Panel Discusses Opening Up Hispanic Market to Country Music

But Executives Admit They Don't Know How to Do It

Americans of Hispanic descent are a huge potential audience for country music — but no one is yet certain how to tap this expanding market. These were the two broad conclusions that emerged from the “Hispanic Market Research and Strategy” discussion held Wednesday (Aug. 1) at Nashville’s Belmont University.

While acknowledging the economic and cultural importance of Hispanics in the U.S., a panel of country music executives confessed they were doing little to appeal to that population. Moreover, they said it was a delicate area to explore since country audiences tend to be conservative and hostile toward Hispanics, an attitude often fostered by country radio personalities.

The event was organized by Country Radio Broadcasters, sponsor of the annual Country Radio Seminar.

Larry Rosin of Edison Media Research began the program by presenting the research results about the Hispanic market he first revealed in March at the 2007 Country Radio Seminar. He said Hispanics constituted 9 percent of America’s population in 1990 but is expected to grow to 24 percent by 2050. During this same period, the non-Hispanic white population is projected to decline from 76 percent to 50 percent.

According to Rosin, Hispanics migrate to the U.S. for the same reasons earlier European refugees did — for a better life for themselves and their children and to become Americans (while still retaining a relationship with their native culture). Although Hispanics are the most populous in the western U.S., Rosin said their percentage is growing everywhere.

Hispanics listen to radio a bit more than their white counterparts do, but country radio is only their 10th favorite format, garnering approximately 2 percent of the total listening audience.

Rosin explained that his firm based its findings on 22 face-to-face interviews with Hispanics in Houston and Miami and on a national telephone survey of an additional 600 subjects. All those polled were in the 12-to-49 age range. Among these, 24 percent said they enjoyed country music, 36 percent said they disliked it and 40 percent said they didn’t listen to it but were open to doing so.

In the videotaped interviews of those questioned in Houston and Miami, the country artists they mentioned during the conversations were Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Randy Travis, Johnny Cash, Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, George Strait and Clint Black.

Criticisms of country music included “it’s boring,” “the stories are repetitive,” “I don’t relate to it” and “people don’t like to dance to country music.”

Name recognition of country acts was fairly low among those polled. Even the highly publicized Dixie Chicks rated only a 51 percent recognition. The Chicks’ sometimes-nemesis, Toby Keith, came in at 35 percent. Even the mighty Garth Brooks registered only a 46 percent familiarity.

There were some other warning signs for country music: 41 percent of those polled said they believed country radio stations aren’t interested in appealing to Hispanics. And most Hispanics — 62 percent –didn’t even know if there was a country music station in their area.

The study asserted that to open up this market, country stations should “build bridges” to the Hispanic community by advertising in Spanish-language media and that they should hire outside consultants to advise them who are familiar with the market. There was also the suggestion that stations might stream country programming with Spanish introductions on their Web sites.

Following Rosin’s presentation, Rio Grand, a new group from Curb/Asylum Records, performed four songs for the audience, including its current single, “That’s My Memory,” a version of which includes Spanish lyrics.

Then the industry panel took the stage. Its members were Mike Dungan (president of Capitol Nashville Records), Kevin King (program director of WSM-FM in Nashville), Gary Overton (head of EMI Music Publishing/Nashville) and Bobby Roberts (CEO of the Bobby Roberts Company talent agency). Warner Bros. recording artist Rick Trevino was scheduled to participate but didn’t.

Most of the panelists said they were surprised to learn how receptive Hispanics say they are to country music. “Artists tell me they are seeing more Hispanics show up at their live dates,” Roberts noted.

Roberts’ company, which is based in the Nashville suburb of Goodlettsville, Tenn., recently launched a Latin division in Los Angeles. It is headed by Maritza Baca, president of the U.S. Hispanic Country Music Association. The division currently represents a package show made up of Nashville Star alumni John Arthur Martinez and Melanie Torres, plus Bobby Marquez and Janie Feliz.

Dungan conceded that his label is doing little to open the Hispanic market beyond keeping its eye on promising talent. “What our market needs is a Hispanic star,” he said. “I think it will probably be a female star first because our culture tends to accept females [more readily].”

“I think country radio would embrace [the Hispanic thrust] if the product were right,” King said. “It’s definitely a marketing issue. … Country radio is arguable the most conservative format in America. It doesn’t dare upset the core audience.”

Rosin asserted that air personalities on certain country morning shows are “blatantly antagonistic” toward Hispanics. “We have to be careful about what our talent says,” he warned.

Dungan said he believed the target audience is second-generation Hispanics since the first generation that comes to the U.S. tends to be wedded to its native culture and “doesn’t really want to let go.”

Overton said that as a song publisher he tends to follow the lead of country record companies and the live music business in generating songs. Because EMI is an international company, he said it is common for him to recommend songs from his country catalog to branches in other nations where other languages are spoken. “A song really doesn’t care who sings it,” he observed.

Rosin noted that the core country audience’s response is “extremely negative” toward Spanish lyrics being played on country radio. He suggested, though, that country artists might reach out to Hispanic audiences by rerecording some of their hits in Spanish.

“How do we get this [kind of hybrid music] out?” Dungan asked. “I don’t want to listen to country music in Spanish or Italian or Polish.” He noted that “fans are very protective of their music” and don’t want to see Spanish-speaking artists coming into country music simply as a career move.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to