Crossover dreams bankrolled in Selena’s wake

While most Latin music industry execs will deny that the death of Tejano star Selena has focused their interest in the genre, in the last several months more than two dozen genre bands have been inked to lucrative recording pacts.

And while the verdict is still out on whether the death of the popular singer will sustain a major marketing push of the Tejano genre – Tex-Mex country/polka dance music sung in Spanish – into the mass musical landscape, many labels are betting heavily that Selena’s unparalleled commercial success can be duplicated.

But most important, Selena’s success has also opened the doors – and eyes- of retailers.

And while label execs are privately hoping the singer’s murder, which has also piqued the interest of Anglo music fans, is a mother lode that is poised to be mined, the macabre aspect of how Selena’s posthumous success has allowed the major labels to profit has caused several major label execs to decline to be interviewed for this story.

But the months following her murder – allegedly by her fan-club president Yolanda Saldivar – have shown that the potential for the music she proffered continues to mushroom. And major music conglomerates including EMI, Sony and Warner Bros., already ensconced in the market, have recently increased their Tejano operations.

Arista Records chief Tim DuBois, as part of a contract renegotiation three years ago, got funds to establish Arista/Texas, an Austin-based label whose plan it is to succeed with primarily Tejano artists.

BMG has indicated its faith in Tejano by inking six new artists to spearhead its foray into the Latin market: Lizza Lamb, Juan Manuel Y Delirio, La Fiera, Las Venenosas, Tony Montana and LaTraision.

EMI success

EMI Latin, the home of Selena, though recognizing the genre’s potential years ago, has signed Bobby Pulido. Thanks to Selena’s success, EMI will log its biggest year since starting the division – which includes La Sombra, Gavino and Grupo Mazz – in 1989.

In addition, Pulido joins the growing list of artists – Ramiro Herrera, Jay Perez, Rick Orozco and Joel Nava, among them – who will release country albums or sport country tunes on their discs to target both Anglo and Hispanic audiences, just as Selena did with her English-lingo recordings that made up most of the posthumous “Dreaming of You.”

But while groups such as La Diferenzia, Culturas and Fama are emerging as frontrunners in the Tejano marketplace, the next big thing to crossover has yet to surface.

Therein lies the rub: Most Latin music execs admit there aren’t any artists that can easily step into Selena’s shoes and lead the Tejano charge, but the current popularity of the genre begs for a successor.

Without one, they feel, the public’s interest may wane.

The fact that these labels and artists are investing so heavily in the genre actually speaks to the buying clout of the Hispanic community, the genre’s main purchasers. The record industry has been slow to recognize the purchasing power of Latinos.

It was that formidable purchasing power that helped “Dreaming of You,” shoot to the top of SoundScan’s Top 200 Pop Albums sales chart this year.

Latinos are also credited with helping sales of the disc reach nearly 2 million copies in very short order, resulting in EMI Latin facing an unprecedented back-order of 400,000 units, and a tremendous cash surplus.

In previous years, a successful Tejano disc might sell 30,000 copies. But discs now often reach the 100,000 sales plateau.

Labels are clearly spending more to lure and market talent.

Whereas a label in the pre-Selena explosion may have spent less than $300,000 to launch a new act, major labels today are edging Tejano artists closer to the spending equivalents of their pop counterparts – $750,000 to $1 million.

Bands are also sharpening their stage presentations with pyrotechnics and flashy showmanship, signaling that the Tejano industry is ready to become mainstream in a fashion similar to the way country star Garth Brooks broke open the stage possibilities for country artists.

Pioneering Tejano acts had been launched through a handful of Texas-based independent labels such as San Antonio’s Cara Records. The independents ruled the Tejano marketplace until late 1985, when Jose Behar, then a CBS Records exec and now chief of EMI Latin, inked a distribution deal with Cara. The deal landed him early successes with Emilio Navaira and David Lee Garza.

When Behar moved to EMI to open its Latin music division, he pacted with Selena for an unprecedented six-figure contract. Selena went on to become Tejano music’s first female star.

Realizing Selena would outgrow the genre, and perhaps taking a cue from the career of Gloria Estefan, Behar began orchestrating the crossover campaign of Selena last year, six months before her death.

And the campaign didn’t skip a beat after she died.

Sales nearly triple

After the murder, sales of Selena’s “Amor Prohibido” almost tripled, reaching 1.5 million copies sold; her EMI Latin catalog saw an increase of 2.4 million units.

And EMI’s competitors have not forgotten that while the crossover campaign of Selena was full-throttle, the Spanish cuts from the album were receiving major airplay on Spanish radio, indicating that simultaneous success with two distinct audiences is possible.

To that end, labels in the Latin music fray with acts such as Emilio, Ram Herrera, Shelly Lares, and newcomer Joel Nava are having their artists record material in English, with the hopes of landing cuts on both English and Spanish lingo stations.

The push by major labels to sign more Latin artists has forced aligned industries, such as the live concert circuit, to develop and make room for the onslaught of newcomers.

Promoters new to Latin music are offering the opportunity to play arenas in California, Colorado and Michigan. And not surprisingly, corporate sponsors including Coca-Cola and Miller and Budweiser beers are aligning their products with Tejano entertainers.

Some pundits believe it’s only a matter of time until a Tejano artist hits the pop charts with a song in Spanish, signaling the genre’s widespread acceptance.

And if Hollywood can make a feature film documenting the life of Selena, then the crossover stardom she and her label sought will be realized.

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