From the quiet streets of El Ferrol, Spain, to the global stage, Jesús López has been at the forefront of Latin music’s evolution and ascent to global prominence. He’s enjoyed a career defined by innovative marketing initiatives and a forward-thinking A&R strategy that consistently foretold what was happening next. Lopez’s legacy celebrates the fusion of regional rhythms and roots music with popular culture.
Asked to look back on his career and name the releases and other career moments that stand out most, the chairman & CEO of Universal Music Latin America and Iberian Peninsula says: “I’ll go back to 1978 and start with Triana, María Jiménez and El Fary. There are the hits at Hispavox like Nacha Pop and the ones at Ariola like Radio Futura. Mecano and “Rock en Tu Idioma” at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. I must mention Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad, Soda Stereo, Juan Gabriel, Bronco, Juan Luis Guerra and ‘La Macarena’ at BMG, and at Universal, Juanes, the creation of Machete Music, Don Omar, Wisin & Yandel, Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina,’ Enrique Iglesias, Vale Music, J Balvin, KAROL G, Sebastián Yatra and, of course, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee with ‘Despacito.’”
I was born in 1955 in El Ferrol, a Spanish city of 70,000 inhabitants under a dictatorship [that of Gen. Francisco Franco] where music didn’t really exist. In the beginning, music was far removed from my life.
What was the first music that really grabbed your attention?
The first record I bought was “Mediterráneo” by Joan Manuel Serrat. As I mentioned, it was very difficult to find music in El Ferrol, but I somehow also managed to buy albums by The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
As a young man did you think you’d end up in the music business?
My dream as a teenager was to be a filmmaker and I studied filmmaking during the last years of Francisco Franco’s regime. As a university student, we were fighting for freedom and even though by that time music was essential to my life, I didn’t have the money to consume it.
How did you go from politically engaged university student who loves music to working in the music business?
When I was 22 years old, a friend offered me work as a photographer for a [Madrid] record label called Movieplay. Shortly thereafter, that friend said, “Can you join us more permanently?” I accepted and was assigned to the production department, which meant looking over manufacturing, inventory, supply-chain issues and the warehouse. I excelled in that job and six months later they said to me, “You’re studying filmmaking and we have a need for someone in the promotion department in the area of television.” Because I thought I would eventually end up in film or TV, it seemed like a good move.
In those days there was only one network in all of Spain, so the pressure to deliver was intense because you only had two or three music programs. I decided that I was going to take a different approach; I was not only going to pitch those shows, but I was going to learn from the producers and executives and become their friends.
In one instance, I realized that our sports-highlight shows were boring because they consisted solely of an announcer over the repetition of soccer goals. But everyone watched these highlights because entertainment options were so limited. It occurred to me to give the producers promotional copies of our music to place in the background of these segments.
No one had thought to do that?
No, it was a first, and it was immediately explosive. I started with three or four artists who instantly blew up. Six months later my boss came to me and said, “You’re now the head of promotion!”
You must have been really young at this point.
I wasn’t even 24 years old when I started doing promotion. Movieplay was very progressive for the time. Couple that with the death of Franco and the first general elections in 1978 and I found myself working with artists who were formerly forbidden in Spain like Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, who were from Cuba.
Who were some of the first Spanish artists on your roster?
In the first year and a half I developed three big superstars. The first was a band called Triana, a fusion of flamenco and symphonic rock. We sold a million copies in Spain alone. Another artist was María Jiménez. Her music was revolutionary; she sang traditional Spanish music but with lyrics that were very empowering to women. The third artist was El Fary, who also made traditional Spanish music but with a more popular spin. He was an absolute idol in Spain and to this day there are sculptures of him on the street.
Was there some commonality among these artists that allowed you to zero in on a path towards their ultimate success?
Working with them was a tremendous learning opportunity because I discovered something that is still key to my personal brand: understanding the value of the artist. You need to understand the artist, their artistry, and realize that there are no barriers to what they can accomplish. Those three artists were the opposite of what was being consumed at that time in Spain, and they taught me the importance of embracing artists who were true to themselves and not following trends. It’s also essential in the Latin world for the artist to know the roots of their music. That fusion of something new with something traditional has led to many great artistic successes in the course of my career.
Because of this new political freedom, was the Spanish market an especially good place to try new things?
Yes, it was. Right around this time, in 1980, there was a cultural revolution called La Movida Madrileña [also known as The Madrilenian Scene, a reference to the new openness that began in Madrid]. It was an explosion. I’d just moved from Movieplay to a new company called Hispavox, the largest independent label in Spain with some of the most important artists in the country—Raphael, Juan Pardo, Mari Trini and José Luis Perales. The label had been a very conventional company, but we young people started to sign rock and pop bands from La Movida.
So you were signing artists as a promo exec?
Yes. While A&R signed and made traditional music, they left me alone to pursue what they considered “nonsense” signings. I had success with these artists, but I also continued working with the more conventional acts. And I was lucky, because at the time we had a Warner license in Spain. This was the first time in my career that I worked with American and English artists. It was an entirely new learning process. The marketing of an artist from the United States was completely different from the marketing I did with a Spanish artist.
At the age of 28, I was promoted to deputy managing director. Within a year, the owner sold the company to EMI. They came along, thought I was too young for my position and wanted to have someone oversee me. I thought this was very unfair but as luck would have it, the label Ariola, which was later renamed Bertelsmann Music Group, called me to work with them.
In what capacity did you start?
I came in as managing director. This was the first time I’d achieved international success, with a band called Mecano, which sold 3 million copies in Spain of its album Entre el Cielo y el Suelo (Between Heaven and Earth), a historic achievement. They also had #1 hits in France and Italy. You can imagine the reputation Ariola Spain quickly earned within Bertelsmann.
But being based in Spain, did you feel your options for advancement would be limited?
Yes. My thought was, “If I stay here, I’m going to be doing what I do until I’m old!” Around this time, BMG was losing money with the Mexican company, so at the age of 34, I was appointed president of the Mexican division of BMG.
How did you turn it around?
When I arrived in Mexico, the first thing conveyed to me was, “You need to sign actresses that come from the soap operas on Televisa.” But I decided this is not what I was going to do. I discovered that there was an underground movement of rock and pop bands that nobody was signing. One of my first signings was Gloria Trevi. Her first release came out in December 1989 and by January, all the girls in Mexico were dressing like her. Gloria was a genuine phenomenon [initially dubbed “the Madonna of Mexico”].
At the same time, I came up with the idea of uniting all the bands I’d signed under one concept, “Rock en Tu Idioma” (“Rock in Your Language”), which included not only Mexican artists such as Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad, Fobia and Los Amantes de Lola but artists from other Latin American countries like Aterciopelados from Colombia, Soda Stereo from Argentina and Radio Futura in Spain. Caifanes and Maldita Vecindad sold millions of copies. It was a surprise to a lot of people that a company in Mexico could put up such big numbers. Within the first year, we’d already managed to turn a profit. We accomplished this by relying on domestic sales and combating piracy.
What percentage of sales were you losing in those days to piracy?
Based on the studies we did, 60-80%. I was the president of the trade group for the music industry, and we launched a very strong and effective anti-piracy campaign. We convinced the government to work with us and raid the pirates. We had a huge press conference where we destroyed 3 million pirated cassettes. This was all over the news. Within a week, my family and I lived under constant threat and life became very complicated with all the security measures needed to guarantee our safety.
I left Mexico. In 1994 I told my boss, “I made a commitment to turn around the company and I think I have more than achieved that for you. As you know, my family is facing a great deal of danger. What if we were to create a position where I move to Miami and take over the U.S. market and manage the Mexican company from there as one company?” I ended up retaining my leadership role with the Mexican company and was appointed SVP of Latin Music for North America, which at the time was an innovative position. Within a year, both Warner Music and Sony followed suit. The new structure afforded me a great advantage in signing artists because I could offer them two huge markets, Mexico and the U.S.
When you moved to Miami, the U.S. market for Latin music was only 20% of the size of the Mexican market. Why did you have so much faith in the U.S.?
It came down to the sheer number of Latinos living in the United States. I knew the U.S.-based Latin American companies were eventually going to be big. Within 20 years, they even surpassed Mexico and Brazil.
What was your first success in the new position?
One of my biggest career achievements was releasing a recording with Juan Gabriel, one of the biggest artists in Mexico’s history, who hadn’t released anything in eight years due to a lawsuit with BMG. I stepped in to resolve the issue, which led to the release of Juan Gabriel en el Palacio de Bellas Artes, which sold almost 6 million copies.
With that economic lift, I started to make new signings. “La Macarena” [by Los del Río] arrived in my office after being a success in Spain. I asked our Mexican and U.S. teams to test the song in Cancún, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It grew from there.
Did the dance already exist?
No, the dance was created with a Miami choreographer in my office. The dance was one of the key elements of the record’s success. Some of the other key elements were Bill Clinton’s use of the song at the 1996 Democratic National Convention and the Marlins being in the World Series, which brought them a lot of media attention and they were constantly playing “La Macarena” at the games. Then we released the remix and the song absolutely exploded.
You must have been on top of the world.
We are reaching a key moment of my career and a strange life lesson, which is that success can sometimes kill you. Because of the success of “La Macarena,” my direct boss thought I was gaining too much recognition and coming for his job, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. He didn’t renew my contract and at the age of 40, I was left without a job.
Where do you go from there?
MCA came along and tasked me with opening a Latin division. In no time, we go from MCA to Universal Music Group. I open companies, sign artists… Right out of the gate I sign an alternative rock band from Mexico called Molotov, and they sell a million copies. I also signed a duo from the favelas of Brazil called Claudinho & Buchecha, and they sell a million copies.
Then the acquisition of Polygram occurred and the entire dynamic of the company changed. My bosses tell me the Spanish and Portuguese labels are not performing well and ask if I would be willing to manage them, get them back up to speed and eventually come back to managing the Latin America division. So I went to Spain for two years and had great success, particularly with the campaign “El Flamenco Es Universal,” which featured the most successful flamenco artists, including Camarón, Paco De Lucía and Enrique Morente, and our huge back catalog. This gave me credibility within the company and prestige in Spain. In December 2022, the Spanish government awarded me the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes (Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts), which was the first time the honor had been bestowed on a record-industry executive. Felipe VI, King of Spain, will be presenting this great honor in the coming months.
How important is it to highlight regional music?
It’s actually a passion of mine. I’m not only interested in commercial music and making hits but in lifting up the native music of every country. A case in point is Juan Luis Guerra; In 1991 I licensed his Bachata Rosa album from a small company. Bachata was then a genre little known outside of the Dominican Republic. We had tremendous success with Guerra, including in the Netherlands, Germany, France and Italy.
Before leaving BMG, I signed El General from Panama and Vico C in Puerto Rico. Following this line, when I arrived at Universal, I made an incursion into what was to become reggaeton. It was obvious to me that something special was happening in the Caribbean and in places like Medellín, Colombia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Then we had Juanes, who taught me a lot about Colombian music; he reinforced my belief that the fusion of the native music, or roots music, of a country and rock ’n’ roll would lead to an explosion like the mega-success we had with “La Camisa Negra” in 2004.
This was when physical sales began to implode. In a region like Latin America, where piracy was so problematic, this must have been quite a challenge.
The decrease in sales was jarring; sales were going down 20%, 30% every year. The first thing I did was to reduce costs by eliminating redundancies. Then I went about convincing my bosses that the solution to the problem was to invest, in new ideas and more product. It was a key moment. We had to expand the company.
What did that investment look like?
I made three moves. One was to buy Vale Music, which was a strong label in Spain that had huge artists like David Bisbal. We bought the Univision Music Group division that had Fonovisa and Disa, the two largest companies in the regional Mexican genre. And we created Global Talent Services [GTS], where we realized the potential of the 360 strategy—we were managers, bookers and promoters. We did all of that between 2005 and 2008. We also started a reggaeton division, Machete Music.
In the U.S. 360 deals typically involve passive income, but, as you say, you oversee a business that houses an agency and a management company and you’re promoting shows. How has this worked for you?
In line with local legislation, in the U.S., GTS only offers our artists management services. Management of our artists is a global service, so the United States is part of a globalized strategy. But in Mexico, Brazil and Spain, the law doesn’t prevent a record company from having a booking agency and event-promotion business. In fact, in Spain GTS is the #1 booking agency as well as #1 in management, head to head with Live Nation.
When did you see these investments start to pay off?
There is certainly a degree of luck in life. You bet on certain artists you believe are credible and then seemingly, boom! We had global success with songs like [Daddy Yankee’s] “Gasolina,” artists like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar and, of course, Enrique Iglesias with his global smash “Bailando.” We also had many regional successes, like Wisin & Yandel. Then 2017 comes along and “Despacito” [by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee] changes everything; it was the biggest song in the world and it’s still the most-consumed song in history. It also put a huge spotlight on Latin American music.
Even in places like the Netherlands, Japan, Australia, all over the world, we had people recognizing that we create hits. We were no longer only having successes regionally but consistently having global success. “Despacito” ushered in a whole new wave of global artists like J Balvin, KAROL G and Sebastián Yatra. Aitana is another young artist having stratospheric success in Spain, and if we do things right, can be a global success.
I believe it’s a mix of our ability to constantly create hits and a very solid economic structure supported by a tremendous catalog. The acquisitions we made to strengthen the company and our full-service business have also had a huge impact. When you can say to an artist, “Join us and I can activate the resources of all our companies to not only help you with streaming but ticket sales and your economic and marketing strategies,” it’s an attractive option powered by an unstoppable machine.
How can Universal leverage Web3, artificial intelligence and other technological developments?
Every time there is a new technology, everyone gets nervous. You only have to look at history for guidance. Technology has always been the engine of growth for the music industry. We just have to find the formula of how best to leverage it. For instance, we already use AI for certain elements of creativity, but we don’t use it in other areas to protect copyrights. We must embrace technology but proceed with caution.
Would you agree that even after more than four decades in this business, the creative exchange between cultures and genres is still at the heart of what you do?
If you see the top executives on my team, almost all have experienced living in several countries. When they were in the formative stages of their careers and reached the top in their country, I offered them the opportunity to move to another territory. This awareness of cultural diversity is very important, and it is a grave error to assume Latin people are all the same. When I retire, that is what I will be most satisfied with and most proud of, not so much the hits. The hits can only feed the ego.
We all want to grow together, among countries and cultures. There’s nothing more gratifying than when I meet with people from my team from all over the world and we share developments and anecdotes of what is happening in our respective countries. That’s very fulfilling. The wisdom we attain from what we learn from each other is what ultimately feeds us all.
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THE HITS INTERVIEW
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