Although Puerto Rico has been renowned for its artistic talent throughout the decades, in recent years the island has established itself as a powerhouse of the music industry worldwide, claiming some of the top positions of the world’s most popular artists of the moment.
Earlier last month, Bloomberg called Puerto Rico one of the four new capitals of pop music. Specifically, five of the 25 most-streamed musicians across multiple platforms hail from the U.S. territory.
Topping the list as the world’s biggest pop star is Benito Martínez, whose artistic alias is Bad Bunny. Since launching his musical career with singles in 2016, the 26-year-old trap and reggaeton artist has amassed international acclaim, collaborating with big names like Drake, Cardi B and René “Residente” Pérez, a fellow Puerto Rican. As of press time, Bad Bunny’s 10 most popular songs have been streamed more than 3.39 billion times on Spotify.
The other Puerto Ricans dominating the top 25 are Myke Towers, rapper, in fourth place; Jhay Cortez, reggaeton and trap artist, in 16th place; Anuel AA, a pioneer of Latin trap, in 24th place; and Rauw Alejandro, who also produces Latin trap and reggaeton, in 25th place.
How did a small archipelago in the Caribbean produce some of the biggest names in music right now? Jafet Santiago, CEO of Sparkof Entertainment, said that some colleagues believe that Puerto Rico’s geographic insularism forces musical producers to think about how to succeed in foreign markets and make a profit. Meanwhile, he affirmed that Puerto Rico’s cultural connections to the Caribbean, Latin America and the U.S. mainland allow the island to generate sounds that resonate across these markets.
“We have a natural link with the United States, with New York, with Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. So, I think that it comes naturally to us. I believe that part of our essence is that when we create content, we are subconsciously creating content that we know will be well-received in New York, for example,” Santiago said. “It’s instinctive; there are things that one cannot even explain.”
For his part, Osvaldo Rocafort, president of Empresas Osvaldo Rocafort, pointed to the transformation of reggaeton into a cultural behemoth. Originally an “underground” genre in the mid-1990s, reggaeton - which derives influences from dancehall, reggae, hip hop and others - gained popularity in the 2000s with artists like Daddy Yankee, who is still a strong name in the genre. Over the last years, it has influenced new beats, such as Latin trap, while also spreading across the Latin American continent. Apart from Puerto Rico, Colombia is also producing acclaimed reggaeton and Latin trap stars, such as J Balvin and Karol G, although the Puerto Rican influences are ever-present.
“Each one of them is boosting the genre. But if the people who are always at the top of this genre are Puerto Rican artists and the genre grows, then they will naturally be at the top, and that is why they are leading the charts,” Rocafort said. “Each one has their essence, but they represent youth culture. They each have their own identity.”
Rocafort, who has over 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry, added that some five to 10 years ago, the industry was suffering because of piracy. With the rise of music apps and streaming platforms in recent years, however, local artists can secure bigger profits and invest in new projects.
“Now they don’t have the excuse of piracy. Now, everything is collected online and the artist has more money to invest, to do their own music videos, and can use their own social media to connect with fans. They aren’t limited by anything… Anybody in the world has access to these artists’ videos and music. And Puerto Ricans are at the forefront of the genre, so they have seized this momentum,” he told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
Meanwhile, Santiago underscored the business aspect behind the artistry. “People oftentimes think that this is about who has the best voice. In the case of artists, how many voices do we know that are spectacular but can score a single hit? This isn’t just about having a nice voice; this is a business and that product, whatever it is… must reach a demographic and satisfy their needs. And if you don’t find that space, it is difficult to stand out as an artist, and the same thing happens as a manager,” he stated.
An Industry Under Crisis
But while Puerto Rico keeps exporting local talent, the local entertainment industry is under stress due to government-mandated restrictions on shows and venues since mid-March 2020, due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
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Nelson Castro, president of the Puerto Rico Show Producers Association (COPEP by its Spanish acronym) and New Creative Entertainment Group, reported that a study commissioned by the organization revealed that the entertainment industry contributes roughly $2 billion a year to the local economy, of which $150 million in taxes are collected by the Treasury.
Castro explained that this economic sector generates approximately 30,000 direct and indirect jobs. While some producers have been able to reinvent themselves - such as Rocafort, who opened a drive-in theater, or Santiago, who launched a podcast and magazine - the industry itself is facing a dire predicament.
“At the end of the day, we as an industry in Puerto Rico are not having a good time. We need to go back. The industry in general is in agony. The government cannot look at these extraordinary cases because they are not the metric to do justice to all the people who work in this industry,” Castro opined.
He said that this sector is currently operating at 5 percent to 6 percent capacity, thanks to virtual conferences and activities, but these haven’t proven that they can successfully replace the traditional events with a live audience. The events producer stressed that virtual activities “have to a greater or lesser degree given some type of opportunity, but far too limited compared to what this industry represents.”
Castro asserted that the island must use its artists’ star power to reactivate the entertainment sector and jumpstart the local economy. “We have stated from day zero that we have to use everything in our power to get people to look back at Puerto Rico. Even the [coronavirus] contagion numbers themselves have been helping people look at Puerto Rico,” he said.
“These important names, these international and world brand names that arise from here in Puerto Rico also have a responsibility with the reactivation, not only of the entertainment world but with the reactivation of the country’s economy so that the country, in general, can come out of this crisis,” Castro added.
He noted that other U.S. jurisdictions have already started holding concerts following COVID-19 protocols. Over Valentine’s weekend, Puerto Rican salsa artist Gilberto Santa Rosa held back-to-back concerts in Orlando and Miami and the tickets for both events were sold out. “That is what we want to replicate over here,” the COPEP president said. Likewise, Rocafort, who also produces events in Orlando and Miami, noted that the U.S. mainland has been more assertive in reopening venues, adding that he gets called often to orchestrate productions in Florida.
Moreover, Rocafort said that several high-profile artists are starting to confirm their tours for the latter part of the year, between September and October. Although he personally would abstain from securing local venue contracts until 2022, he hopes that the general population will attend these concerts as the COVID-19 threat dwindles.
“From here to December, I believe that people will get used to concerts and they will attend them. People want to go out and they miss that,” he said. “I am certain that the concerts will take off in September. After people go to two or three concerts and see that they’re not getting sick, the industry can be reactivated.”