracket-hardly definitive, but perhaps enough to provide interesting insight.
Slightly more than 37% of those surveyed identified themselves as both "Hispanic" and "American," identifying with both cultures equally; only 2% felt more American than Hispanic. Likewise, those surveyed said they moved easily between cultures, had both Latin and non-Latin friends and spoke both English and Spanish. Spanish dominated with family (55%), English at work (74%) and school (79%). Between friends, Spanglish was cited as common.
Within this panorama, Fonsi is a sort of poster boy who travels with ease between both worlds. Even though he sings mostly in Spanish (he\'s released one English-language album, the little-noted "Fight the Feeling," in 2002), he sees his music as akin to country, "because it\'s song-driven," he says. "There\'s storytelling, there\'s emotion."
At a practical level, "I talk bilingual," Fonsi says. "I am 100% proud Puerto Rican, but have lived two-thirds of my life in the United States. So, there will be some things I write in English, but my main way of conversing with my audience is in Spanish, because at the end of the day, I\'m a Latino. But I also understand how U.S. people think, because I\'ve lived here so long and so many of my friends are 100% Americans."
Such understanding is often subtle. But it connects, says Jesus Lopez, chairman of Universal Music Latin America/Iberian Peninsula, "because of the type of music, the production, the sound, the themes he touches upon-and of course, we have future collaborations planned with English-speaking acts."
"Fonsi is a crossover artist because he\'s a second-generation Latino, bilingual, bicultural and raised in the U.S.," Lopez continues. "He uses Spanish to communicate his art, but he also uses English when we\'ve thought it could be useful to his career."
On his social sites, Fonsi communicates mostly in Spanish, but tweets occasionally in English. Moreover, much of the warm-up campaign for his new album has taken place online, beginning in March when Universal released a teaser video on YouTube to promote "Gritar." Other elements followed, including personal messages from Fonsi to his nearly 900,000 Twitter followers and his Facebook fans (3.9 million "Likes"), asking them to register on his website to get the full lyrics to "Gritar," which premiered on both radio and iTunes on April 11.
Because Fonsi has such a visible online presence, the digital sales of "Gritar" will be an important marker, particularly because the Latin digital marketplace is still being developed. Last year, for example, overall digital album sales in the United States tallied 86.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a 13% increase over the 76.4 million tallied in 2009.
In contrast, of the 12 million-plus Latin albums sold in the United States, only 917,000 were digital, up by 201,000 units (or 28%) from the 716,000 copies sold in 2009. While the percentage growth was much higher than the overall market, it was still a drop in the bucket compared with the 4 million physical units lost.
But Sony\'s Page sees a Latin digital buyer beginning to emerge, and calculates that approximately 35% of his Latin music sales-which skewed heavily toward Latin pop-are digital. Earlier this month, for example, the top-selling album on the iTunes Latino chart was "Morir y Existir" (Del Records/Sony) by regional Mexican up-and-comer Gerardo Ortiz, who also debuted at No. 1 on Billboard\'s Top Latin Albums chart. Of the 8,000 units Ortiz sold the first week, roughly 20% were digital, Page says, unusually high for a regional Mexican act.
In promoting Ortiz\'s release, Sony aggressively promoted it on all of his social networks, including Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, but always making the connection back to retail, in particular iTunes and Amazon, which allow for immediate purchase.
"Gerardo is reaching that acculturated audience that enjoys his music but is more [digitally] \'advanced\' than the typical Latin consumer," Page says. "Gerardo Ortiz has been basically underground. It\'s only now that he\'s reaching that critical mass and exploding. We had very good digital numbers with his first album, so with the second album we knew what to expect. We knew that audience was there and we went after them."
••••Luis Fonsi will speak at the Billboard Latin Music Conference as part of BMI\'s "How I Wrote That Song" panel.