Billboard’s Leila Cobo, Author of ‘Decoding Despacito,’ Decodes The Latin Market

Leila Cobo
(Omar Cruz/Courtesy Leila Cobo)

Leila Cobo, whose new book “Decoding ‘Despacito:’ An Oral History of Latin Music” looks at the history of Latin Music through hit songs.

Leila Cobo is an indomitable force of nature. As Billboard’s VP of Latin Music and author of a new book, “Decoding ‘Despacito:’ An Oral History of Latin Music,” she is one of the world’s foremost experts on all things Latin music. Originally from Cali, Columbia, and now based out of Miami, this polymath is also a classical pianist, novelist and a Fulbright scholar and programs Latin Music Week, one of the genre’s tent pole events (full disclosure: I formerly worked with Leila at Billboard). Here, Pollstar speaks with Cobo to learn more about her new book, today’s explosive Latin Market and what’s happening on the live side.

Pollstar: How did “Decoding ‘Despacito’: An Oral History of Latin Music,” no small topic here, come about?
Leila Cobo: Penguin wanted a history of Latin music and my literary agent called me and said, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, “Well, yes, I do, but a history of Latin music is huge. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around this so how are we going to do a history of Latin music and make it fun and make people want to read it?” We went back and forth on ideas and I proposed doing an oral history, I love oral histories, I could read them all day. Even then, we were going back and forth, “Okay, so are we going to do all the Brazilian genres? Are we going to do the history of all the Colombian genres?” And I thought, “Oh my God, this is going to be endless.”

At the time, they wanted to do this because “Despacito” had broken in such a big way and we had just done “The Number Ones” and I had all those interviews. I did a sample chapter of just “Despacito” and took all the interviews I had done and made an oral history. I sent it to the editor at Penguin and I said, “What about a history of music but told in oral history of the songs?” and he loved that. The book only goes back 50 years because I wanted people who were alive. I have an intro before each song explaining its importance and why it changed the course or trajectory of Latin music and then we go into the oral history and it’s their voices telling the stories.

Where does it start?
The oldest song is “Feliz Navidad“ by José Feliciano and that’s 1970.

Did you speak to him?
Yes, I spoke to everybody. The only artist that wasn’t alive, and I made the choice to leave in, was Selena. And in her case I spoke with her dad.

Leila Cobo

How was that?
That was great. I had thought if the dad doesn’t speak to me, I can’t include her. It has to be somebody that was with her when she did the song and he did. For example, when I did “Contrabando y Traición” by Los Tigres del Norte, I spoke with Jorge, he’s the leader of Los Tigres, but everyone else had died. The composer of the song had died, his first manager who found the song died. Each one was different. In Selena’s case, it was really beautiful because the dad told me the story behind the song, that it’s based on his grandmother’s story, so it was really lovely. It was different from all the other chapters.

What about the history of the Latin live market? I would think perhaps it was marginalized, much like African-American artists, where they couldn’t necessarily play the same venues white artists played?
I think it was different. In the book I start with an example of Pérez Prado in the ‘50s and how all of that was happening. But at one point I say mainstream America may not have known Vicente Fernández or Juan Luis Guerra or Carlos Vives, but the fact is they were selling out Madison Square Garden. So maybe the American mainstream didn’t know them, but these guys were touring and selling out and making money. A lot of that money probably wasn’t even reported to Pollstar or Billboard, but it was happening. It was just under the radar. I think the struggle has been to get it above the radar so that it’s recognized.

African-Americans had the Chitlin’ Circuit, was there anything similar in the Latin live space?
Yes. In the Latin space, very specifically in the regional Mexican market, there was and there is a circuit of what they call bailes or dances. And they call them bailes because people actually get up and dance. But that’s like the circuit of Pico Rivera Arena and all the rodeos around Texas and California, but also in North Carolina and Florida. In Florida they play the fairgrounds up in Palm Beach and above and down in Homestead, which is where the big Mexican pockets of population are. And it’s a completely different circuit. They bypass the arenas, the theaters, but that’s where their fans are. Now, over the last eight years maybe, there’s been a movement to bring this music into the arenas. But even those that play arenas still play the baile circuit, because that’s where the hardcore fans are. People go, drink, dance and eat, it’s a very lucrative business.

Who are some of the biggest promoters or agents or even and venues from that circuit who established the market?
I think the Pico Rivera Sports Arena in East LA. It can seat a range of 5,000 to 6,200 patrons. If you do a search for Pico Rivera Arena, it comes up with all these shows, they have nine groups now. I literally just got something from Banda MS and they’re huge. They play The Forum, they just finished a tour and played Dallas and Austin. It’s not just the Southwest states either. They do a lot in North Carolina, Nebraska, anywhere there’s Mexicans. And you know what? Mexicans are everywhere.

It’s a huge market. What about the agents and promoters? Who was putting on and bankrolling these shows? Was there an agency like CAA or William Morris?
No, but let me tell you, I think that what’s great about the book, she said touting her book [laughter], is that it highlights 19 songs, and each song represents a different genre and a different time. And the artists come from different countries. It’s not like every artist is a foreign country, but there’s a lot represented and it’s a really wide range. So you see something like the “Conga” chapter from 1985 and Gloria [Estefan] talks about how that song was born after playing a nightclub in Holland, in Utrecht. And actually, it’s a scene from their musical. So they played a nightclub there, they did a conga line, people went crazy and that inspired the song. Then she talks in that chapter of how in Miami they were playing weddings. They were playing quinceañeras. And in Latin America, they were playing arenas. So it also highlights how different each market is. But because they were playing gigs in Miami, they could test this song and they could tell that it was going to be a hit.

Then the next song in the book is “El Gran Varon” by Willie Colón. And Willie Colón and the writer met at a gig in Mexico. So Willie was playing a dance, a salsa concert in a venue in Mexico for a couple of thousand people. Omar Alfanno, who also had a salsa band at the time, was opening. We talk about “Burbuja de Amor,” from 1990, that’s Juan Luis Guerra. In that chapter, they talk about how they took bachata to Spain. They would play arenas in Spain and people would be swooning over Dominican bachata.

And by the time you get to someone like Ricky Martin or Shakira, which is 1999 and 2000, of course it became completely professionalized. Ricky Martin was one of the first, well, no, that’s not true, because I saw Luis Miguel before that, but Ricky Martin, of course, had a huge US arena tour promoted by CAA and I don’t know if he was with Live Nation at the time. Shakira also worked with CAA.

Ricky Martin
(Denise Truscello / Getty Images)

Ricky Martin, who Cobo says helped take Latin touring to another level, performing at his “All In” residency at Park Theater at Monte Carlo Resort & Casino in Las Vegas in 2017.

And that proved there was a lot of money in that market and that’s when the bigger promoters and agencies got involved?

It doesn’t mean the market wasn’t viable before, it means they weren’t paying attention. I think it’s a little bit what happens with media. The media doesn’t cover Latin music because they don’t have anybody covering it. Sometimes, you just need someone to show you that it’s there. I think AEG hired Rebecca (Leon) at some point. CAA has Bruno (del Granado), and he’s a big booster. You need an advocate. If you’re an artist, you need an advocate. If you’re a genre, you need an advocate, too, if you’re not a genre the mainstream recognizes.
So you have 19 songs that show this progression of Latin songs through an oral history, if you were to chart them by their success and revenues generated, public’s adoption, maybe radio airplay, do you think it’s something that is an upward trajectory?
Interesting question. I don’t think you can, it’s impossible to compare, because it’s just such different times, but I will say that the last songs in the book are “Despacito” which, of course, is a huge revenue driver. And then after that, I have J. Balvin’s “Mi Gente”,  and by the way, talking about live, you know that J. Bavin just announced a residency he’s doing in Las Vegas. He’s doing this thing called Neon for 6,000 people. It’s presented by Pollen. It looks really interesting. Those  tickets are already on sale.

And then after that, we have Rosalia’s “Malamente.”  There’s several factors, pre-streaming, you had a lot of these songs were on vinyl and CDs so the mechanicals were really high. But now you have millions and billions of streams, so it’s a different kind of revenue. So I wouldn’t know how to compare it to be quite honest. I think each one has been successful in its own way. I think in some of them the artists have known how to collect their revenue and others less. But all of these songs, though, were hugely successful in their time.

I have “Suavemente” by Elvis Crespo. It’s a merengue, and I don’t know if you remember that song, but that song sold a million copies in the US alone. It was the most successful merengue ever in the history of the charts, and then he remixed it in English. And it was a hit all over the place. So these are songs that made history.

In terms of the historical perspective, it’s all cyclical, right? Latin music is undeniable, but there’s moments in popular culture when it rises to the top and suddenly, whatever, Los Del Río or something, explodes and everybody’s like, “Oh, my God, We’re having a Latin music craze.” What’s that like from your perspective?
It is cyclical. It’s been there steadily because there’s a Latin population and this country is the biggest music market, so what happens here matters. There’s always been Latin music, because you have a large Latin and Spanish-speaking population. But definitely there are peaks and there are valleys and right now we’re at a peak. 1999 was a huge peak. 2000, 2001. And then we had a steep valley for a while. There was Latin music, but it wasn’t exploding like it is now. I think that this started to change in 2015 when YouTube started to grow in Latin countries and artists there discovered YouTube and started putting their music out. The was a dramatic change. And now there is more music, so they’re investing more in the region and new artists.

I know it’s been a weird year, but when we come back, where do you think the Latin live market will be at?
Well, they’re going to have to retake what we’ve paused on, but I can tell you that right off the bat, there are several huge major Latin tours that have been announced that are on sale right now. There is Maluma, which is a big arena tour. There’s Ricky and Enrique, which is massive arena tour. Here in Miami, we see a lot of theatrical things going on. The Fillmore in Miami is having residencies. J Balvin announced that residency in Las Vegas. There’s several tours I know of that simply haven’t been announced because they’re waiting to see when the venues will open up fully and they’re lining up their ducks. I think you’re going to see a lot of touring this year, definitely here in the States.