A Spanish Song at No. 1? All It Took Was Justin Bieber

Labels are “knocking on my door for Latin artists to collaborate.”

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.

Photographer: Getty Images

In the music business, the so-called song of the summer is a release that gets so much airplay and streaming and so many views online during the warm-weather months that it becomes synonymous with summer fun. Think Drake’s One Dance or Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. An early front-runner for this season’s title has something totally different going for it: It’s in Spanish. Despacito, a sensual fusion of pop and reggaeton, is topping the charts in 57 countries, from Brazil to Russia to the U.S. That means—for the first time in 21 years—the world’s most popular song is a Spanish-language release.

The surprise hit, recorded by a pair of middle-aged Puerto Ricans mainly known in the Spanish-speaking world, offers a template for how music labels can use their increasingly global reach to stretch a song’s popularity beyond its core audience. Sprinkle in a familiar voice—in this case, Justin Bieber’s—and a local-language hit can become an international pop sensation.

Despite the growing clout of Hispanic consumers, Despacito is the first Spanish-language song to reach No. 1 in the U.S. since Los del Río’s Macarena in 1996. Bieber’s remix put Despacito on top of the charts in the U.S. and U.K., the largest and third-largest music markets. Credit also goes to streaming services YouTube and Spotify, which have amplified the drawing power of artists from outside the U.S. while making it easier for U.S. acts to reach fans around the world.

Songs of Summers Past

The successful collaboration between Bieber and Luis Fonsi, an established star across Latin America who was joined on the original song by Latin rapper Daddy Yankee, has label executives bandying about ideas for the next great cross-market mash-up. What if Katy Perry teamed with a Brazilian singer, Drake traded verses with a French rapper, or One Republic collaborated with a Colombian songwriter? (That last one actually happened in May, with the release of Sebastián Yatra’s remix of No Vacancy, which has gotten 4.3 million views on YouTube.)

“My sister labels—Republic, Capitol, Polydor—are now knocking on my door for Latin artists to collaborate all the time,” says Jesus Lopez, chairman of Universal Music Group’s Latin America and Iberia division, whose U.S. Latin entertainment label released Despacito. “If you want to be a very successful artist around the world, in the age of streaming you need success in Brazil, Mexico, and Spain.”

Fonsi is hardly an overnight success. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Orlando, his 1998 debut album reached No. 27 on the Billboard Latin Albums chart, and his third, Amor Secreto, hit No. 1 in 2002. He landed a spot that year as an opening act for 11 Britney Spears shows and later a gig as a coach on the Chilean edition of The Voice, but until this year hadn’t cracked the top 10 on the main U.S. charts. “People are realizing how important Latin music is for the world,” Fonsi says. “This song has broken that language barrier.”

Lopez knew he had a hit early on. The sound, blending pop with dance, was new for Fonsi, best known for romantic ballads. Fonsi wanted to team up with a vocal collaborator—a common pop-music audience-building strategy—and initially recorded a version with a Sony Music artist. When Sony rejected the song, Fonsi turned to fellow Puerto Rican Daddy Yankee, most recognized for his 2004 hit Gasolina.

Fonsi and Universal took nine months to fully develop the single and its companion video, a vibrant romp filmed in Puerto Rico with former Miss Universe Zuleyka Rivera. Despacito was an instant hit when it was released on Jan. 13, amassing more than 5 million views on YouTube in 24 hours and reaching 1.6 billion views to date.

The track reached No. 1 in dozens of countries, spending 17 consecutive weeks atop the charts in Spain. It was climbing up the U.S. charts as well. Then in April, Bieber heard the song in a Colombian nightclub while on tour. The 23-year-old pop superstar spoke with his manager Scooter Braun, who reached out to Fonsi’s record label asking if Bieber could access the studio sessions. Within a week, Universal had released Bieber’s remix—with the chorus still in Spanish—and Fonsi joined Bieber onstage in Puerto Rico. The remixed song hit the top 10 in the U.S. that first week and reached the pinnacle the next. The video is on track to reach 2 billion views faster than any clip in YouTube history—in any language.

The song would never have been as big a hit without Bieber, Lopez says. Latin music has always struggled to cross over without at least a splash of English. Despacito is the first song by a Latin artist to top the charts in the U.K. since Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca, which wasn’t sung in Spanish. “The future of Latin music is bilingual,” Lopez says. “My son speaks more English than Spanish.”

Latin music’s future is also in streaming. Piracy ravaged the music business in Latin America and Iberia for much of the past 15 years, particularly in the three largest markets—Spain, Brazil, and Mexico. Yet streaming services such as Spotify are catching on within the category. One result: Music industry revenue from Latin America grew 12 percent last year from 2015.

Fonsi will begin his next tour on July 1, when he’ll return to old haunts throughout Spain and Argentina but also visit some new locales in Finland, Thailand, and Russia.

“I’m getting to visit countries and cities I’ve never visited before,” he says. “It’s a new beginning.” Latin music recording executives hope they can say the same.

The bottom line: Bilingual remixes and collaborations with global stars may be the key to Latin music’s crossover success.

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