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'My Life Has Gotten Crazy'

Ricky Martin, whose album sales are zooming after his Grammy win and performance, is first in a crowd of Latin popsters set to cross over.

April 19, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ricky Martin is rushing from one interview to another, stuck in the back of a car somewhere in his whirlwind U.S. publicity tour, fielding yet another interview on a crackly cell phone connection.

The handsome Puerto Rican singer has been an international star for 15 years--since he became a founding member of Menudo and went on to sell more than 13 million Latin pop albums as a solo artist. But never like this.

Martin's star has become a supernova since his charismatic live performance of "The Cup of Life" on the Grammy awards telecast in February, where he captured the nation's (and Madonna's) attention--as well as the Grammy for best Latin pop album. Sales of the album, "Vuelve" (Come Back), jumped sixfold the week after the performance (from 3,400 units to 21,000 units), which in one blow pushed Martin, 27, to the brink of crossover superstardom.

On Tuesday, Columbia Records will release the debut single from Martin's first all-English album, "Ricky Martin," due in stores May 11. The single, "Livin' La Vida Loca," (Livin' the Crazy Life) is already a hit on mainstream radio stations and the video is being played regularly on MTV.

Michael Schultheis, record sales manager for Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, says sales of Martin's music jumped "about 100 percent" after the Grammy performance, and predicts that with the release of the English album, "he'll be a household name." (To kick off the release of the peppy, ska-laced single, Martin will appear at the store at 1 p.m Tuesday.)

"Since the Grammys, my life has gotten crazy," says Martin, who, it turns out, is in Miami on this day, doing promotional interviews for the upcoming album. Though he was born and raised in San Juan, Martin's English is perfect, a skill he demonstrated in his role from 1994-96 as the long-haired Miguel on the ABC soap opera, "General Hospital," and as Marius in the 1996 Broadway production of "Les Miserables."

Martin is the first in a crowd of Latin pop stars poised for crossover success in an unprecedented industry push that reflects both a significant shift in national ethnic demographics, as well as changes in international music buying patterns.

There are more than 30 million Latinos in the United States, with an estimated $370 billion in spending power, according to the National Hispanic Media Coalition. The Latino population in the country is growing six times faster than the overall population, and Latinos are predicted by the U.S. Census Bureau to overtake African Americans as the nation's largest ethnic minority by the year 2005.

In addition, the Latin music industry saw a 24% increase in dollars in the first half of 1998--more than twice the growth rate for the overall market. Latin music is the only genre whose growth is called "amazing" by the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which opened an office in Miami last year, headed by lawyer Ricardo Dopico, to address the enormous domestic and international growth of the genre. The United States is by far the world's single-largest music consumer, accounting for 33% of sales in the $38 billion industry, and is the largest single consumer and producer of Latin music.

All of this spells profits for record industry executives, who have begun to pour money into developing acts like Martin simultaneously in English and Spanish. Tommy Mottola, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment Inc., says that he and others in the business "are looking at [Latin pop] as a serious business" now, and that the genre will be the new pool out of which mainstream pop stars are drawn.

Mottola added that there hasn't been a white male mainstream pop star of significance since George Michael, and said he believes that Martin and a handful of other Latin pop stars who are bilingual and bicultural (and handsome) are obvious choices to easily fill that gap.

Other Latin pop stars readying English crossover releases include Spanish pop crooner Enrique Iglesias, Colombian rock singer and songwriter Shakira, Puerto Rican soap star and pop singer Carlos Ponce, and New York salsa singer Marc Anthony. In addition, Bronx-born actress Jennifer Lopez has recorded a slick, Latin-flavored English language pop album for release in June.

Demographics and sales aside, however, there is another, less tangible factor at play in the newfound interest in Latin pop artists, according to Jody Gerson, vice president of EMI publishing, which has a contract with Iglesias.

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