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U.S. Crossover Hits Elude Latin Alternative

In a music industry plagued by stagnant sales, Latin music represents a potential bright spot: It rang up $650 million in U.S. sales last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Some industry insiders predict that number will swell to $1 billion within this decade.

For years, critics and fans of Latin Alternative have predicted that it would be the next big thing. The genre, a potpourri of influences ranging from salsa to hip-hop, is wildly popular in the Spanish-speaking world.

But while bands such as Ozomatli and Café Tacuba have earned praise from the mainstream media and a sizable non-Latino fanbase, Latin Alternative has yet to impress recording executives in the United States.

Rafael Fernandez, vice president of Latin Music for the Recording Industry Association of America, notes that more than half of Latin music sold in this country is Mexican regional and another 40 percent is primarily pop. Fernandez himself listens to Latin Alternative, but its sales aren't sizable enough to matter.

One big obstacle for Latin Alternative is radio play, which is scarce in this country except on some public and college radio stations. The genre is too Latin for English-language rock stations, and too offbeat for Latin radio.

Boosters of Latin Alternative would love to see more crossover artists like Mars Volta or Shakira, but many musicians say they like it exactly where it is: stubbornly uncategorizable, and available to anyone who takes the time to seek it out.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.