Stars on Parade

The presence of several hundred musicians, composers, record executives, publishing company figureheads, members of the media, and surgically enhanced groupies in Miami for the 2005 Billboard Latin Music Conference & Awards wasn't needed to prove that the popularity gap between Daddy Yankee and Akwid is enormous, that teenagers who illegally download music to fulfill their listening pleasure are hurting the industry, and that Paulina Rubio still can't sing a lick.

The awards show on Thursday, April 28, the conference's culminating event honoring artists who produced the top-selling albums and most frequently played songs on Billboard magazine's Latin sales and radio charts between February 14, 2004, and February 5, 2005, left plenty to be desired. A stage setup unappealingly dominated by aluminum-looking silver color schemes only underscored the show's shortcomings: The thousands of empty seats and the lack of energy onstage exhibited by most of the performers (which might have been a direct result of not enough accompanying dancers) made for a boring, slow-paced show.

Cristian Castro's, Marc Anthony's, and Juanes's performances were marred by a glitch in the sound system that rendered their voices several decibels lower than normal. Rubio, in spite of the audience's overwhelming approval of her, sang off-key and blurted her way through "Dame Otra Tequila" ("Give Me Another Tequila"), once again leaving little doubt that she is one of the worst live acts in recent times. But Franco De Vita and Olga Tañon shared the stage for an enthusiastic and passionate rendition of their current hit single "Ay Dios" ("Oh God"). After the song was finished, Tañon stayed onstage for a bouncy run-through of "Bandolero" ("Bandit"). Unlike Rubio, the Puerto Rican merenguera displayed a powerful and rangy voice that brought everybody to their feet. De Vita and Tañon were the sole acts that night worth remembering.

In contrast, the panel discussions, which were held at the Hotel Intercontinental from Monday to Thursday, were often standing-room-only affairs packed with an audience that unabashedly feted the stars on display, even though many of these observers were seasoned industry folk hailing from as far away as Mexico and Latin America.

With the hip-hop/reggaeton craze in full swing, the aptly titled World Apart - East Meets West roundtable on Wednesday -- which gathered several acts such as top-selling Puerto Rican act Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Crooked Stilo, and urban regional duo Akwid -- was one of the most highly publicized events. During the discussion, Akwid member Francisco Gomez frowned upon the lack of publicity and airplay he, Crooked Stilo, and others in the urban regional movement receive outside of Texas and California while Daddy Yankee, Ivy Queen, and Pitbull get the support of an East Coast-based record industry. For example, on the same day as the discussion, Bad Boy Records owner Sean "P. Diddy" Combs announced that he was launching a new Latin music imprint with Pitbull, Bad Boy Latino.

"As much as I would love to see it happen, I'm here to tell you that [Akwid's] music will never fly in a place like [Miami]," said Gomez, whose comments drew gasps from the audience. "The bottom line is that a radio DJ out here is going to push [Daddy Yankee's] 'Gasolina' a million times over because that's what people know and want. They sure as hell don't know about our genre."

"I'm all for my music to get more exposure on the East Coast. But not if it means leading a life in jail and on the street," added Gomez.

"If it means more record sales and more exposure, I'm all for being in jail and thug life. Verdad, Daddy Yankee?" answered Pitbull. His response drew applause from the crowd; there must have been some thugs in the audience.

Pitbull then offered an olive branch to Gomez. "I've never heard from any of you guys coming to us and saying you want to work together," said Pitbull. "And that's what it's going to take for all of us to take this to the next level. It doesn't matter where you're from, what you eat, and how you dress. We must work together to make it happen." Pitbull's offer to collaborate with Akwid was made in the heat of the moment; only time will tell if it's genuine.

But if Smells Like Teen Spirit, which took place the day before, was any indication, it may not matter what Pitbull or Akwid do. That discussion, moderated by Leila Cobo, Billboard magazine's bureau chief for Miami and Latin America, was meant to be a glimpse into the lives of ten teenagers from Latin America and their music-buying and consumption habits. But when she asked the panelists to raise their hands if they illegally download music off the Internet, all but one of the teens responded by lifting their arms.

Cobo tried to put the teens on the spot, noting that many in the record industry are losing their jobs because of declining record sales due to illegal downloading. But even when pressed on the subject, none of the teens seemed to be bothered. "I just feel that a lot of kids out there -- just like me -- think there are a lot of worse things you could be doing. I mean, we're just downloading music. What's the big deal?" said eighteen-year-old Andruw Salguiero, who admitted that he downloads an average of 20 to 60 CDs a week.

Of the many artist showcases held throughout the city during the week, the best was the haunting performance offered by composer/producer Facundo Monty, who had everybody's attention during ASCAP's Latin Acoustic Showcase at Yuca Lounge on Lincoln Road. Strumming an acoustic guitar, the Argentine-born Monty poured his heart into an emotional set, singing original compositions such as "Olvidate" ("Forget It") and "Si Supieras" ("If You Knew") with a clear yet high-pitched voice -- a performance that shook up a 100-person audience that was crammed into the small club.

From the outset, the Billboard Latin Music Conference had plenty to offer. But what started out with plenty of promise ended anticlimactically with a poorly assembled awards show. Maybe next time a little more of Monty and less of Rubio would benefit all involved.

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