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Feature [Issue #4]
Latin Music: Latin Music: Where Is It Headed Anyway?
By Mandana Beigi

The commercial success of Latin music in the last few years and its continuing influence on today's forms of popular music and culture have had an enormous impact on the new structure of the music industry. As more and more Latin artists top the pop charts and fill arena seats, the music industry's interest in the development and marketing of Latin pop stars increases.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Latin music sales were one of the only bright spots for the record industry in 2001-2002, with distribution up by nine percent and a dollar value increase of about six percent (from $608.5 million in 2000 to $642.6 million in 2001). From Ricky Martin and Shakira to Enrique Iglesias and Paulina Rubio, the roster of bilingual artists on major labels gets longer every year. These are pop artists who, for the most part, are packaged in a way that would please both the English and the Spanish speaking mainstream audiences. It has become the norm to release the same song (or even the same album) twice, first with English lyrics and then in Spanish, or vice versa.

The Latin invasion of the late 90s and Ricky Martin's infamous single, "Livin' La Vida Loca" opened up a whole new chapter in the popular culture and fashion of the 21st century. Within a few months Shakira went blond, Ricky Martin performed for the president of the United States and Pottery Barn released a Latin album, which can be heard and purchased at the store!

Let's not forget that Latin music existed before "Livin' La Vida Loca" and that the Mambo Craze in the 50s brought Tito Puente and Cachao, while in the 60s, the brown-eyed soul bands of East L.A such as The Midniters and Canibal and the Headhunters along with Carlos Santana made some of the greatest Latin music of all times. The East L.A. bands took the Chicano movement to heart and emphasized the Latin culture and heritage while incorporating the sound of rock with Latin percussion and Spanglish lyrics. Later in the 80s, when pop ballads and new wave brought out the sound of the Casio keyboards, Tejano music (mainly produced by the Mexican-American working class in Texas and the US/Mexico border region) also began to introduce synthesizers and alter traditional styles such as Norteño and Conjunto into a more urban beat. And finally in 1995, Selena took the sound of the Tejano ballads to the top of the album charts with her smash single "Dreaming of You" and laid the groundwork for what became Latin pop a few years after.

The popularity of Latin pop has done two things: first, it has created a very general perception of the Latin sound for the average listener who can not distinguish between Latin Pop, Latin Alternative, Latin Jazz and the more traditional Latin musical styles; and second, it has helped take down many of the previous barriers between the Latino and the Anglo culture. Music is culture and culture can be shared. Language and sound have always played a very powerful role in the cultural crossover movements. Latin music has gone a long way to grow from a race-based genre into a more culture-based form of expression.

There are now more cross-genre collaborations than ever before and Latin artists have contributed to many of these projects. Whether the industry decides to focus on culture-based marketing or gear more towards race-based marketing, the truth is that in today's multi-lingual/cultural marketplace, there are more similarities than differences in taste.

The major record labels have also opted towards signing Latin alternative acts whose musical creation and attitude is not necessarily paralleled by those of the pop artists. Some refer to Latin alternative as Rock en Español, which, in my opinion, is not the correct term for the genre. If "Rock en Español" is supposed to define rock music with Spanish words, then there should be no trace of Salsa, Norteño, Hip-Hop and other genres but this is not the case here because the sound of what is called "Rock en Español" has deep roots in the aforementioned musical styles. Some of the Latin Alternative bands are more influenced by the sound of Hip-Hop such as Molotov and Control Machete, some are closer to Jazz-funk and Salsa such as Ozomatli and some are profoundly affected by the more melodic and traditional beat like Maná, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Jaguares. Latin alternative is, for the most part, about going semi-commercial while maintaining creative independence. Many of the Latin alternative acts eventually go mainstream but they separate into two groups: one that settles for bigger record contracts and shifts to a more controlled production and pop-oriented fan-base such as, Shakira; and the other, that do sign major contracts but stay within the alternative environment in terms of creative freedom and image such as Maná and Jaguares, who sell out millions of records and turn in huge profits from their tours but have turned down offers to produce and perform in English.

Social awareness and political views are also imperative ingredients in the making of alternative music. One can easily feel and hear L.A.'s cultural diversity and world's political struggles through the sound of Ozomatli. The band's official web site is constantly promoting social activism campaigns like the fight for freedom by US political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, the boycott against Taco Bell for its exploitation of Immokalee farmers, the Rosenburg Fund for Children and the International Campaign for Tibet, only to mention a few. Molotov's socio-political songs have been banned in Mexico and their latest music video "Frijoleros", which demonstrated the U.S./Mexico border problems and the band's anti-war position, has caused them much criticism in the media.

The values and attitude, along with the albums' sales volume of the alternative artists, have always been vital factors in the marketing and promotion strategies planned out by their labels. The record labels do not allocate as much of their budget to alternative acts as they do for the pop artists. On the other hand, the alternative artists blame the labels' insufficient marketing efforts for their low album sales. Thanks to the growth of the Latin music market, a number of radio stations now dedicate a decent amount of radio play to the alternative artists and the overall awareness of the Latin alternative scene has increased among the younger generation.

So, after Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, the re-emergence of Carlos Santana, the "discovery" of the Buena Vista Social Club, Shakira, Ricky Martin and Ozomatli, where is Latin music headed, anyway? Well, what's certain is that music is always changing to accommodate the culture and the events of our time; pop or rock… it really doesn't matter as long as it pleases your soul!

Latin Music: Where Is It Headed Anyway? Latin Music

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