Carlos Vives: The Billboard Cover Story, 'Vuelve a Nacer'

Once the world-reknowned king of tropi-pop, Carlos Vives was out of the international spotlight for nearly a decade. Engineering his return has meant negotiating the seismic changes in the industry, but he's back with new label, TV and marketing partners

One day, in the middle of an eight-year stretch when he didn't have a major record contract or a publicist and didn't tour, Carlos Vives decided to take matters into his own hands.

After yet another unsuccessful attempt by his management to land a major recording deal, Vives picked up the phone himself and dialed the president of one of the labels where negotiations had stalled. "He said things had changed," Vives recalls ruefully. "He told me, 'There is nothing we can do for you.'"

In 2004, Vives seemed to have it all: A stellar career as Colombia's first major musical export; a privileged position as one of very few Latin acts who could sell out arena tours in the United States; an innovative hit album, "El Rock de Mi Tierra," which would win a Grammy Award for best contemporary tropical album; and a wife and two kids.

Then his marriage dissolved, he didn't renew his contract with longtime label EMI and he failed to secure another deal to continue his international career. His touring ground to a stop. Slowly, but surely, he faded from view.

For nearly a decade, the man who pioneered the explosion of Colombian pop abroad stayed mostly in his home country and didn't release a single album of original material.

Now, Vives, 51, is back with a major-label deal with Sony Music Latin after a stint as a coach on "The Voice: Colombia." His new album, "Corazon Profundo," due April 23, has already notched two No. 1s on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart, and is expected to debut atop the Top Latin Albums tally. In Colombia, "Corazon Profundo" will be launched through a multimedia alliance with giant retailer Grupo Exito, which expects to sell 50,000 first-week copies. And Vives will launch a worldwide trek in Panama in June, then play nine U.S. arenas in the summer, followed by stops in South America, Mexico and Spain.

"You can't imagine what it represents to me to play here again," he says over breakfast at the Ritz Carlton in Key Biscayne, the Miami neighborhood where he once owned an apartment. "To have loved a place so much, felt so appreciated, then one day lose it all. Singing in Miami again is like coming home. To my home."

The story of Vives' return highlights a dramatically changed, yet ductile, Latin marketplace where the right tools, major-label support and management can yield dramatic results in a short time. Even as recently as five years ago--without a popular reality TV show like "The Voice: Colombia," social media or the power of new business models--it would've been hard to fathom a comeback this dramatic or strong. And Vives' return wouldn't have been possible without a change in attitude from Vives himself, who's returned to the fray with new management--he's now handled by former Universal Music Latino president Walter Kolm--and a more conciliatory attitude, including a willingness to enter a 360 deal that includes sharing touring and sponsorship revenue.

"I'm not surprised by his return at all," says former Capitol Latin senior VP Diana Rodriguez, who at this time last year was close to re-signing Vives. "I always thought he was a great artist. He simply needed to awaken his desire to come back."

To understand Vives' return, it's necessary to understand where he came from. Unlike compatriots Shakira and Juanes, whose global pop/rock sound is sometimes tinged with Colombian elements, Vives' music is an evolution of traditional Colombian cumbia--the Caribbean dance music--and vallenato, the accordion-based genre from Colombia's Atlantic coast rooted in the art of storytelling. The heady mix of tradition with pop and rock, of folkloric drums with electric guitars, of nostalgia with contemporary edge, struck a chord in Colombia and beyond, where Vives' local roots connected with millions of listeners who shared his musical DNA.

Vives would not only open the door for other acts to fuse past and present with impunity, but he popularized what would become known as tropi-pop, a danceable mix of tropical and pop that today criss-crosses all Latin genres.

Born in the sleepy coastal Colombian city of Santa Marta, Vives grew up steeped in the music of the Caribbean coast. His father, a politically connected physician (Vives' grandfather was governor of the state) and music lover, would regularly host impromptu jams at home, and many of the itinerant vallenato musicians of the area were regulars.

"It was a magical place, and I was lucky to be raised in between boleros, vallenatos and all that music that was around us," says Vives, who still wears his coastal roots in his casual attire: long, curly hair; beaded bracelets; and a shark tooth dangling from a leather strap around his neck.

When Vives was 11, his parents divorced and he went to live with his mother in Bogota, where he found a different kind of playground, one that allowed him to explore acting and, eventually, music, playing live at local hangouts almost every night.

Vives' endearingly earnest good looks, curls and puppy-dog eyes, charged by his easy charm, landed him steady TV gigs, including the lead in 1986 Colombian soap opera "Gallito Ramirez," for which he also sang the theme song.

The soap was exported to Puerto Rico, helping Vives land a recording deal with Discos CBS (now Sony Latin) in Miami. He recorded two ballad albums and did several other TV roles--including a lead in a rock'n'roll soap opera--before earning his breakthrough role in soap opera "Escalona" as Rafael Escalona, the legendary vallenato composer/troubadour.

Like blues, country and bachata in its early days, vallenato had long been an underestimated genre, seen as cheesy or the music of the poor, uneducated masses. But Vives, with his preppy good looks, took the soul and earthiness of the coastal troubadours to a whole new audience, and along the way, found his true calling.

"I'd already done ballads, I'd done rock, and I had this very strong connection to vallenato," he says. "I understood that I could do something modern from vallenato, because I understood that the blues could be our cumbias, that there were rhythmic patterns in the cumbia that we could translate to contemporary drums, like Elvis had taken from the South, from the Louisiana that, according to [writer] Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is where the Caribbean begins."

But when Vives proposed an album of contemporary vallenato, Sony balked. Vallenato, the label said, wasn't the realm of pop singers or TV heartthrobs.

Released from his contract, Vives set his sights on indie Sonolux, which had ties with TV network RCN and soft drink company Colombiana. Somewhere along the way, he realized he needed help in order to get deals done and approached his longtime childhood friend, Manuel Ribeiro. With a handshake, Ribeiro became his manager.

In 1994, Vives signed with Sonolux and released "Clasicos de la Provincia," a collection of vallenato standards with touches of modernism that launched him as a major international star. In the United States, Clasicos, distributed by PolyGram Latino, debuted at No. 46 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart and climbed steadily to peak at No. 2 seven months later. It remained on the chart for 86 weeks.

During the next decade, Vives signed with EMI and amassed four No. 1s on Hot Latin Songs and nine top 10s, plus five top 10s on Top Latin Albums, including one No. 1 (2001's "Dejame Entrar"). Recording from the onset with his Colombian band, La Provincia (the Province), Vives' music became progressively more adventuresome but at the same time indelibly linked to his roots.

"My commitment is with my locality," Vives told Billboard in 2004 when he released "El Rock de Mi Tierra" (The Rock of My Land). "It's the sound I dreamt for our music, but influenced by the world."

The sound traveled to Mexico, South America, Europe and Spain, where Vives became perhaps the first tropical artist to gain massive acceptance.

But in 2004, at the height of his popularity, Vives' second marriage to Puerto Rican actress Herlinda Gomez began to unravel at the same time that his EMI contract came up. It would prove to be a perfect storm.

When the time came to renegotiate, a deal couldn't be reached. A year passed and Vives remarried and settled into a new, happy life with his wife, Claudia Elena Vasquez. Another year passed, and then another. Vives and Vasquez had a daughter, then a son. They began working together in expanding Gaira, the bar and club Vives had since the late '90s with his brother, and in 2008 they opened the revamped Gaira Cumbia House, which would become one of the hottest live music nightspots in Bogota. Vives played the occasional concert, made the occasional TV appearance.

But there was no record deal, and no tours.

"Time started to pass," Vives says. "So we said, 'Let's do another album.' But EMI wasn't interested. In fact, they let their option expire."

EMI had an option for a greatest-hits album, and initially, it wasn't willing to let it expire. But Vives had the rights to his two first albums, which included hits like "Fruta Fresca," and his management was unwilling to cede those rights until a new album deal was reached. These terms could've been negotiable, sources say, but EMI was in turmoil, going through a series of management and ownership changes. Every time a deal was near closing, new management would come in and the process would start again.

The point of contention wasn't economics, but the fact that for Vives, an international rollout in places like Spain--a territory that had been particularly hard-earned for him as a tropical act--was important. EMI's state of upheaval, one insider says, made it difficult for the company to guarantee that support in writing. In the end, the option did expire, and Vives was a free agent.

At this point, it should've been easy--Vives was a major star, a strong seller, guaranteed to succeed in radio. Every label was interested. But the conversations went nowhere, for a multitude of reasons, from poor timing to bad chemistry.

Part of it had to do with the times. Traveling expenses that used to be the norm, including five-star hotels for Vives and a staff that included his 15-piece band, were no longer feasible when albums no longer sold by the hundreds of thousands. "[He and his manager's] expectations with expenditures were so great that it would have bankrupted any company," one executive says. "You couldn't begin to negotiate."

In other cases, the difference was not one of money but simply point of view. "Marketing was very different in 2005 than it was in the 1990s, when Vives had exploded," says Kolm, who first approached Vives in 2005 when he was VP of marketing at Universal Music Latino. "It wasn't about the budget but about how to invest it. It was no longer enough to tape two TV shows. It was a cultural and philosophical clash...We remained interested, but things kind of came to a stop, and I think that's a little bit of what happened to everyone else. They got stuck on these kinds of things."

As for Vives, he knew he was in a rut.

"I'd always been a pain when it came to my music," he says. "I was always willing to lose money rather than work with the wrong producer...But we were so immersed in the music that in the end, we had no allies left."

In 2009, still with no label deal in sight, Vives and Ribeiro took the initiative and approached Grupo Exito, the giant Colombian retailer (Target would be a U.S. cognate), and partnered with the store to release "Clasicos de la Provincia II," an album of vallenato covers done in Vives' style. In three months, the low-priced set sold more than 280,000 copies, according to Grupo Exito, making Vives a 14-times-platinum seller in a country where platinum was a mere 20,000 copies shipped.

"It was a moment of transition for the industry where no one wanted to bet on anything," Ribeiro says of that time. "And since no one seemed interested in Vives' project, we did it on our own."

For Grupo Exito, which hadn't partnered with a music artist before, it was a revelation. "We found a way to sell physical CDs," Grupo Exito VP of marketing Martin Nova says. "If you go up to the cash register and offer an album at a good price, people will buy it."

Vives' deal in 2009 was so successful that Grupo Exito has followed it since in pacts with the likes of Shakira, Fonseca, Juanes, Madonna and Lady Gaga, none of whom has sold as well as Vives. But the label deal remained elusive--in part because interested majors weren't able to capitalize on Colombia, where Vives had his Grupo Exito exclusive.

And although Vives toured Colombia, sponsored by Grupo Exito, he couldn't get the touring offer he wanted abroad because he didn't have label support.

"You need something on radio to go on sale," says Lucas Pina, senior VP at SBS Entertainment (which will produce and present Vives' U.S. this summer, and has also had multiple conversations with the artist in the past few years). "Yes, some recurrent acts tour well without a single. But they won't appeal to a new generation."

Three more years passed, during which Vives released a children's album, created children's theater programs, continued to expand his club and produced and wrote albums for other acts.

During that time, his wife, a chemical engineer and former Miss Colombia, grew increasingly involved in his business affairs. When Vives' management with Ribeiro came to an end last summer, Vasquez stepped in. "I said, 'You need to do an album. I don't want to lose all that potential,'" she recalls.

Vasquez called Vives' longtime producer, Andres Castro, and they all flew to Santa Marta, the original source of Vives' music--his Louisiana.

"I left him writing alone in Santa Marta," Vasquez says, "and two weeks later he came back and sang 'Volvi a Nacer' [Born Again] for me."

The song, a joyous vallenato, is really about Vasquez and Vives' relationship, and its celebratory message has connected with audiences at a visceral level. Stateside, the track debuted at No. 1 on Hot Latin Songs last October, aided by a premiere on the SBS network. It's also the underlying theme of an album that is eminently happy, more so than Vives' previous sets, which always carried a touch of melancholia.

"My children are a driving force. Claudia is a driving force," Vives says. "When you have a partner who feels pride, admiration and even compassion, that's important. I don't have words to express how important Claudia has been to my work, to my return, to my results. I can only write pretty songs."

Music is a business of so many intangibles, of timing and luck often reigning over strategy. In Vives' case, the two roads converged that summer when Kolm came calling. The former Universal executive had left the label the year before to launch a management firm and was looking for new clients when he learned Vives no longer had a management deal.

"Every manager looks for a big act, but more than that, I was looking for an artist I could manage well," Kolm says. "I'd analyzed all of them, and the only one I could do something really, really big with was Vives. He had all the qualities: He filled stadiums, he'd disappeared from the international scene. There was enough mystique to create a great campaign."

Kolm set up a meeting with Vives and Vasquez and flew down to Bogota. During a four-hour dinner, he laid out his proposal. By then, Vives had already committed to be a coach on "The Voice: Colombia," beginning in the fall, and Kolm was adamant: They had to release new music as soon as possible to capitalize on the exposure. "I saw this as a great comeback. My plan was, 'Let's record two, three songs and start producing a strong album.' If we were to sign with a label right away, it wouldn't be a good deal because he no longer had a sales history."

That very night, Vives took Kolm to his club and played "Volvi a Nacer" for him. For Kolm, it was a done deal.

Before meeting with Vives, Kolm had already begun conversations with Sony Music Latin chairman Afo Verde, who'd expressed an interest in distributing Vives if Kolm were to sign him. When Verde heard the first three demos and played them for his team, he asked to sign Vives instead.

"My first reaction when I heard the new songs was one of very pleasant surprise," Verde says. "I immediately thought that, although Carlos Vives was already a big act, the best was yet to come. The repertoire was simply spectacular--full of great songs."

Vives continued to work with Castro, penning song after song. In what can only be described as an auspicious moment, Michel Telo, the Brazilian singer who garnered one of the top-selling digital tracks in the world last year with "Ai Se Eu Te Pego," sought Vives out and asked to record a track with him. He was a fan who had taken up the accordion having been inspired by Vives' longtime accordionist, Egidio Cuadrado. The collaboration was "Como le Gusta a Tu Cuerpo," which earlier this year went to No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart.

The hits propelled the tour, and in Colombia, Vives is once again partnering with Grupo Exito to distribute the album (although nonexclusively). Nova expects to once again sell more than a quarter-million copies. "In Colombia, Carlos has a very powerful image. He's an icon," he says. "Plus, he's married, he's a family man. He represents the values of the brand."

As far as sharing the gains from the Grupo Exito partnership with Sony, that doesn't faze Vives. "Yes, it's different, but there's so much more business now than before," he says. "No one shared sponsorships before. In fact, there were no sponsors."

Instead, Vives' biggest change of pace was going out to promote himself again, after eight years. But in that respect, he found little has changed. "I realized that even the smallest radio station I ever went to, now that I returned, it's great to see them again, and every one of them has a kind word for me. It's like being with family," he says. "You'd think it would have been hard to speak in every station, but it's been really special. That is what being part of the industry means."


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