Urbano Is Breaking U.S. Streaming Records, But English-Language Media Hasn’t Caught Up Yet

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

Last week, two of music’s biggest names respectively achieved YouTube milestones. The music video for Drake’s 2018 hit single “God’s Plan” officially crossed the one billion plays threshold. So too did Daddy Yankee’s “Con Calma,” his latest hit making big moves on the Billboard charts. Yet amid the ceaseless stream of Drake coverage surrounding the NBA finals, in which the Toronto advocate prompted at least as much as media attention as anyone actually playing for the Raptors, the latter story received scarcely any fanfare in the English-language entertainment or music press.

Nevermind that it was reggaetonero’s fifth clip to join the so-called Billion Views Club as a lead or featured artist (compared with three for Drake), or that he accumulated these “Con Calma” views in a quarter of the time it took “God’s Plan” to do, or that he continues to hold the mantle of most played YouTube music video of all time thanks to “Despacito” (6.2 billion). Yankee outperforming Aubrey at the biggest streaming platform in the world alone ought to be newsworthy, to say nothing of the event itself bringing him closer to disrupting Ozuna’s similarly underreported rank as the artist with the most videos in the Billion Views Club – seven in total.

As fans know all too well by now, our urban Latin thing remains woefully underrepresented and frequently misrepresented by the American media. Language barriers, inherent historic biases, and a cognitive deficiency of understanding the phenomenon of Spanish-language music have put urbano on mute, at least in the circles and outlets that ought to know better by now. Lumped in with Latin music, a nebulous and laughably broad genre construct, the successes of Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Natti Natasha, and countless others either get ignored or treated as some sort of novelty, the outdated “Latin Explosion” narrative lingering from its pre-millennial milieu.

Among the myths and prejudices keeping reggaeton, trap en español, and urbano-adjacent pop down is the notion that our ongoing accomplishments of late are niche or regional, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Such thinking chalks up triumphs like Yankee’s YouTube wins win last week to non-U.S. consumption, absurdly dismissing it as somehow not as valuable as a scenario where the plays were domestic. Putting aside this prejudicially loaded logic that trivializes hitmaking and stardom in Latin America, even a casual glance at the data shows that urbano has a significant domestic presence.

At YouTube, representation proves strong when analyzing U.S.-based music video consumption. On average, Spanish-language or bilingual clips comprised 17% of the domestic Top 40 and some 19% of the domestic Top 100, year-to-date. Last week specifically, they made up 20%of the Top 40 and 21%of the Top 100. The highest charting of these, Jhay Cortez’s “No Me Conoce” remix with Bad Bunny and J Balvin took the No. 9 spot with 3.9 million plays in just its fourth qualifying week. Not far behind that was “Te Robaré” (No.11, 3.8M), “Con Calma” (No. 13, 3.6M), and “Callaita” (No. 21, 3M). While those numbers make up less than 10% of those tracks’ weekly global totals, it’s still unrealistic and just plain wrong to assume urbano isn’t making a significant impact here in the U.S. as well.

Given that Spanish-language singles are clearly contending well alongside English-language ones at the biggest streaming platforms, why is urbano still so grossly underrepresented in American media coverage?

Considering the democratic nature of the YouTube platform, one unfettered by subscription schemes, Americans are clearly choosing to play songs in this genre. By relying on advertisers to foot the bill more so than paying subscribers, both it and Spotify present an accurate picture of music consumption simply for being widely used and devoid of any up-front cost to the listener. Like YouTube, Spotify makes their internal chart information available by country, providing play counts and correlative rankings for a given week’s top tracks. Looking at just the past week at its U.S. Top 200, 5% of the most 200 streamed songs there were either partially or entirely performed in Spanish, six of which charted in the top 100. That range starts with nearly 5 million plays of Jon Z’s feature on YG’s “Go Loko” and ends with some 1.6 million plays of Nicky Jam and Ozuna’s “Te Robaré.” The first purely Spanish-language cut on that ranking, Bad Bunny’s “Callaita” took the No. 41 spot, with 3.3 million streams. For context, that’s more domestic plays than any single track off of Future’s Save Me EP and all-but two of the songs on the Jonas Brothers reunion album, both of which dropped that same week. Also in that listing were: Lunay’s “Soltera (Remix)” (No. 74, 2.5M), Yankee’s “Con Calma“ (No. 82, 2.4M), Sech and Darell’s “Otro Trago” (No. 85, 2.3M), and Tyga’s “Haute” with J Balvin (No. 100, 2.1M).

So then, given that these Spanish-language singles are clearly contending well alongside English-language ones at the biggest streaming platforms week-in and week-out, why is urbano still so grossly underrepresented in American media coverage? Beyond the aforementioned biases, to answer this maddening question we need to acknowledge the institutional factors that intrinsically favor English-language music, thus aiding in the systematic downplaying and perceived dampening of urbano’s growth and success here in the U.S.

The industry standard for music charting, Billboard employs a proprietary chart methodology to determine its weekly “Hot” rankings. Factoring in airplay, digital download purchases, and streaming music, this multi-metric calculus applies to the all-genre Hot 100 as well as more specific singles charts like Hot Latin Songs, Hot Rap Songs, and Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. What informs and drives those rankings, however, has changed considerably in the digital age, with YouTube music video views first qualifying as of 2013 and most recently revised in 2018.

The “Hot” rule changes that went into effect at Billboard roughly a year ago place a higher value on some streams than others. While in the five preceding years, all such plays were treated equally, with 1,500 domestic on-demand streams deemed equivalent to one song purchase. In the current model, Billboard categorizes each stream like so: a paid subscription stream still counts as one point towards the 1,500 point marker. But ad-supported streams like YouTube views or non-paying subscriber Spotify plays have count as 2/3 of a point, while programmed streams on services like Pandora count for half a point.

While the motivation behind this revised and more granular methodology may not intend to do harm, it puts Spanish-language music at a systematic disadvantage in the U.S. market. Urbano, regional Mexican, and other such singles that thrive and soar at YouTube, are discounted by a full third, while English-language tracks that have support from a broader media soar, thanks to comparatively more radio stations nationally, and more of a presence at paid streaming platforms. In this model, then, Billboard assigns a higher relative value to a song stream on Apple Music or Tidal, which operate solely on a paid subscriber model, than to one on Spotify’s free tier or YouTube. If the point of the charts is to gauge popularity, it seems absurd that a stream at Tidal, which has been accused of inflating its already low industry-wise subscriber numbers, should count more than that of one on YouTube.

Overall platform size and comparative consumption volume at Spotify and YouTube potentially offsets at least some of that disparity, yet the April announcement that Apple Music had officially surpassed Spotify in paid subscriptions in the U.S. by some 2 million accounts suggests that the tech giant has more impact on the charts than ever before. While urbano has a good profile at Apple Music in the U.S., bolstered there with its own distinct regularly-updated landing page spotlighting key new singles and curated playlists, hip-hop dominates there. Though the actual figures can fluctuate based on release weeks, the platform’s domestic Daily Top 100 bears this out, with hip-hop tracks typically comprising over half of that ranking. (Looking at 2018 as a whole, the genre category made up over 60% of the 100 most played tracks there globally as well. However, that might have something to do with lower levels of paid membership in Latin America than in the English-language markets like the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.) The company doesn’t publicly share user demographics or other such data breakdowns. But regardless, Latinx listenership isn’t monolithic. As shocking as it may seem, not all of us are Ozuna fans; some would rather listen to Drake.

Despite all this, urbano singles continue to break through at Billboard, though these artists and their labels clearly have to work harder than their English-language peers to accomplish this feat. This week’s Hot 100 includes nine Spanish-language or bilingual tracks, making up 9% of the chart. One can only imagine how much higher that number would be if all on-demand streams were still treated the same, and how much harder it would be then for American media outlets to ignore this movement.