Súbeme la radio: How audiences are adapting to non-English language music

After decades of one-hit wonders, music performed in Spanish, French, German and Korean is finally gaining traction in the US and UK, so what's changed? Roisin O'Connor looks at how streaming, fans and the internet have helped the globalisation of international hits

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
@Roisin_OConnor
Friday 15 December 2017 12:04
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Súbeme la radio: How audiences are adapting to non-English language music

Herbie Hancock once said music is “an art form that happens to transcend language”, but British and US audiences still take some convincing before they connect to a non-English language song.

Only a few have made it to those coveted No 1 spots in the singles charts since 1955: Korean artist Psy with his viral track “Gangnam Style” in 2012; Los Lobos with “La Bamba” in 1987, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in 1969; “The Ketchup Song” by Las Ketchup in 2002; “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco in 1986… and, of course, “Macarena” – the “greatest one-hit wonder of all time” and the most recent Spanish-language song before “Despacito” to hit the US Billboard No 1, in 1996.

Reggaeton has taken a while to catch on outside of the Latin American community. Although major labels such as Universal and Warner had cottoned onto the genre as far back as 2005 – fighting to outbid one another over some of its most popular new artists – it was only this year when the genre really exploded in the US and the UK.

Its original fans were Puerto Ricans, but reggaeton quickly spread in popularity among Mexican-Americans, Central Americans and then outside the Latin community. Developing as underground music in Puerto Rico in the Eighties and early Nineties, reggaeton takes its roots from Jamaican dancehall music. Where its lyrics used to focus on issues such as street violence, now you’re likely to hear mainstream songs focusing on love and sex. More often the latter: it’s a genre that is somewhat blighted by hyper-masculine stereotypes, but female reggaetoneras such as “Lesbian Reggaeton” artist Chocolate Remix are working to change that.

Thanks in large part to their monster hit “Despacito” and the following remix featuring Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi have established reggaeton as a business in the 21st century, pushing it out of the trappings of its original genre and establishing themselves as international powerhouses. The unstoppable summer jam smashed countless records and heralded the globalisation of foreign-language hits more than any other song. Daddy Yankee, one of the genre’s biggest stars, found early fame with monster hit “Gasolina”, a song from his 2004 album Barrio Fino – about women who like to party (the music video referenced those early themes of street violence). In 2014 Billboard listed it at No 9 on the “50 Greatest Latin Songs of All Time”.

“Despacito” was quickly followed by another international reggaeton hit: J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente”. Balvin has helped bring a fresh pop sound to the genre; being born in Colombia rather than Puerto Rico, where most of the biggest reggaeton artists have emerged, gave him a different perspective. “Mi Gente” was later remixed to feature Beyonce who sang in both Spanish and English, to raise awareness for the victims of hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

Together, “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” marked the first time in the Billboard Hot 100’s 59-year history that two non-English language tracks had ever appeared in the top 10 simultaneously. In 2017, 11 predominantly Spanish-language songs debuted on the Hot 100, compared to two (“La Bicicleta” – Carlos Vives ft Shakira, and “With You Tonight” – Nicky Jam) in 2016. In total just 16 songs out of 4,763 singles in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 have been predominantly non-English. Of those, the most common language was Spanish – the others were performed in German, French and Korean.

One of Sony International’s biggest priorities for 2018 is Maluma, a Colombian reggaeton singer who gained initial fame aged 16 when he released his first single “Farandulera” independently. The fourth single off his debut album Magia, “La Temperatura”, earned a spot in the North American charts along with a Latin Grammy nomination in 2013. Since then Maluma has enjoyed a string of Latin music awards and platinum certifications for tracks such as “Cuatro Babys”, “Sin Contrato” and “El Perdedor”. His most recent album Pretty Boy Dirty Boy, released in 2015, topped the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart and didn’t leave for 52 weeks. Maluma also the only artist in the world with six videos on YouTube’s top 50. Now he’s looking further afield and recently teamed up with French Montana (”Hurtin’ Me” ft Stefflon Don, “Unforgettable”, “Phases” ft Alma), the Moroccan-American hip hop artist behind some of the year’s biggest tracks.

“Now that access to Latin music is ubiquitous via many different platforms and social outlets, our Latin artists have an opportunity, now more than ever before, to meet and play in front of fans from all over the world,” Dusko Justic, vice president of international marketing and partnerships at Sony Music Latin-Iberia, says. “I couldn’t be more excited to be working with such passionate artists and great music.”

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Like Balvin and Daddy Yankee, other acts have found crossover success by teaming up with major British and US singers, who in turn are keen to cash in on the growing popularity of reggaeton and Latin pop. Reggaeton/Latin boy band CNCO signed to Sony Music Latin after winning the first season of La Banda – the Spanish-language singing competition created by Ricky Martin and Simon Cowell – in 2015. A “Spanglish” version of their hit “Reggaeton Lento” with British pop group Little Mix in 2017 saw the two groups debut at No 5 in the UK singles chart – CNCO’s first top 10 single – and was included on the reissue of Little Mix’s fourth record Glory Days: The Platinum Edition.

“We are blessed to be part of this decade and get to live and see how Latin music is reaching all cultures around the globe,” CNCO tells The Independent. “This is the result of each of us and our entire generation realising again that music has no borders. No matter what your language or culture is, music is love...it is filled with good energy and is about being happy. And Latin music is all about sharing those feelings and energy.”

Other British and US singers have followed suit. Ed Sheeran’s smash hit “Shape of You” was given a Latin remix featuring Puerto Rican reggaeton duo Zion Y Lennox – who appeared on Enrique Iglesias’ single “Súbeme la Radio” (“Turn Up The Radio”). A Spanglish version of “Turn Up The Radio” featuring Jamaican rapper Sean Paul and 2016 X Factor winner Matt Terry later made it to No 10 in the UK singles chart.

Iglesias, one of the best-selling Spanish artists in history, has enjoyed massive success with both Spanish and English-language music, but until recently his audiences were divided based on whether they were based in the US, UK or Spanish-speaking countries. Now some of his most popular tracks among English-speaking audiences are the ones sung predominantly in his mother tongue: “Súbeme la Radio” and “Bailando” being two of the most recent.

“Contrary to the past, music today has no boundaries,” Iglesias tells The Independent. “With the continual growth of music streaming, it’s exciting to see that fans from all over the world are embracing Latin music and culture.”

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Recent X Factor winners Rak-Su have also jumped on the Latin boom, penning the original, Reggaeton-inspired top 10 song “Dimelo” (“Tell Me”) ft. Wyclef Jean and Naughty Boy for the show’s Latin week. The track included a chorus with multiple references to major Latin artists: “Oh, you got my heart beating rápido/You got the boom like your name’s J’Lo/You got them hips like Shakira/Smile like Camila/Got me feeling Latino.” The song was the highest-charting for an X Factor winner in three years, and marked the group as one of the first in the UK to find chart success with their own Latin-influenced track, as opposed to appearing on a remix by an established reggaeton act.

Spotify reports a huge year-on-year increase in UK-based streams of genres performed in other languages. In 2017 reggaeton streams on the streaming service more than quadrupled on the previous year, while K Pop enjoyed a similar surge. J Pop (Japanese pop) saw a slightly more modest increase in UK-based streams of 11 per cent. It also claims a 119 per cent increase in genre streams from May 2014 to June 2017 – which saw the streaming service grow from 10 million users to 140 million. The third most popular playlist worldwide on Spotify is Baila Reggaeton (Dance Reggaeton) with 6.1 million subscribers. Streams on a track by artists including Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Farruko and Justin Quiles enjoyed massive boosts over the seven days they spend on it: anything between 156 per cent to 1,455 per cent.

Reggaeton on Spotify

Rocio Guerrero, in charge of Global Cultures at Spotify, notes: “It went from an inconspicuous sub-genre to this huge market-changing factor. We also look forward to helping other Latin genres grow and using our platform to close the gender gap that is prevalent in reggaeton and Latin music in general.”

J Balvin says the Baila Reggaeton playlist helps fans still getting to know the genre access it with ease, alongside those who already knew how to find new music: “In turn this expands the reach of the genre and the culture worldwide.”

Daddy Yankee adds: “It shows the power of our music globally, especially with reggaeton. I realised Spotify’s influence when I saw radio programmers looking to these types of playlists to programme the most popular songs on their stations. Every day, the game keeps changing.”

Other streaming services have noticed massive surges in the US and UK’s interest in genres that are primarily sung in non-English languages. Deezer has seen a 226 per cent increase in Latin music streams in the UK since January, while US audiences listened to more French music than ever before: an increase of 27.5 per cent. Streams of French rap in particular have jumped: 40 per cent in the US and 43 per cent in the UK.

Sulinna Ong, VP of artist marketing at Deezer tells The Independent: ”Historically the US and UK have dominated the music industry in terms of repertoire, but we’re now seeing this being challenged.

“In the past people would discover new songs on mainstream media such as radio, which often ignored music outside of the English-speaking world. However, digital music streaming has enabled people to easily access a much more diverse range of content from anywhere – and (coupled with social media) people are now taking advantage of that freedom to explore and listen more widely beyond the traditional channels.

“Music is now travelling faster and wider, which is providing an opening for artists to get noticed outside of their native countries. In 2017 hip hop from non-English speaking artists has become an increasingly popular choice with French rap and hip-hop artists. At heart, music is an international language, and people relate emotionally to great music even if they don’t understand the lyrics.”

Súbeme la radio: How audiences are adapting to non-English language music

Ong sees 2018 as the “tipping point” for change and more growth, predicting another large increase in cross-market artist collaborations after noticing how established north-American artists have been busy name-dropping and working with acts from other countries.

“Damso is one of the highest streamed artists in France on Deezer and we believe he’s set for international attention in 2018,” she says. “We’ve also seen four out of the Top 10 most streamed Deezer Next artists in 2017 come from France (Ash Kidd), Brazil (Day e Lara), Germany (Bausa) and Colombia (Feid).”

It’s worth noting that Deezer’s data may be slightly more skewed towards French artists given it’s the company’s base. But while America maintains its position as the frontrunner of hip hop, France has always followed in close second place, thanks in part to TV shows such as HIPHOPaired and acclaimed 1995 film La Haine – viewed by many as the French equivalent to Boyz in the Hood – which helped to boost interest in the genre. Particularly in cities such as Paris, there is a strong underground scene where some of the most prominent names in French hip hop master their craft.

MHD, a French MC who mixes trap music with the west African beats he grew up on, performed his debut concert in London this year. Spurning the habit of many French MCs to insert English words into their lyrics, he instead uses north and west African slang. Fans around the world lap it up regardless of whether they always understand him, and MHD’s popularity has increased dramatically in the past two years: he currently boasts more than 1m subscribers on his Spotify channel, and recently teamed up with US producer Diplo.

Beth Appleton, senior vice president of global marketing at Warner – home of global stars such as Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars – agrees that streaming has helped to tear down borders in the global music market.

“We’re seeing songs surge up the global streaming charts off the back of strong performances in one region, and that’s bringing them to the attention of fans elsewhere,” she says. “Record labels can then jump on songs that are starting to pop, running big promotional campaigns to push them to the next level in markets.

“The international rise of Latin music has been a major phenomenon this year. We’re starting to see huge numbers of people in Latin America sign up to streaming services and when they get behind a track, it brings iit to the attention of the wider world.”

One such track is “Me Rehuso” by Venezuelan artist Danny Ocean, which recently became the Latin song with the most weeks spent on Spotify’s Top 50 global chart; racking up almost half a billion streams. Appleton notes that Atlantic and the music industry in general is also seeing a strong performance from local language urban music in countries around the world.

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“Everyone knows about the success of grime in the UK, but it’s mirrored in countries like Germany where local urban artists such as Bausa are absolute superstars off the back of streaming,” she says. “I think we’ll continue to see this amazing global cultural exchange play out on streaming services. Hits are breaking out of all sorts of countries and taking the world by storm. I think we’re starting to see all sorts of scenes emerge, whether that’s electronic music in Asia or the rapidly expanding Afropop scene.”

English-language publications have also started paying more attention. MHD was recently interviewed in The Guardian, and last year the publication also observed how many of the scene’s artists have been using their platforms to call out far-right politicians such as Marine Le Pen: often French hip hop tends to be more political than the majority of artists in Britain or the US. Meanwhile Noisey published a comment piece in 2016 on how Americans “don’t really pay too much attention to French rap”, but pointed out some of the scene’s biggest names, along with a few newcomers.

Popular independent rap group PNL – comprised of brothers Tarik and Nabil Andrieu – appeared on the front cover of US magazine Fader in 2016. That same year, one of the most popular slogans at a nationwide strike against labor law reforms was “Le monde ou rien” – the world or nothing – which came from the duo’s track of the same name. It was transformed into a protest song which echoed around France, in a similar way to how Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” became the anthem for Black Lives Matter.

Similarly in Germany, a thriving hip-hop scene is being noticed by US listeners, with rappers developing a style that means the language barrier becomes less important. One of its few female hip-hop artists Haiyti has drawn comparisons to Future. Tourists visiting Berlin or Munich last year will likely have heard one of the country’s biggest hip hop tracks by Fruchtmax ft Hugo Nameless: “WKMSNSHG.”

Some of the biggest names in today’s German hip-hop scene have been inspired by the country’s booming immigrant population. Thanks to changing political and social landscapes in the wake of the European migrant crisis, Turkish-German hip hop has become something of a sub-genre. It’s a promising sign that the country’s music is developing after some international success with a small handful of acts, such as Rammstein, or the heavy metal band Scorpions, who have sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and been covered by acts such as Green Day, Korn and System Of A Down.

Korea and Japan are experiencing new interest in their unique brands of pop music. This year saw BTS scored the first hit for a K Pop group in the history of Billboard’s Pop Songs radio airplay chart with the Steve Aoki remix “MIC Drop” ft Desiigner. It was the second K Pop song overall to achieve the feat, after Psy’s “Gangnam Style”. While K Pop has been experiencing growing popularity in English-speaking countries over the past year, some experts credited Desiigner and Aoki, the latter of whom has also worked on tracks by Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, Louis Tomlinson and Migos, for giving it that extra push. This year K Pop also debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart for the first time ever, with BTS’s Love Yourself.

K-pop group BTS accepts the prize for Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards

Elly Chae, director of communications for BigHit Entertainment, says BTS have been trying to prove music is “truly universal and transcends cultures” since their debut in 2013, and credits streaming services with playing a pivotal role in helping more K Pop artists break into the mainstream.

Eve Tan, from Spotify Asia’s shows and editorial team, adds: “Since the launch of the K Pop hub, we’ve seen more fan-created playlists and My Music Streams around this genre. This indicates that more playlists are being saved, and users are coming back with increased repeat listening patterns.”

K Pop playlists on Spotify

There’s also an indication that, while Spanish and French still prove most popular, audiences are willing to listen and appreciate a track in more difficult languages. This year the BBC’s annual Sound Of longlist announced Korean-American electronic artist Yaeji on its longlist; marking the first time in the poll’s history that an artist who performs in Korean has featured, and just the second time it has picked an act who doesn't sing entirely in English (after Swedish act Say Lou Lou in 2014).

Keith Howard, professor emeritus at SOAS in London and author of the 2006 book Korean Pop Music: Riding the Wave, suggests part of the appeal of a genre like K Pop is the visual aspect, along with the huge engagement of its fanbase on social media platforms.

“Fans want to claim to like music that is niche rather than just mainstream, hence K-Pop serves just nicely,” he suggests. “In doing so they get engaged online communities or fan clubs among friends, but also – and this is particularly in the case of K Pop. So the focus is on meeting and doing things together as much, or more than, on the audio track.”

BTS, who are undeniably the biggest and most talked-about K Pop group this year, have a fanbase referred to as ARMY who dedicate an enormous amount of love, energy and money to their favourites; in December it was reported how K Pop fans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their favourite BTS members featured on billboards in Times Square for different occasions, such as a birthday or release of a new song.

Mobile social media platform Amino recently held a BTS fan art exhibition in the hope it would drive fans to their service, which was inspired by real-life fan conventions such as Comic-Con and offers a more image-friendly version of Reddit.

“Niches work on difference, and ultimately that’s always been something that a segment of pop consumers want – remember sourcing those obscure records in the 1970s and 1980s? The mainstream may be where million-sellers are, but in our ‘hyper-real consumption’ we want to imagine we have a taste for something special that not many others have,” Howard says.

He notes that with Psy’s “Gangnam Style” there were thousands of parodies made in response, in which “nobody was concerned about the language”. But many Korean artists’ agencies – YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Cube – do insist their stars sing songs with some English-language content – even if it’s just one word in the chorus – to bolster the crossover appeal.

“[The agencies’] concern is to make money from everything other than the music,” Howard says. ”In other words, attention to the aural has diminished (and this includes concern for language). They’ve also segmented the market in myriad ways, trying to access and generate the niches. There’s a standard Korean government line, which has it that for every dollar spent promoting K Pop (or other parts of the Korean wave/K-Wave) abroad, $5 is spent by foreigners on buying Korean products. This brings in the power of social media, for which ‘Gangnam Style’ was the example par excellence – except the song is not central to K Pop and most fans of the genre hate it.”

So far the most popular crossover hits in the US and the UK been Latin-based languages such as French and Spanish. But the willingness by audiences to at least try to listen to Korean, Japanese and German music suggests streaming has helped music transcend borders like nothing else, and will continue to fuel that rise well into 2018. It’s ironic, really, when you consider how political leaders in the US and the UK are so intent on keeping them closed.

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