Latin Music's Biggest Promoter Henry Cardenas on L Fest's Debut and Lessons Learned From Broadway's 'Celia'

Cynthia Lynn
Cardenas photographed Oct. 14 at Cardenas Marketing Network's Chicago offices. The paintings are by local artist Costel larca; a furniture maker constructed the desk from fragments of abandoned shanty homes in La Romana, Dominican Republic. 

In 1978, when Henry Cardenas was a student at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, he put together his first disco party. He rented a ­wedding ballroom, hired a local DJ for $50, charged admission at the door and made $700.

"It felt like $7 million," says Cardenas says. "Even though my major was in accounting, I decided I was going to ­continue producing."

It has been a long road to the $180 million he expects his Chicago-based Cardenas Marketing Network (CMN) to gross in 2015 from ticket sales and sports and experiential ­marketing events -- more than double what CMN grossed in 2014, making Cardenas the biggest ­promoter of Latin music in the country.

"We usually do 70 to 90 concerts per year, but this year we've done 170 in the U.S.," says Cardenas, who books such stars as Marc Anthony, Juan Gabriel, Carlos Vives, Chayanne, Juan Luis Guerra and Romeo Santos, among others. And on Oct. 24 and 25, he rolled the dice with the L Festival in Southern California's Orange County, a joint venture with Universal Music Latin Entertainment, that featured Enrique Iglesias, Juan Gabriel, Gloria Trevi and many other artists on multiple stages.

The burly promoter carries himself like a boxer, and his no-bullshit reputation has helped him form lasting ­relationships with artists. They include a 30-year ­association with Anthony, with whom Cardenas founded the Maestro Cares Foundation, which builds homes, orphanages and schools for disadvantaged children in Latin America.

Cardenas, a 59-year-old father of three, came to the United States from Colombia as a teenager and now lives in downtown Chicago ­with his longtime companion, marketing executive Elena Sotomayor. Billboard caught up with him in Miami at Novecento, the Argentine restaurant chain in which he is a stakeholder.

After 33 years in the business, why has 2015 been your biggest?

Most of the big acts, like Juan Luis Guerra, decided to tour with new material. And overall, the market has finally recovered from the 2008 economic crisis. We're doing 40 shows with [veteran Mexican singer-songwriter] Juan Gabriel, and an artist like him grosses more because you can charge more per ticket: up to $225, compared to $175 for most acts.

Many people think the average ­Mexican music fan is not affluent.

Do you know that [Mexican singer] Vicente Fernandez holds the record gross at Chicago's Allstate Arena, even beating out Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson? We had lines of limos at the arena, and the people who stepped out of them were Mexicans wearing ­cowboy boots and $1,000 hats. Acts like Juan Gabriel or Vicente Fernandez are ­comparable to Madonna or U2 in gross when they perform in arenas -- it's a far smaller demographic, so we don't tour as many big venues in the U.S. But it's a demographic that's willing to pay as much or more for their artist.

How has your growth in ticket sales translated to the growth of the ­company?

Last year I had 40 employees; now I have 130. I'm building two additional floors in my Chicago office with 12,000 square feet. We're purchasing a ­building in Miami with more office space and a ­warehouse. I also opened offices in Dallas and Santa Monica, and next year we're opening up in New York. And ­approximately 25 percent of my concert business is overseas, in Latin America and, increasingly, Europe.

What makes you so confident that this momentum will continue?

It already is: We'll have six or seven big tours next year. We have Juan Gabriel and Marc Anthony again, Marco Antonio Solis is touring, and we're ­working the Daddy Yankee/Don Omar tour.

The L Festival just debuted at California's OC Fair & Event Center. How did it do?

We were testing the market. The U.S. mainstream fan is willing to pay $200 to stand under the sun at a festival for three days -- Latins in the U.S. are not. I haven't produced a festival since 2002, but it was great. I said I would be happy if we broke even, and we did. We're definitely ­planning on doing it again next year.

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What do you think sets you apart from other promoters?

I always do a deep investigation of the market, and we have years of ­excellent relationships with the venues. If, for ­example, I want to book X artist at an arena, they'll tell me, "Heads up, we have Juanes the day before." Promoters that don't work day to day with the Latin market aren't aware of the intricacies that move it. [Being a Latin-specialized promoter] was more of a disadvantage in the past, when many up-and-coming acts wanted to go with the large, non-Hispanic promoters.

You still book Marc Anthony ­exclusively. How did you meet him?

He helped me sell tickets the first time I took a rodeo show -- Antonio Aguilar and his family -- to New York City. It was at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. Marc was a 17- or 18-year-old kid who worked with Raphy Mercado [of RMM], and we sat him behind a table to sell tickets. When he cut his recording deal with RMM we began to work together. We stopped for a few years, when he worked with American promoters, but for the past eight years we've worked together exclusively.

What was your greatest professional disappointment?

Most recently, [Celia], the Celia Cruz musical. I lost a lot of money with that, and it was a tough business lesson. We had such a big name, we spent 10 months ­[off-Broadway] in New York, and I thought we were going to conquer the world. And we lost 2 million bucks! (Sighs.) It was a tough one. I'm going to stick to my music and my sports.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of Billboard.