The crossing-over of Latin music into the mainstream has been a gradual process, marked with ubiquitous songs like J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” the explosion of global stars like Rosalía and Ozuna and the emergence of Spanish-speaking markets throughout the U.S.
Many have contributed to this process, but the fingerprints of Rebeca Leon are all over this now global phenomenon as, in the last twenty years, she has worked for Sony Music, AEG Presents and co-founded Lionfish Entertainment with Juanes, and she is now responsible for shepherding some of the genre’s most ascendant artists.
“Reggaeton has permeated pop culture,” Leon tells Pollstar. “You could be on the street in Prague and there will be a car that drives by playing reggaeton. It’s incredible how it’s really become a global business and it’s nice to see it’s not going anywhere. As long as the music is great, nowadays that’s the only thing you need for success. You have to have a great song, you have to have great music.”
Leon is currently working with Rosalía, Chris Jeday, Gaby Music, Pedro and Lunay, and has over the years helped fuel the rise of J Balvin and Ozuna. The pandemic has obviously been a big disruption to every corner of the business, and she is now focused on helping her artists create content appropriate for the moment.
“It’s difficult just to make plans, even about next year at this point,” Leon says. “That’s been the hardest thing, we’re an industry that always plans for the future. Pre-COVID, I was never here [completely present]. I was always three months in front of whatever we were working on. For the first time, this has been cause for pause and made us all be present and not think so much about what’s coming.”While she feels like she is still too early in her career to begin counting her own accomplishments, she is immensely proud of the development of Rosalía – who she identifies as a once-in-a-generation artist – and the all-female team surrounding her, with a shout out to Rob Stringer at Sony Music, who has been very supportive.
One moment Rosalía’s brilliance really hit Leon was when she saw the artist performing flamenco in sneakers and a short skirt. “It felt like the most irreverent and important thing I had seen anybody do to something traditional in my whole life. Of course, that makes some people uncomfortable, but that’s how you affect change and evolve things. That little detail is so important because you had never seen it, nobody had ever done it. Now all these girls are dancing flamenco in sneakers.”
Prior to Lionfish, León built the Latin division of AEG and helped develop arena-level acts throughout the U.S. She credits Wisin & Yandel as being very significant figures in the expansion of Latin music, as she recalls their success in Mexico in the mid-2000s translating to West Coast and eventually national ticket sales.
“It was such a big moment in reggaeton history, it felt like they were pop stars, they had crossed over. Before, you didn’t even hear it on the radio, now its normal, but there was a time when it didn’t get played on the radio,” she says. “Obviously Don Omar and Daddy Yankee [were a part of that] too, but that moment surprised everybody, we did an arena tour. I think it was 36 markets, it was an amazing time, going into places like Denver, Kansas City, Detroit, Salt Lake City, places who you never thought would have Latin audiences, but they could sell arenas.”
It’s still too early to predict what lies on the horizon even for the rest of 2020, but Leon does foresee a scaled-back return to touring whenever it can happen, as keeping production costs and ticket prices low will be a huge factor in determining whose tours make money.
“This is an opportunity for people to be more creative and rethink how they tour. It got to the point where ticket prices were so high it would stress me out. I always think, ‘If your ticket prices are $350, and that’s two people, at least, going to a show, that’s $900 after taxes and the service fees. Then you have to park and have dinner, that’s a $1,100 night,’ and I don’t know a lot of people that can throw down like that. So I think the key is going to be doing multiple shows at a cheaper ticket price, rethinking the way you tour so people can really afford to see you in droves, because I think people are going to need music so badly, and they’re going to want to go so badly, but they are also going to be so broke. I think we have to be super price sensitive as we move forward, for the fan’s sake.”
She names her brother and husband as her two biggest mentors, saying, “They help me stay true to myself.” Her most useful advice for up-and-comers might come in the story of her own entry into the business, as she had no connections to anyone in music industry, a huge barrier of entry for many. She faxed her resumé countless times to no response, so she got more assertive.
“I really wanted to be in music and Sony was popping, so I started calling the receptionist and asked her ‘What is your temp agency?’ She wouldn’t tell me. So I sent her pizza, I sent her a cookie cake, I sent her balloons, and finally she told me the name of the agency. I filled out the form and said, ‘Don’t call me unless you have anything at Sony.’ A week later they called me and said ‘We have this job, this lady’s going on maternity leave.’ Hustle, hustle, hustle.”