Interview with JAVIER PORTUGUÉS, A&R at Sony/Columbia, Spain, for Las Ketchup (Europe No. 1) - Nov 11, 2002
“TV programs like Popstars give the wrong idea of what the music industry is.”
Javier Portugués is an A&R at Sony/Columbia in Madrid, Spain. He is responsible for Las Ketchup, who are currently topping the European charts with “Asereje”, one of the world's biggest-selling singles this year.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
In the late 80s, I was the drummer in Modestia Aparte, a band who had several multi-platinum records and were signed to Polygram. After that, I was a session musician for many great Spanish artists, including Rosana. I then went into the publishing business as an assistant A&R director at BMG Publishing, and after that I was a local product manager with Warner Music. I’m now working as an A&R director for Columbia/Sony Music.
What experiences have helped develop your A&R skills?
The most important is having been a musician and artist. When your job depends on your relationships with artists, you have to talk the same language as they do. Artists know if a person talks to them as an executive or as an artist/musician.
What styles of music do you work with?
I don’t work with a specific style. I just wait for the perfect song, like all the other A&Rs in the world do. Sometimes you know when you’ve found it and sometimes you just guess. I have my preferences, of course, but I try to forget them when I’m working. If something is good, no matter the style, I just try to appreciate it.
How did you first hear about Las Ketchup?
Las Ketchup were, in fact, already in touch with a number of record labels in Spain. I wasn't the first person to receive the demo, but when I did, and Raúl López, the director of Columbia, and listened to it together, we just stared at each other and said, “Wow, this is fantastic!”
It came from ShakeTown Music, a very small record company in Córdoba, Andalusia. At first, our only intention was to arrange a distribution deal. But when we listened to it, we realised it had international potential. So we negotiated with ShakeTown for Sony to sign the artist, which they agreed to.
The relationship has been good all the way, the artists are now quite international and they have found a record company who can develop their careers worldwide, so everybody’s happy, including us, because we own the copyright of the song.
I met the three girls who make up Las Ketchup for the first time six months ago. They lived in Córdoba and were working odd jobs, including trying to find a gap in acting. It has all happened quite rapidly and they're trying to adapt to this new situation, which I think they’re doing well.
Was “Asereje” one of the songs on the demo?
Yes, of course. There were two songs on the first demo we heard, “Asereje” and “Kusha Las Payas”, which is the second single. We decided everything on the basis of those two songs.
What did you see in them that made you want to sign them?
It was the enjoyable stupidity of the lyrics, which tell the story of a guy who goes to a discotheque and whose favourite song is “Asereje”. The chorus is a phonetic game where a classic rap song (“Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang (“I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie”) – Ed.) is imitated in a language which is not Spanish, but just nonsense! Completely crazy. We all tried to sing the chorus and always failed, but we knew it could be a challenge for people to try to learn the lyrics.
Who arranged for Manuel Ruiz, the producer, to work with them?
Manuel “Queco” Ruiz is a famous flamenco producer in Spain and it was he who discovered the girls and brought them to us. ShakeTown Music are Manuel Illán and Manuel Ruiz. Manuel Ruiz produced them from the beginning and also wrote “Asereje”.
That foreign tourists on holiday in Spain would hear the song, buy the single when they came home and make it a hit in their country, was this something you had counted on?
We didn’t do it on purpose. But Spain has lots of tourists and we knew it could be a hit on the coast, which is full of British, Italian, French, and Dutch people. And they did greet the record very warmly. But I think it could have been a success at any other time of year too.
What acts are you currently working on?
I’m preparing a new album with Malú, an incredible girl with an incredible voice who is a big artist in Spain and in the Latin American market. We sold more than 250,000 copies in Spain only of her last album and this is to be her fourth album. I have a new band called Capitán Sonoro; we just released the second album with solo artist Abigail; and we’re also currently finishing off the Spanish vocal sessions for the next Julio Iglesias album.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
I don’t want to be involved in the production, because it’s not my job. My job is to set up the right producer, the right songwriters and a good environment for the artist. If I do that and the results are good, then I’ve done my job. I go to the studio when everything is almost finished, and I give my opinion of course, but I try not to be involved in the recording process.
How do you find new talent?
I listen to all the demos we receive and I go to concerts, although I don’t like that as much, unless we’re talking about a rock group. But if we're talking about pop, the first impression live is not necessarily the best one. I also contact managers and producers to get them to bring their pearls to me and not to other companies.
So you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. I might receive fifteen a day and I try to listen to all of them. But sometimes it will be the third band I get from the same producer, the inlay is exactly the same, I listen to the first song, it’s what I expected it to be, so I leave it. The problem is that when I travel, as I will be doing soon for the Malú recording in Miami, when I get back to Madrid there are piles of demos waiting and that’s horrible. But I get to it, little by little.
I don’t think a demo's production is important, that comes later. The songs are obviously the hardest part, and maybe only one out of ten is any good.
What do you look for in an artist?
I look for songwriters, unless you have a really great voice, like Malú or Céline Dion. I prefer artists to be songwriters too, because if they’re not, I will have to look for songs and will have to call the same publishers and songwriters I always do. Which means I will be doing the same record over and over again. So I look for originality in the songwriting of new artists.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
No, they’re not knowledgeable enough. I blame the music industry itself and TV programs like Popstars and Operación Triunfo, who give the wrong idea of what the music industry is. Everybody in Spain now thinks that anybody can be an artist, that my neighbour who sings in the shower can be an artist.
But it all comes down to talent, which you can’t learn. You can learn how to improve your vocal abilities, you can learn how to dance and you can better your look, but you can’t buy or learn talent, which is difficult to explain to people.
Would you work with acts from outside of Spain?
I’m beginning to do that. I’m trying to sign a guy from the UK and it would be the first time. I’m also beginning to work with foreign publishers in order to widen the scope of the song material I get.
How sure do you need to be about the market space available to an act, before signing and releasing them?
Completely sure. Right now, the record industry situation in Spain is quite chaotic, because of piracy. Apart from the Internet problem, there’s the private copying problem, which is estimated to be about fifty percent of the market. It means we have to be completely sure of how many records we can sell with an artist. You have to study the situation, but even so, you always have to count on magic.
How much does it usually cost to record an album and then market and promote it in Spain?
The cheapest part of the process is recording the album. It’s the end of the age of great studios, great sound technicians, and great mastering in New York. We now live in the Pro Tools era and good quality recordings are not expensive.
The most expensive part is marketing, much more so than the promotion. You do promotional tours with the artist, TV and radio programs, but it’s the TV marketing and radio campaigns that are costly. Ten percent of the total cost is recording and ninety percent is promotion and marketing.
How much do you consider potential international sales when signing a new act?
Las Ketchup are my first international success, so this is new for me too. I’m beginning to follow the international charts and I listen to artists' CDs to try to understand why they sell, when it is in fact inexplicable.
How easy or difficult is it for Spanish artists to sell in Latin American countries and in the Latin market in the US?
It’s not easy at all and I’m very upset about that, because we always sell Latin American artists. It’s a political question. It’s becoming easier, but we are not on an equal level yet. Spanish artists like La Oreja de Van Gogh, Malú and Las Ketchup are just beginning to open doors for other artists.
What do you think of Spanish artists, songwriters and producers?
Right now, the situation is not so good. For example, we don’t have a rock market. It’s difficult to find good rock artists, we just don’t have them, because there are no places to do concerts and there are no producers interested in doing rock.
Teenagers now want to be instant solo popstars, with no preparations and with almost no talent. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find good artists and the difficulty lies in the absence of professionalism. In Spain, we tend to think that everything is fun, that it’s easy to be successful right away, without wasting money on things like videos and recording quality guitars... There’s a lack of responsibility, not only from the artists, but also from the audience.
When I see how they work in the US, or just when I receive songs from publishers in Scandinavia, they have a much higher level of professionalism.
What do you think about the situation of the media in Spain, do radio and TV break new artists?
It’s completely horrible. As I told you, these TV programs are just horrible. Three years ago, there was a TV program called “Séptimo de Caballería”, that had acts playing live, one-hour concerts with major artists, interviews about music; it was a program based on music. It’s almost impossible to see live music on TV now; it’s always playback.
And radio tell us they aren't interested in doing interviews with artists, that they just wait for the single. All they are interested in is filling their programmes with songs that are nice and danceable, that’s the important thing. The media are forgetting about talent, good songs and live acts.
Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?
There are so many different situations. As an artist, you will have a lower royalty percentage on your first album than you will on your third if you then have platinum sales behind you.
Artist royalties are about eight percent. If we sell a lot, it could be ten percent. And if you’re a big artist like Alejandro Sanz or Las Ketchup, you can perhaps reach fifteen to twenty percent, although that’s unusual.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would begin by telling the media that all of us have to be true to our responsibilities. The music industry is not just about entertainment and selling records, it’s also culture, and it would be great if we all understood that. Then we would have live performances on TV and radio and we would be more interested in the actual songs and less in how good-looking the artist is. That’s very important to me.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
As a professional, the Las Ketchup success. But on a personal level, it’s when I worked as a product manager for Warner Music, because I worked with artists I was already a fan of, like La Unión, Presuntos Implicados and Cómplices.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years?
Every day I wake up thinking about the days when I played the drums. Maybe in the future I could do that again.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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