Velvet Offensive

Forget crossover: Selling a Colombian rock band in the United States is a mission for the custodians of culture -- or a very powerful magician


There is no evil that does not come to some good. On the very day turmoil beset BMG's operations in Latin America -- the first day of the fiscal year for Bertelsmann, the media giant that owns both BMG and Arista -- a change of guard at Arista Records in New York City would reverse Aterciopelados' misfortune. The German parent company edged legendary record executive Clive Davis out of the label he had founded 25 years before and appointed in his place Antonio "LA" Reid, hip-hop producer and cofounder with R&B singer Baby Face of LaFace records in Atlanta. Reid, in turn, recruited Jerry Blair for the post of executive vice president.

The burden of history weighed heavy on the new Arista executives. The outgoing Davis had blazed a trail over three decades, establishing the careers of superstars such as Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and Santana (twice). Before founding Arista in 1974, he helped usher in a new era of rock and roll as president of Columbia Records, when he signed Janis Joplin after being captivated by her performance at the First Annual Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June 1967. Joining Reid at the helm of Arista, Blair was poised to make his own contribution to the future of the industry. But with what music?

Leslie José Zigel (top) and Jerry Blair sell passion, not Pringles
Steve Satterwhite
Leslie José Zigel (top) and Jerry Blair sell passion, not Pringles
Power publicist Diana Baron heard a voice from above
Steve Satterwhite
Power publicist Diana Baron heard a voice from above

Formerly vice president of marketing at Columbia Records, the driven exec fostered a partnership between Columbia and Sony Discos that facilitated the crossover of Latin pop stars Ricky Martin, Elvis Crespo, MDO, and Son by Four. "Then [the Ricky Martin explosion] became the flavor of the day," observes Blair. "“Salsa this,' “hot that'-- every article had to be about la vida loca. It almost made Ricky become a caricature. It also opened up the world's eyes to the fact that the Hispanic or Latino market was so big. I believe that explosion showed marketers an incredible untapped market."

The trick would be to tap that market without falling into the Latin boom-and-bust cycle: hot and spicy today, gone tomorrow. On August 15, 2000, Blair found the Latin alternative he was searching for. Barely settled into their new offices, Reid and Blair stopped in at Irving Plaza in Manhattan for the annual awards ceremony hosted by Spanish-language rock magazine La Banda Elastica. The ceremony capped the first annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, a five-day event organized by publicist Josh Norek and artist manager Tomas Cookman, long-time crusaders on a quest to introduce Latin rock, hip-hop, and reggae to English-language audiences.

Even though the LAMC took place thousands of miles away from the sold-out stadiums of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Bogotá -- and even though the concert was organized more for the industry than for fans -- Irving Plaza throbbed with the aspirations and anguish of Latin-American youth that are expressed in their music. "There was an opportunity to sell a lot more records," says Blair. "You could see the passion of the kids. The energy was so incredible. I turned to LA and said, “This is what it must have felt like to be at Monterey.'"

More than any other band onstage that night, Aterciopelados captured the spirit of the first rock festival ever. Monterey crystallized Sixties counterculture by rallying 200,000 hippies and 30 bands -- including the Who, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jefferson Airplane -- around the antiwar slogan "music, love, and flowers."

By reviving those Sixties symbols, Aterciopelados protest the civil war raging in the band's homeland. Even without understanding the lyrics, Blair heard in this Spanish-language summer of love the outrage and hope of young people growing up in a nation under siege. Asked to describe Aterciopelados in three words during a recent chat on a Latin-American Website, Andrea Echeverri came up with four, adding Latin flavor to the Monterey slogan: "peace, love, music, and sabor."

The big question would be how to sell that sabor in the United States. Especially since the only thing "hot" or "spicy" about Aterciopelados' Latin flavor is Echeverri and Buitrago's opposition to U.S. policy in Colombia. The musicians object to the U.S. military action and fumigation of coca fields in their country. "A lot of Colombia's problems are due to external forces," observes Buitrago. "The big countries don't have a clear plan for reducing internal consumption [of cocaine], so instead they put pressure on the small producer countries." Describing the United States as "pro-atomic, pro-war, anti-cosmic, anti-natural" in the song "Fantasia," Aterciopelados prophesy that the empire's "black magic" is "on its way out."

Indeed one of the signs of the empire's fall might be that Aterciopelados' music is on its way in. If the marketing campaign is successful, it will reverse a century of world domination by U.S. pop music. Rarely getting up on a soapbox as they do in "Fantasia," the musicians instead oppose the ubiquitous reach of music made in the United States through their use of indigenous Latin-American rhythms. "We've had the opportunity to get to know other countries with other cultures that unfortunately, because of globalization, are being thrown away," explains Buitrago. "They are under attack by Western culture, so we are going to try to rescue them musically."

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