Live from Billboard’s Latin Music Conference

Billboard’s Latin Music Conference took over Miami from April 25 to 29 with artists, industry insiders, journalists, and influencers converging for a week of panels, showcases, workshops, and networking sessions revolving around the current state of the Latin music industry.

Marc Anthony, Nicky Jam (pictured above), Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, Ednita Nazario, and others added star power to the conference, now in its 27th year. The week culminated with Telemundo’s Billboard Latin Music Awards, featuring performances from Juanes, J Balvin, Paulina Rubio, Farruko, Jesse & Joy, Natalia Jimenez, Gente de Zona, Gerardo Ortiz, among several others, including special honorees Juan Gabriel, Alejandro Fernandez, and Marco Antonio Solis.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the conference is that Latin urban music is king. As reggaeton continues to evolve, crossing borders and experimenting with different sounds, it defies any notion of itself as a passing fad.

The Urban Panel, moderated by Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s head of content programming and editorial for Latin/global, focused squarely on reggaeton’s dominance. The line-up featured Puerto Rico’s Ken-Y and Zion & Lennox, Colombia’s Reykon and Saga WhiteBlack, (the prolific producer behind Nicky Jam’s biggest hits), Cuba’s Gente de Zona, and Spain’s Juan Magan, all of whom have a unique role in the globalization of the sound.

“Music streaming services, like Spotify, have really helped us reach new audiences,” said Zion, of the pioneering reggaeton duo Zion & Lennox. “Latin music is really at its best moment and we have such loyal consumers who are always there and aware what is going on with our music.”

“Urban/reggaeton music has evolved,” Reykon pointed out. “We are a bit more cautious with our lyrics. We don’t want a parent to be in the car with their kid and have to lower the volume because of something bad in the lyrics. We need to understand that kids from the age of three are listening to our songs. I always keep that in mind while writing.”

Still, urban music has had its setbacks, as Alexander Delgado of Gente de Zona, the duo featured on hits such as Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando” and Marc Anthony’s “La Gozadera,” pointed out. “People in Cuba didn’t accept urban music when I started my career,” said Delgado. “They used to say that what we made wasn’t music. So what I did was maintain urban/reggaeton as a base but include rhythms from my country like guaracha so our people could identify with it.”

Magán, who has carved his own electro-latino niche in a crowded field, added, “Urban music can incorporate and absorb so many rhythms; that’s why collaborations are so easy. You can put merengue or salsa in there and it works. In other genres, you can’t really get away with that as much…It’s collaborations that make this genre work.”

So it’s no surprise that even big-time pop artists are looking to that urban sound to gain territory — it’s a strategy that pays off in dividends for all of those involved. “I think artists from other genres are understanding what is happening in urban music,” said Reykon. “A good example is Enrique Iglesias who wanted to jump on the ship, and we welcome everyone to join and collaborate.”

When asked whether there is a risk that the genre will plateau once again as it did after the first big reggaeton explosion of the mid-2000’s, Magán reaffirmed the resilience of the sound. “Urban music will always be relevant and can never have an end,” he said. “There are millions of fusions you can do in this genre. Latin urban music is the new pop.”

Another key moment validating Latin urban music came during Wednesday’s Clash of the Titans panel, when both Daddy Yankee and Don Omar, two titans who paved the way for artists such as J Balvin and Nicky Jam to carry the genre’s torch, took a moment to reflect on its humble beginnings.

“Rock didn’t speak to us as much, tropical music didn’t really reflect our lives, but there was a moment, and it was undeniable, when rap music started to influence all the youth,” said Omar. “We were a generation that was supposedly incapable of creating something new and there was this impression that everything had already been done. So for me, my respect for urban music comes from breaking outside of that box that society tried to put us in. The urban movement came from finding something that moved us, motivated us, gave us people to look up to. I think that attitude defines urban music.”

“Urban music is a lifestyle,” added Yankee. “The reason why we’ve been successful is because we’re connected with the culture beyond music. Like salsa, this generation has filled a void in music, and it’s a space that is 100% real. The language we’ve created, the experiences we talk about — it comes from life experiences.”

Yankee, whose party anthem “Gasolina” is widely considered the song that broke all international barriers for reggaeton back in 2004, also shared some of the challenges he faced along the way.

“Back then, all the doors were closed in my face. But that’s how I became a businessman,” reflected Yankee. “I had to find a way to distribute my own music, be my own A&R, my own everything, and before I knew it, I was creating my own label and becoming an entrepreneur. So when Barrio Fino [Yankee’s debut album which featured “Gasolina”] exploded on a global scale, I realized we had kicked open the door for the young people to follow. To see artists like J Balvin, Nicky Jam, Maluma, so many artists who are having success with reggaeton, it’s very rewarding.”

And judging by today’s top Latin hits playlists, as well as awards shows, and the rate at which different Latin countries are exporting young urban talent, reggaeton won’t be running out of fuel anytime soon.

— Angie Romero