Juanes Gets His Feet Wet

The day before the Latin Grammy nominations were announced, Juan Esteban Aristizabal -- better known as Juanes -- arrived in Miami from his home in Bogota, Colombia, carrying only a gym bag and his gu

The day before the Latin Grammy nominations were announced, Juan Esteban Aristizabal -- better known as Juanes -- arrived in Miami from his home in Bogota, Colombia, carrying only a gym bag and his guitar. He had been urged to attend the July 17 Grammy nomination press conference, but he was leery about doing so.

"I kept asking them, 'Why do I have to go?'" Juanes says. "'What if they don't call my name? I'll just stand there like a fool.'"

Juanes had reason to be concerned. His solo debut album, "Fijate Bien" (Surco/Universal), was a critic's favorite but hadn't sold 100,000 units worldwide since its release last October. In the U.S., it had sold only 20,000 copies.

But management insisted that Juanes appear. So he bought a $12 T-shirt, and that evening, he washed the only shoes he had brought with him.

The next day, his shoes still wet, Juanes' jaw dropped in disbelief as his name was called for seven nominations, more than any other artist. "I walked down," he says, "and someone told me, 'Remember this day. It's the day you become a star.'"

Juanes' stardom has already begun with the kind of media blitz only seven Grammy nominations can generate. More interesting, though, is how a relative unknown managed get that number of nods in the first place.

The answer lies in a slow, steady promotional campaign whose main thrust was to establish Juanes as "an act that had mainstream appeal and credibility," in the words of Robbie Lear, director of Latin artist marketing for Universal Music, Latin America.

Juanes was helped by his stature as the lead singer for Colombian rock group Ekhymosis, because he had gained a certain reputation among rock connoisseurs during the past 10 years, even if his band hadn't transcended Colombia.

But Juanes' greatest asset was his album. "The CD spoke for itself," says Haz Montana, programming VP for Entravision Radio. "It's a great combination of style and substance, and the talent is evident from beginning to end. I never go out there and vouch for a CD as a personal sound I particularly like, but that CD has been a personal favorite in my collection -- and I don't even vote [in the Grammys]."

Through his Superestrella stations, Montana supported Juanes' first two singles. But most Latin stations -- with their marked aversion to pop/rock-never put him on the air. Still, he managed to establish a solid following among key people in the industry.

And for many of these people, Juanes' music -- a blend of pop, rock, and Colombian folk that has commercial appeal and incisive, socially conscious lyrics -- represented the direction they felt Latin rock and pop would and should take. This, coupled with the singer/songwriter's endearing personality, made for a powerful combination.

"I first heard the album because someone put it on my desk," says Mauricio Abaroa, former executive director/senior VP of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS) and now senior VP/GM of Crescent Moon Records. "A few weeks later, I saw him play at an event at the American Airlines Arena [in Miami], and I grasped what he was about."

Clearly, Juanes' music had an effect. But getting people to hear it without airplay was a challenge.

"Our strategy was to get credibility and make that credibility known, which is strange in Latin pop where you always go for the big things first," manager Fernan Martinez says. Fresh from handling Enrique Iglesias' commercially successful Spanish-language career, Martinez took a different approach here. "We decided to go slowly, playing the album at small gatherings and listening sessions, doing small showcases, sending the album to key journalists, and the word started spreading."

Considering that he wasn't selling well, Juanes also had extraordinary support from Universal, which financed three videos, spurred by MTV Latin America's support of its artist. (The network labeled him a "recommended" artist when "Fijate Bien" was released.)

"You can't keep a good record and a good artist down," says Marya Meyer, VP of artists' marketing for Universal Music, Latin America. "We were convinced that this record and this artist will sell over the midterm and, especially, over the long term. And his body of work is going to be so strong, that this will be a strong catalog record for the rest of his career."

For all the good intentions, Juanes' marketing was, and still is, fraught with the problems that are typical for new alternative Latin acts here. If "Fijate Bien," the single, got on radio, then "Fijate Bien," the album, was often absent from big retail stores. (During the week following the nominations, the album reportedly wasn't on shelves at the Times Square Virgin Megastore in New York.)

Still, Martinez kept sending his artist to gigs and radio stations in Mexico and Central America, where he would play live for programmers with his guitar. So by the time the Latin Grammys voting process occurred, the artist, the album, and its producer -- Gustavo Santaolalla -- were known to most cognoscenti. This was important, because while all LARAS members vote for the top semi-finalists, a nominating committee of experts determines the five finalists from that list.

"They listened to ["Fijate Bien"], and they thought it was excellent," says Enrique Fernandez, senior VP/executive director of LARAS. "And this is the judgment of very well-informed people, and that's how it went."

And so, the day the nominees were announced, a man with relatively few sales garnered the most acclaim. "He was the 'smallest' one," Martinez says, "but he had the music."

Since the Grammy nominations came out, sales of "Fijate Bien" have jumped -- Trans World Entertainment reports sales having quadrupled -- but not enough to make it onto The Billboard Latin 50 album chart. Still, with Juanes scheduled to be on the Watcha tour and likely to perform at the Latin Grammys, rising sales seem inevitable.

"We haven't mis-marketed Juanes and made frivolous mistakes," Meyer says. "We've done the right thing, and we think over time, we're all going to win."