Leila Cobo on Dedicating Her Career to Elevating Latin Music at Billboard

Natalia Aguilera

It’s been fascinating to see how Latin music – reggaeton in particular – has emerged over the years to become mainstream. But decades before Latin music genres reached global domination and became heavily covered in the media, Billboard was already measuring it using the success of songs, albums, and artists and calculating sales distribution data and radio airplay. Thirty years ago Billboard Latin Music Week was created, which began as a one-day conference and eventually evolved into a week of conferences in Miami with Latin music artists and executives and eventually accompanied by the Billboard Latin Music Awards show. Leila, Cobo, VP of Latin content for Billboard, remembers exactly how it all began. The Latin music journalist and author has played a pivotal role in growing Billboard’s Latin presence and also programs the Billboard Latin Music Conference that takes place every year.

Born and raised in Cali, Colombia, Cobo grew up surrounded by music. “It’s a very musical city and it’s not something I really thought about growing up but now I think yes, I’m very much a product of this city,” Cobo tells POPSUGAR. “It’s a very musical city. It’s kind of a hardcore city. I’d say the equivalent in the states would be Detroit. It’s a gritty city. It’s very rough around the edges. But it’s very soulful. Music is a big component. Salsa is a big deal. ”

Cobo didn’t just grow up in a musical city but also in a musical family. Her brother is a classical guitarist, her dad was a big music lover, and Cobo like her mother is a classically trained pianist. She earned a degree in journalism from Bogotá’s Universidad Javeriana and then moved to New York where she studied piano performance at the Manhattan School of Music. She then found herself performing live in various cities throughout Colombia and in NYC but decided to figure out a way to merge both her love of writing and music. She got a master’s in communication management from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California and started landing jobs in TV and in radio. Her real taste into music journalism was a job she landed at the LA Times. They were looking for a Spanish-language, bilingual copyeditor and before she knew it, Cobo was covering Latin music concerts, albums, and artists. One of her first reviews was of a Luis Miguel concert. Cobo finally found a role doing what she felt she was meant to do. But the column she wrote titled Nuestro Tiempo, would eventually be eliminated following budget cuts and layoffs.

Cobo got rehired as a metro reporter but eventually got pregnant and had to quit. She later landed a job as a press deputy for the city councilman at the time, then in 1998, she and her husband moved to Miami, where she landed a job at the Miami Herald. Little did she know, this was the job that would land her an important role at Billboard. Cobo covered Billboard Latin Music Week during her time at the Miami Herald and eventually applied for a role at Billboard. “The title was called Caribbean and Latin Bureau Chief. What a weird title, right? At the job I had one story, I’d write for the column a week. That’s all I did. It was cool,” Cobo says. “It was in the magazine. This is when the magazine would come out every week. It would come out with my little mug shot and it was called Latin Nota. It must have been 2000 and Latin music was really happening back then. That was when Ricky Martin and Shakira were coming out. It was the Latin Explosion period and I think that was really pivotal because this was a brand that was measuring Latin music, so it was very forward in that sense. But I also thought there are all these things happening now, we need to do more.”

Though the music was being measured, the mainstream media coverage surrounding it was little to nothing. Cobo immediately saw an opportunity. “I remember the first time I put something Latin on the cover and it was with Marc Anthony. We had these covers but it wasn’t a single artist cover. And it was a Marc Anthony story on branding deals,” she says. “It started slow but the thing is we changed owners so many times. But when I got there one thing they already had in place was Billboard Latin Music Week. That existed. And Premio Lo Nuestro Awards is what is today Billboard Latin Music Awards. The fact that someone had the foresight to say let’s do a Latin Music Awards show at a mainstream brand, I think that was extremely revolutionary.”

What began as a one-day conference had eventually extended to an entire week. The traditional keynote was replaced with one-on-one Q&A’s with big Latin music artists including Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony, Ricky Marin, Alejandro Sanz, and more. As Cobo brought more and more artists to the conference, the bigger it became. The conference not only became more profitable but drew a lot more interest from artists, labels, and executives. Programming for the conference soon became her baby – what Cobo became known for.

“I made the artists a bigger part of it and in the last six years, it became increasingly important for the industry and for the labels. I suddenly had a sales department that was selling this. It became a business,” she says. People started talking about it and every year I would try to get the most prominent artists at the moment.” The Latin column that Cobo oversaw was actually written in English and gave Latin music artists like Marc Anthony at the time, the mainstream coverage they weren’t otherwise receiving. “It became more than I’m here doing a job and my job is writing about music. It became a calling,” she adds.

Earlier this month Billboard officially launched their new, all-Spanish language digital brand, Billboard Español, serving as the premiere in-language global destination for Latin music. The Billboard Español launch actually makes it the first US mainstream media company to launch an all-Spanish site devoted to music. “I’m one of those people that always said and I still think this, I think it’s really important to cover Latin music in English because I do think that Latin music is part of the whole. And when I say Latin music, I’m talking music in Spanish. For many years it was seen like OK this is Spanish, so this goes over there with the Spanish channels and the Spanish newspapers and we don’t have to deal with it but I always said but you do. It’s part of you,” Cobo says. “You go anywhere and turn on the radio and you will always find a Latin music station. You walk the streets of New York and you hear La Mega and you hear reggaeton. This is part of the soundtrack of the country. But I felt writing about it in English gave it the respectability that it deserved. But now people are really becoming proud of embracing their Spanish and the music is in Spanish.” Cobo goes on to explain the inspiration she had behind launching Billboard Español. “I feel very strongly that we are the authority. My team is bilingual. All of them. We interview in Spanish. We’re doing this already. Let’s do it in Spanish. I feel that there is an audience that’s going to consume it in Spanish and that way we can reach audiences in Latin America that don’t speak or read in English.”

During her time at Billboard, Cobo has been a part of the coverage behind some of Latin music’s biggest moments like when when Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” made number one in the Hot 100. It’s what inspired her to write her book “Decoding Despacito: An Oral History of Latin Music.”

“In 2017, ‘Despacito’ was number one for 16 weeks in the Hot 100 – which was a record. It was everywhere. ‘Despacito’ was a very transformative song. Whether you liked it or not, the song was already a big global hit but for the US, the fact that you had a song that was in Spanish and then you had a remix with the biggest pop star in the world because that’s what it did,” she says. “A lot of times people say it became number one because of Justin Bieber. Fine but Justin Bieber, the biggest pop star in the world, decided that he was going to do a remix of this song and that he was going to sing in Spanish on it. That’s such a statement. That’s saying the culture is important. This language is important and their fans are important. And my fans should take a look at this music too.”

This spring Daddy Yankee announced his retirement from music after three decades of an ever-evolving career and shortly after released his final album “Legendaddy,” which dropped on March 24th and kicked off his “La Última Vuelta” tour in Portland, OR, on August 10. While many confused Daddy Yankee for being the originator of reggaeton, the genre actually began in Panama as Afro-diasporic music created by Black Panamanians of West Indian descent. Some of the originators include El General and Renato. But what Yankee did was popularise reggaeton, bringing it to the mainstream in the early 2000s after his megahit “Gasolina” off his “Barrio Fino” album went global.

“Reggaeton was very underground music. It was happening in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t really happening here. There were no radio stations really playing it. There were a couple of albums that hit the charts. But the first album to hit number one on the Latin charts ever was “Barrio Fino” and the single was “Gasolina” but it was never number one because it got no airplay.”

“Reggaeton was very underground music. It was happening in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t really happening here. There were no radio stations really playing it. There were a couple of albums that hit the charts. But the first album to hit number one on the Latin charts ever was “Barrio Fino” and the single was “Gasolina” but it was never number one because it got no airplay,” Cobo shares. “So what happened with “Gasolina” was that it was a great song so it started getting remixed in English interestingly enough. So, it started playing on the power stations and the Latino radio stations but it never got the rotation necessary to make it number one. But it still became a huge hit because it also travelled to Latin America.”

“I think it was a huge significance because you had this genre that people weren’t really putting money behind it because they thought it wasn’t going to work. They thought it was too regional, it was too Puerto Rican, it was too raunchy, it was too vulgar, it was too hood. The sentiment was like this music is popular in Puerto Rico with a certain group of people that like this reggaeton thing but it’s never going to become mainstream because people here are listening to Luis Miguel and pop ballads and Shakira,” Cobo continues “And what ‘Gasolina’ did was like what ‘Despacito’ did. It was like OK this can work. You can have a song like this and it can be a big hit. I think that was the moment. I think what Yankee did was that he was very business savvy. What he always said was that no one really wanted to release his music, so he released it himself. He built his business one little step at a time. He showed that OK, no one is going to do this for me so I can do this for myself and I can do it effectively. I think he’s very methodical.”

It’s because of Yankee that artists like Bad Bunny have been able to find global success with reggaeton and Latin trap. El Conejo malo, is undoubtedly not just one of the biggest reggaeton or Latin music artists right now but also one of the biggest artists in the world. Not only has he broken records with his “Un Verano Sin Ti” album and took home nine wins at the Billboard Latin Music Awards on Thursday, September 29, including artist of the year, tour of the year, songwriter of the year, Latin album of the year, top Latin rhythm album of the year for “Un Verano Sin Ti, Hot Latin Songs, and Top Latin Albums of the year, male and tropical song of the year for “Volví.” He also leads this year’s Latin Grammy Nominations with 10.

“Nicky was very instrumental in the expansion of reggaeton worldwide and a pioneer in blending urban beats with pop. His musicianship versatility, multitude of hits and on top of that, his successful career in film, make him the perfect Hall of Famer.”

Nicky Jam was honored at this year’s Billboard Latin Music Awards with the Hall of Fame Award after performing his latest single “Sin Novia.” His father presented him with the award and shouted out Cobo in his acceptance speech for always supporting him and arranging for his father to be there that evening. “Nicky Jam is an extraordinary artist who despite his young age of 41, has had an extraordinary life, and one that traverses the history of reggaeton,” Cobo says. “He came from nothing but built himself up, became a star, had addictions that totally derailed his career, and then, he started again, from the ground up. That he was able to do this twice is a testament to his grit but also to his musicianship. Nicky is that rare reggaetonero who writes beautiful melodies and evocative lyrics. I can’t think of another artist in the genre who is quite as lyrical. Nicky was very instrumental in the expansion of reggaeton worldwide and a pioneer in blending urban beats with pop. His musicianship versatility, multitude of hits and on top of that, his successful career in film, make him the perfect Hall of Famer.”

Latin music coverage has come a long way since Cobo’s early days at Billboard. She’s proud to be part of the change but still has big hopes for the future. Cobo wants to expand Billboard’s menu of Latin music events to include tentpoles every quarter of the year both in and out of the US, including consumer events like festivals as well as business and thought gatherings. She also wants both verticals – Latin and Español – to continue to grow to accurately reflect the music, the business, and Latin culture overall.

“I never want to hear someone say, ‘Oh, that’s really good for Latin.’ I want people to say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, period.'”

“I never want to hear someone say, ‘Oh, that’s really good for Latin.’ I want people to say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, period.’ As for Billboard Español, I have no doubt it’s going to become the top destination for Spanish-speaking music fans worldwide. And definitely, I want Latin Music Week to become the absolute point of reference and gathering for Latin music at an international level, not just US, something we are already beginning to see,” Cobo says. She wants people to understand that Latin music is part of the cultural fabric of the US. “It may or may not be in another language, but it’s still part of that wonderful mix of cultures that make this country so fascinating and unique. We are not an other’ and we enrich this culture.”

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