Latin Music's Continued Dominance into 2021, and the Merge and Emergence of Music Genres

It’s still the first month of 2021, but a few music releases have already suggested the types of trends (or rather, strengthening of trends) that look set to take hold through the rest of this year. Just this past week, Selena Gomez released her first Spanish-language single, “De Una Vez” and hinted at the possibility of finally releasing a Spanish-language album, after mentioning it over a decade ago. A few days later, Billie Eilish and Rosalía dropped their new collaboration “Lo Vas A Olvidar,” in which Eilish sings completely in Spanish for the first time.

To put it more explicitly, Spanish-language music and Latin artists are catapulting into the global mainstream, and for anyone who has listened to the Billboard Hot 100 or watched trending videos on TikTok in the past year, this will be no surprise. While I’ve spent a lot of time delving into K-pop’s success last year, Latin music has in that same time seen an even more meteoric rise. According to MRC Data and Billboard’s first joint year-end report for 2020, Bad Bunny & Jhay Cortez’s “Dakiti” became the first non-English track to top both the Billboard Global 200 chart and the Billboard Global Excluding-US list last November. MRC and Billboard also noted that Bad Bunny’s 3 album releases in 2020 each performed strongly on the charts, contributing to the reported total audio consumption increase of 26.9% year to date, including a 13.3% increase in on-demand audio streams since March of last year.

Also quoted in the MRC / Billboard report is Victor González, President of Universal Music Latin Entertainment, who contextualized just how significant the popularity of Latin music has been:

During these times for music creators and fans alike, music is playing an extremely important role in everyone’s lives. We’ve seen Latin Audio streams out-pace the growth of the overall industry by nearly 10%, fueled by artists like Karol G who has the number two streamed Latin song overall for 2020 (‘Tusa’) and is having a great moment with ‘Bichota.’ It is no secret that Latinos over index the general market on video and music consumption. This year that behavior was more present, and the numbers in the USA as well as globally show that.

There are two important footnotes to the worldwide success that Latin music has been enjoying. The first is that, despite the previous successes of Spanish-language songs like “Despacito” and Latin artists like Shakira, the widespread streaming of Latin music has been a very recent phenomenon. The second is that this success has not been shared equally amongst the different sub-genres of Latin music.

Both of these observations seem specific to a particular trend, but they also underscore the changes affecting an important facet of the music business: genre.

The Merge and Emergence of Genres Over Time

As any music listener might intuit, music genres are unstandardized and ill-defined across the industry. Conventionally speaking, genres have helped to indicate anything from a song’s musical form to an artist’s musical style, the cultural and geographical context in which the song was created, or the content and themes in its lyrics. As a result, a piece of music or an artist can be associated with genres with varying levels of specificity. For example, the MRC / Billboard Year-End Report listed 11 genres in representing the state of last year’s music industry, while Spotify maintains a list of nearly 3,000 genres through which to categorize artists in their database. For a framework that’s been so inconsistently applied across the industry, music genre is quite omnipresent: it affects which charts a song might rank on, which mixes a discovery algorithm might recommend, and which murals an artist might be honored with. It’s also an important feature to consider in analyzing historical music trends and predicting new ones.

Latin Music as an Emerging Genre

In reference to the footnotes made earlier on Latin music trends, I began my analysis of music genres around the question, “What are the ways in which popularity of different genres have changed over time?”

To get quantifiable data, I decided to use the global top 50 songs for each year of the past decade and track the genres that those songs were labeled with to determine which genres were popular during each year. Spotify has one of the most generous APIs for genre labeling, so I turned to a massive Kaggle dataset that pulls from the Spotify API and selected the top 50 songs for each year to analyze.

Because Spotify categorizes genre on the artist level, I used the genre labels tagged to each artist on a top track as a proxy for the genres for that given track. In addition, because the streaming giant often tags artists with a long tail of specific genres, I selected the top 10 genres from each year and tracked how they changed with time. I decided to add the year 2000 into the mix for even earlier comparison. The result is the following heatmap:

The most represented genre is Pop, which makes sense given that most mainstream songs are by definition included in the Pop genre. While Pop was the most frequent genre of top songs in the past decade, the second-most represented genre of 2010, Dance Pop, has seen a steady decline over the years. This may be attributed to the fact that other genres, particularly Melodic Rap and Rap, have been streamed more in recent years. The genres of 2000 also provide an interesting perspective, given that Metal genres were popular in that year but are absent from top songs by the next decade.

Most notably, of course, is the sudden spike of Latin-related genres last year. Other than the all-encompassing Latin genre, the rest were appearing in top songs for the first time. It’s also interesting to note the specific types of Latin genres that have appeared - Trap Latino, Reggaeton, and Reggaeton Colombiano all have roots in hip-hop and rap. Given the steady representation of Rap genres in recent years, a rap-loving mainstream may have found these specific Latin genres to be digestible despite language constraints.

The Cross-Genre Nature of Today’s Popular Songs

The fact that the ubiquitous embrace of rap may have led to the rising consumption of Latin genres easily led me into a second question of wondering how the combination of different genres that appear in popular songs have changed over time. After all, Dua Lipa kicked off the disco-modern pop trend that was followed by many throughout 2020, including BTS, who found a way to incorporate disco into K-pop with astounding success. And of course, it would be remiss to omit Lil Nas here, whose 2018 release of “Old Town Road” became a symbol for the ultimate cross-genre hit due to its unique mix of country, rap, hip-hop and trap.

To see how genres were co-occurring in top songs today, I again took the top 50 songs of 2020, this time including all of the genres Spotify tagged to the artists whose releases were in the top 50, to determine how different genres of songs (or more accurately, given the constraints of the API, how the genres of different artists) were co-occurring in a typical release. Following a similar but somewhat abridged version of the method used in my analysis of BTS lyrics, I created a co-occurrence matrix using CountVectorizer, a tool in the Python machine learning library Scikit-learn. The matrix represents how frequently different genres appeared together across last year’s top songs, with values represented in the standard correlation coefficient range of [-1,1] and where the closer a value is to either -1 or 1, the more the two genres are related. In total, 58 different genres were considered, listed below with the mapping to the number representation in the following matrix:

Some of the strongest correlations in the matrix are of genres which often appear together. In some cases, this is due to one genre being commonly categorized as a sub-genre of another - for example, Latin (23) and Trap Latino (50) are shown to have a 0.95 correlation. In other cases, correlation is high due to similar geographical origins, like in the case of Tropical (52) and Latin Hip-hop (24), which see a 0.9 correlation.

In my view, the most interesting genre correlations are stylistic, the ones in which two distinct genres seem to co-occur because the mainstream finds their combination of musical forms and sonic palettes stylistically compatible. Indie Pop (22) and Bedroom Pop (2), Atlanta Trap (1) and Gangster Rap (18), and Canadian hip-hop (9) and Southern Hip-hop (45) are just a few of genre pairs that are highly correlated due to their similarities but also complementary in their differences.

Given the curious nature of having two fully Spanish-language releases by two mainstream American female singers this week, there are a few Latin-specific correlations I wanted to point out: One is that Pop Reggaeton (36) and UK Pop (56) are pretty positively correlated, at 0.7. Reggaeton itself has a distinct Latino identity but also a pop structure, so it is not far-fetched to consider that Pop Reggaeton could meld with UK Pop, which represents mainstream European music, in a sonically pleasant way. 2021 has so far seen American artists jump into the Latin music craze, but given the strength of Pop Reggaeton and UK Pop co-occurring songs in the past year, I anticipate that releases from European artists who experiment with Latin genres will become hits this coming year as well.

The second is the negative correlation between Latin (23) and Canadian Pop (10), at -0.29. While Latin music has been positively correlated with many other pop genres, Canadian Pop stands out as one of the exceptions. I hypothesize this is because some of the largest representatives of Canadian music, including Shawn Mendes, The Weeknd, Drake, and Justin Bieber, were not in the category of artists who explored Latin genres this past year.

This points to a key caveat in the co-occurrence analysis, which is that the data I’ve used for the matrix is limited to the top 50 songs of this past year. It would also be interesting to see the correlations across more data points in order to get even stronger validation around co-occurrence of specific genres.

Genres in a Globalized World

With the ease of discoverability that streaming brings, music has become even more globalized in the past 5-10 years. The fact that two previously local genres, K-pop and Latin music , were able to converge into the mainstream with such force this last year proves that music listeners everywhere are experiencing ever-increasing access to new and all types of genres. While in many markets local genres may still reign supreme, I look forward to seeing niche genres continue to become popularized in interesting ways and heard around the world. Music, after all, is the universal language.