Pitbull speaks at his Q&A at the Billboard Latin Music Conference. (Photo: Michael Seto)
Halfway through his standing-room-only live Q&A at today's Billboard Latin Music Conference, Miami-born bilingual pop star Pitbull recalled growing up on his mother's Tony Robbins tapes. The confession came as no surprise. The 31-year-old star devoted much of his talk with Billboard's Leila Cobo to explaining how to benefit from setbacks, one of Robbins' greatest themes. "I started to understand how failure is the mother of all success," Pitbull said.
The largest failure to which he alluded was his litigious break with his former record label, the now-defunct TVT. After graduating to it from Luke Records, the Miami-based independent run by 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, Pit soon discovered TVT was run much like communist Cuba. "I saw that the owner was very litigious, so I decided when I caught him slipping, I'd sue him too," he recalled of the tactics he used to break free. But he decided to view it as a learning experience. "TVT was like my university on the business. It was my Harvard."
Pitbull with his own Billboard cover story in the background. (Photo: Michael Seto)
The biggest lesson learned: He had better take the reins on his own career. From the early days, he envisioned a bilingual movement that would reach farther than just music itself, and when he went independent, he quickly assembled his own team. It's a move he said most artists these days should also make. "Forget everyone. You get that money, and you invest in yourself," he said. "Nobody's going to bring you a bigger return on your investment than yourself."
Despite all the business talk, and despite the freshly pressed suit, his personal brand of the Calle Ocho chico made good still came through. He punctuated nearly every sentence with Spanglish, from "imaginate" ("imagine that") or "perfecto," or the somewhat more rude interjection "coño." The audience tittered back at his frequent laugh, the throaty heh-heh-heh heard on so many of his hit records.
Those records, he also explained, were largely as much business calculations as were his recent big-money sponsorship deals with brands like Dr. Pepper, Bud Light, Kodak, and Pepsi, or on his own partial ownerships in Voli Vodka and Sheets energy strips. "This is called the music business. It's 90 percent business, 10 percent talent," he readily admitted. "There's no genius to what I do. I keep it simple, stupid -- K.I.S.S."
In a business that tends towards overcomplication, this was a quasi-revolutionary concept, he said, as was a focus on his as-yet-untapped target market. "I had a saying that I was too hip-hop for Latins, and too Latin for hip-hop," he said. "But I forgot about awards shows, I forgot about politics, I forgot about everything. The people I'm talking to, talk just like me."
(Photo: Michael Seto)
The key to breaking radio barriers between English and Spanish, he said, was to make sure he focused on universal themes, and to pick Spanish words that everyone could relate to and chant. "Even with a song like 'Culo,' who doesn't want to talk about that?" He asked the audience, switching from English to Spanish mid-sentence, before switching back again. "Even gringos say, 'Oh I know what he's talking about, ass! I'm gonna look for that in the club tonight."
Beyond the bawdy lyrics and thudding club beats, though, Pitbull said he hopes to be one of the driving forces shaping the marketing conversation with the new generation of U.S.-born Latinos. "It's all about empowering. When we go out there, I want them to know there is no way they're going to get into this culture and distort it or exploit it. Not on my watch. I'm like the Rickenbacker Causeway," he said, referring to a famous Miami road linking the mainland and the tiny island of Key Biscayne. "I'm the bridge."