José Behar

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

Miami Beach, Florida. I moved out here in 1978.

What brought you to L.A.?

Opportunity. Florida and Miami are a lot of fun, but to this day, there is not much industry unless you want to work in a restaurant or you're a doctor. It's like both extremes. So I came out to Los Angeles thinking that there would be opportunity out here. I tried the stand-up comedy thing. I was so funny, I'm working here! [laughs]

What was your first job in the music business?

I landed at A&M Records in the mailroom. Back then, I had a friend who was working in the international mailroom. It sounded like fun. I just took it on as a job to pay the bills. That was it. Little did I know that I would make my living in the music business.

Where did you go after the mailroom job?

One day I was doing my mail run, and Jack Losmann (A&M's head of International) told me about an opportunity there was to work with A&M's new Latin division. A&M had hired an A&R guy. He was signing all of these artists, but they forgot they had to market, and promote and do everything else that needs to be done once you have a record finished. He offered me the job like three times. I kept saying that I really wasn't interested.

Why weren't you interested?

Well, I grew up in this country. I was born in Cuba, but I grew up in this country. I didn't see myself getting involved with Latin music, even though I had an appreciation for it, and I enjoyed it. I just didn't see myself going that route. The third time he asked me, he said, "Look, if you hate it, I promise I will put you back in that lovely mailroom." So sure enough, I went to work for the Latin division. The next thing I knew, I was living on an airplane—going all over the country, going to Puerto Rico, promoting Maria Conchita and several other artists. I started making a name for myself in the business breaking records.

So you were going to radio stations?

Oh yeah. Big time. That's what I was doing—getting airplay. After doing that for a few years, CBS called me and offered me a job. I started doing A&R, kind of running their West Coast office, which was a huge business for CBS. It was a big deal for me, and I learned a lot by overseeing sales and promotion and signing artists. Fortunately, I had some success there. Then EMI called me and said they wanted to open up EMI Latin in 1989. After thinking about it for about a year—we went back and forth—I said I'd do it.

When I left CBS in 1989, everybody thought I should have my head examined, because this thing (EMI Latin) didn't exist. Why on earth would I do it? But you know, CBS wasn't offering me a job to helm their label. I didn't see it in the near future, and I was ready for the next big step. We built this thing over the past seven-and-a-half years. It's a very big business for EMI Music North America.

Congratulations! You are the number one Latin label right now, aren't you?

That is correct.

How do you find your new artists?

At the beginning, I did all of the A&R, because I really didn't have a big staff. Today, with the big signings, I'm still very involved as far as final approval and so on. But we're at a point now where we have a lot of acts that sell out of Texas that are economically not very risky. We have A&R people out in Texas and Puerto Rico that are constantly looking for acts.

Do you get inundated with tapes in the mail here?

Yes. I have two A&R people here. I no longer, honestly, sit down [and listen to tapes] unless it comes from somebody like a lawyer. I just don't have the time to sit here and listen to all of these envelopes that come in.

Do you sign artists from Mexico and South America?

We have EMI affiliates for those countries. I find it much more practical, especially with Mario Ruiz running EMI Mexico, that if there is a great act there, to ask Mario to please check them out. If they're not interested, then I'll sign them, but I would prefer they sign them if the group has their home there.

How did you find Selena?

I used to go to the Tejano Awards every year. When I worked at CBS, I really beefed up the label with a lot of Tejano acts. It was really just coming into its own, but it really turned me on. So I went out there. Multinationals weren't going out there. You had to get your shoes full of mud to go see a Tejano act, literally. They would play out in the middle of nowhere in a field. But there would be all these people out there dancing. I said, "My God." It was ruled by the independents.

About two weeks after I started at EMI, the Tejano Awards were on. The awards are a huge deal. I called Mario and asked him to accompany me. He was already with EMI, and I had no artists. I had no employees. I had nobody. So now I'm going from King to Loser, sitting there by myself. Nobody gave me the time of day. [laughs] Mario and I were leaving the Tejano Awards, and just as we were walking up to the big doors in the back of the San Antonio Convention Center, the crowd went kind of crazy. This young kid came on stage and was dancing and singing. We stopped, and we were both very impressed. We went right back in and waited for her to finish. I went up to her after the show backstage, and I said, "I'm Jose from EMI." She said, "Get outta here!" She didn't believe me. Finally, like the third time, I said we wanted to meet her manager. Her dad came out, and the next day we had breakfast, and the rest is history.

Her father, to this day, says he signed with me because I already had a reputation in the business for being a little bit aggressive, especially in that region of the country—although he tortured me for like five or six months making it like he didn't want to sign with me and all that. He still tells me to this day he knew he would sign right away.

You signed her basically on just that one performance?

That is correct.

What had she done before that? How did she happen to be there?

What happened was, she was starting to kind of get her name around locally in Texas—San Antonio, little pockets of Texas. That was unimportant to me. I didn't sit down and say, "By the way, let me have your resume. What have you done?" I think we've kind of been ahead of our competitors as far as bi-cultural acts are concerned: Secada, the Barrio Boyz, and Emilio. I was looking for the next Gloria Estefan. When I came back here I said to Joe Smith (then chief of EMI), "I think I found the next Gloria Estefan." He probably thought, "Oh this idiot. He's been here ten days, and he's already telling me that he found Gloria Estefan." I knew he was thinking that. I said, "I'm telling you, I found the next Gloria Estefan." Within five or six months, we recorded three songs in English with her. Interestingly enough, nobody was in favor at that time of me doing that. They're going to end up being used in the movie (of Selena's life) now. I would say this was probably in early 1990. Everybody was telling me I was nuts, that we should be concentrating on her Spanish songs.

What are the key elements in hit songs for the Latin market?

When you listen to Elton John, let's say "Yellow Brick Road"—I'm just showing my age now. [laughs] Maybe Alanis Morrissette would be more appropriate! Elton says, "Hunting the horny-backed toad" and whatever, and "yellow brick road." You don't understand what he's saying. You hear a beautiful melody. It was a huge hit for him. But you don't know what the hell he's saying unless you get the lyrics off of the record. In the Spanish music world, if you don't understand every word, it's not going to make it.

It's like country music, in other words.

Exactly.You listen to Seal's "Kiss From a Rose." It's hard to tell for half of the song what the hell he's talking about. He kind of does that intentionally, from what I've read in his CD. That would never happen in the Spanish market.

Are they story songs the way they are in country music?

Yes. It's very similar, although more melodic. I find that, let's say, Frank Sinatra from thirty years ago—a lot of it sounds like poetry to me with minimal melody. There are some great melodies, but a lot of it is kind of like he's talking with very little melody. Spanish music is, I think, analogous to what that music fulfilled for music lovers back then. It still speaks to love. It still speaks to "you're hurting me." "You left me." All that. Kind of like country music. I don't think it's as melodramatic as country music. There is a lot of positive music in the Latin business. That's the difference. Country music tends to be suicide a lot of times—very tormented stories. But it's still very basic themes that the general public can still identify with.

How necessary is it, if somebody is pitching you songs, for the lyric to be in Spanish when you hear it?

Not necessary at all. When we go to publishers—and it doesn't have to be a Latin publisher; I can go to EMI Music Publishing—and they send me a killer track in English that is adaptable, we have a Latin writer write the lyrics to it in Spanish.

Do they translate it or write new lyrics?

They write new lyrics—an adaptation, not translation. Literal translations rarely work. I know by listening to a song if it's going to be adaptable. Spanish lyrical phrases tend to be a little longer than some of the English phrases.

What do you look for in new artists?

You know, I've been asked that so many times. This is what I say: When you see a pretty girl in a club, I say to you "What do you look for in that girl?" She could be blonde. She could be a brunette. There's something that hits you. It doesn't necessarily have to be all blondes, or all brunettes, or only those with black hair. It's the same thing [with artists]. When I see a great artist, and Selena is a great example, it just knocks me out. There is nobody that is going to change my mind. Just something hits you. Now if you want to get real scientific, it has to do not just with the voice. Good voices are a dime a dozen. Of course, it should be a nice voice, a good voice. It doesn't have to be great. The teardrop—is it there? That comes with experience. It's a combination of that and just innate talent—being able to interpret a song, not just sing it. There is a big difference. That's real critical in the Latin business. Presence is also critical in the Anglo world. When you see Alanis Morrissette singing some of her music, you know it's there, the feeling.

I think the visual is important, maybe more important in the Latin business than the Anglo business. I can give you many examples. From Enrique Iglesias, to Luis Miguel, to even Julio Iglesias. Even here I have artists like Graciela Beltran. If they weren't great looking people, they wouldn't sell the way they do. So the look is real important for a star act. Age too. Especially now more than ever. It wasn't like that seven or eight years ago. There were a lot of crooners making a living in this business. Now it's the Barrio Boyz and the young artists. Very important.

Do you care much about the quality of the demos that you hear, or are you listening to the song?

I don't care about the demo. I don't know how many times a month I have to tell people that, even my own artists who are just demoing songs. They say, "You have to understand. There's going to be a trumpet here." I say, "You don't need to explain anything to me. I kind of get it. Honestly, I really do." When I sit down, I kind of have a nice imagination, and I get it. The quality of the demo would not dissuade me if the voice was great, if they were doing a good song. Because we would call them up, and we would do it our way. Now, have I ever missed out on an opportunity because of a lousy demo? Maybe. Maybe. I don't think it hurts to make a good demo. Maybe I don't have to use my imagination to the extent that I do sometimes.

What advice can you give to aspiring writers and artists that aren't in the media centers? What can they do to get the attention of record labels?

The business today is so competitive, and costs are so much higher than they were years ago when you were able to experiment more and take greater risks. Today, corporate mentality somewhat dictates. I still have a lot of fun and a lot of freedom, but I don't think you can afford to do four albums with an artist. It's got to click with the first album, or maybe the second one. So having said all that, I think it's important for these artists out there and songwriters to really have the goods. If you're an artist, go out there and groom your craft. Perform wherever it is that you can perform. It's takes practice—not just doing a demo, in my opinion. It's important that artists really hone their craft and be the best they can be with their given talent.

As to how they can come to our attention, it's not easy, because there are so many people out there. I really believe this in my heart, that somebody who is really talented, who stands out, that's playing clubs—sooner or later they will attract the attention of either an attorney, or a manager or a record label executive. Somehow, the attention will be brought. It will come to our attention.

And keep sending demos. What TAXI is doing I think is an incredible service. I think we have a need for your service. Because there is a big difference when an attorney calls me, when a Doug Minnick calls me. We definitely get back to you, because there is a credibility, there is a relationship, unlike when we just get a cassette in the mail. Unfortunately, that one great cassette could get lost in the fourteen cassettes we just listened to that were not that great. I think it's wonderful what your organization is doing.

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