In the heart of New York City’s East Harlem community known as “El Barrio,” there is a new mecca, the FB Lounge, where authentic improvisational Afro-Caribbean and Latin music resides. This is where New York City’s best Latin musicians and those in the groove come to play and jam. On any given night, a great musician may drop by to sit in on the jam.
With unquestionably deep roots in African rhythms, techniques and instruments, Latin music is alive and well in the United States, especially in New York City, where some 2.3 million Latinos live, according to U.S. Census figures. “Latin music would not exist without bongos, congas or timbales — all are percussion instruments and all have roots in Africa. Likewise, there wouldn’t be Latin music without other African influences, such as syncopation,” said Latin percussionist, composer and bandleader Bobby Sanabria, in a February 2009 interview for NPR radio on Latin jazz’s West African roots.
Afro-Latino singers, songwriters and musicians have left, and continue to leave, their mark on popular Latin music. Among them: Celia Cruz, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Joe Cuba, Arturo O’Farrill, and, more currently, Don Omar and Frank Rodriguez. With relatively little control of the industry’s lucrative production, distribution and sales infrastructures, they benefit most financially from public performances. The digital age, however, offers new revenue-generating opportunities.
Latin music accounts for some $300 million in sales each year in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade organization whose members create, manufacture and/or distribute about 85 percent of all legitimate recorded music produced and sold in this country. That figure does not come close to the billions of dollars in revenue from the manufacture and sale of instruments and accessories that produce the unique Latin sound. Nor does it include revenue from festivals and major performances.
Instruments and accessories are a key market segment for all genres of music, accounting for billions of dollars in revenue. In 2009, according to IBISWorld, musical instruments and supplies stores took in $6.35 billion in revenues.
Toca Percussion, a division of KMC Music Inc. (formerly Kaman Music Corp.), the largest independent distributor of musical instruments and accessories in the U.S., was created solely in response to the Afro-Cuban sound that thundered across the country in the early 1990s. The percussion instruments Toca manufactures and sells worldwide include bongos, congas, djembes, doumbeks, timbales and a line of “ethnic instruments” with such names as “djun djun’s with mallets,” “bata drum,” “talking drum” and “wood cajon.”
The company’s Web site describes the “Afro” impetus for its entry into the Latin music market:
“During the early ’90s, the music scene began to bustle with new trends. A new craze called drum circles began making headlines in the news, around the same time a new Latin sound called ‘Afro-Cuban’ was hitting the pop charts with the Miami Sound Machine’s hit ‘Conga.’ Hand drumming was receiving a great amount of press as more people began to take up hand drumming as a recreational hobby. People wanted to drum for a variety of health and wellness reasons, along with pure enjoyment. All the while, the Latin sound became more popular and mainstream. KMC Music decided to introduce Toca Percussion as a choice in hand percussion instruments and accessories. Toca was designed and developed to have a different look and provide the ‘Afro-Cuban’ sound.”
While instruments and accessories remain a hugely profitable sector for manufacturers and retailers, record companies and record retailers are singing a different tune as digital technology shreds physical record sales. The RIAA says the value of Latin CD and musical video sales, including DVDs, fell to $271.0 million in 2008 from $462 million in 2007.
“The domino effect of the Internet and the digital downloads — legal and illegal — followed by the disappearing act of the retailers, and some major and independent record companies, is dramatically changing the business landscape,” says Maximo Aguirre, principal of Maximo Aguirre Music Publishing LLC., one of the country’s leading independent publishers of Latin music, and author of the “Latin Corner” column for the Association of Independent Music Publishers. “Some major acts are realizing that the erosion of sales is reducing the marketing budgets and, therefore, the promotion of their music. Record companies are experiencing a drastic decrease of physical sales and there is no significant progress in the digital Latin market, but artists live off their performances, not record sales.”
Still, says Aguirre, the digital age offers new opportunities for Latin music artists as companies try to attract customers from a community whose size and buying power are rapidly expanding. He describes these opportunities in a recent “Latin Corner” column:
Video games. With an eye on both Latin America and U.S. Latino market, the makers of SEGA, Wii, Xbox and other games are using more Latin songs. These games sell millions of copies and can generate big revenues for songwriters.
Ringtones/ringtunes. Mobile-phone companies are looking to use music to attract consumers for their new generation of cellular phones.
Video ringtones, ringbacks and streaming. Videos are a hot product on phones, on the Internet and in social networks like Facebook. Internet companies will pay big amounts to access the catalogs of major labels.
Commercials. There is a marked increase in advertising campaigns aimed at the Hispanic market, all of them using music by Latino artists and Latino songwriters, generating significant synchronization fees.
Digital downloads. Increasingly, record labels are offering their catalog and new releases through online retailers. With the Internet reducing the world to the size of a computer screen, songwriters can co-write songs with a songwriter in Argentina, Spain or Brazil; show their songs in any country; listen to other writers’ songs; collaborate, make versions and place songs; and discover new artists, new labels and new publishers.
As performers literally turn to the public to boost their income, old performance venues are catching a second wind, and new ones are springing up in cities and towns with large Hispanic populations and Latin music lovers. The return on investment in such venues can be huge.
Opened in 2008, the FB Lounge has presented such great musicians as Andy Gonzalez, Ron Carter, Dave Valentine and Bobby Sanabria, who performs on a regular basis. The Lounge is owned by the brothers Jorge and Roberto Ayala, who originally purchased the small popular restaurant across the street that they named La Fonda Boricua in 1996. The cozy little eatery quickly became a favorite among local residents and citywide Latinos who were looking for a place where their food and culture took center stage. With the restaurant’s popularity and the success of its Latin Jazz Thursdays, which kept expanding its performance schedule to accommodate more musicians, the brothers decided to open the FB Lounge.
Way downtown in Soho, Gonzalez y Gonzalez is known for its fine Mexican cuisine, but from Thursday to Saturday customers dance to swinging salsa, mambo and Latin jazz rhythms. Free salsa dance lessons are given before the live band jumps off. Thursdays live music runs from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, with a DJ playing until 1:00 a.m. On Fridays and Saturdays the band hits at 11:30 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. and the DJ takes over until 4:00 a.m. There is never a cover charge.
The famous SOB’s (Sounds of Brazil) in Greenwich Village is perhaps the only club that can honestly represent the banner of world music. From its very beginning 28 years ago, it has presented Brazilian music and has enjoyed a proud history of presenting Latin musicians such as Tito Puente and his famous big band, Eddie Palmieri and the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. SOB’s is one of the main stops in New York City for Latin music, whether it’s jazz, salsa, Latin/fusion or anything in between. Friday night offers free salsa classes, as well as live Latin music from some of the best-established musicians and young lions on the rise. The venue offers live music every night that is always on the edge, always swinging and guaranteed to make you move. The menu and drinks are as exciting and good as the music.
For those looking to hang out and dance at a landmark venue where Frank Sinatra, Diahann Carroll and the sassy Mae West performed, the Latin Quarter is the place. Lou Walters, father of Barbara Walters (WABC-TV’s The View), opened the club in 1942 at Broadway and 47th Street with humble, and sometimes gangster, beginnings. Since then, it has been uprooted and moved at various times until 2003, when producer/manager Ralph Mercado, founder of RMM Records and Video, reopened it in the Radisson Lexington Hotel on Manhattan’s East Side. Although the club is under new management, it preserves the traditional spirit on Friday evenings with a live Latin band. The music begins at 10:00 p.m. Admission is $20.