Producing an event is like preparing a multi-course meal. You have to plan ahead by purchasing all the ingredients, acquiring the right tools and allowing enough time for each course so that you can relax and enjoy the experience with your guests. In the end, the goal is to make all the hours of work spent in preparation invisible, so that guests can truly savor the results.
Berklee Canta en Español
In October 2009, I produced a music award show in Spanish that was broadcast twice, garnering two million TV viewers across Latin America and Spain. Here is my story.
By my junior year at Berklee, I had already been involved in several projects as co-leader of the Latin American Music & Business Association (LAMBA). It quickly became apparent to me how well respected Berklee’s name was in the Latin music industry, and through several projects I was introduced to valuable contacts. I also learned that Berklee was planning to extend beyond the U.S. by 2012 in its partnership with the SGAE (Sociedad General de Autores y Escritores) for a major venture in Spain called Berklee Valencia.
With this in mind, and having always wanted to do a concert geared towards the Latin community, I created “Berklee Canta en Español” (Berklee Sings in Spanish). Originally we we going to hold a concert in the Berklee Performance Center featuring Berklee’s most talented Latin singer-songwriters performing their original songs in Spanish in a live concert setting before an audience and a panel of non-Berklee judges. Special guest Aleks Syntek, Latin America’s own version of Elton John, was to close the concert. The competing singer-songwriters were chosen through an internal contest, with the only prerequisites being that applicants should be either Berklee students or alumni and that their songs had to be completely original and written in Spanish. Through important contact we managed to obtain interest from Televisa, the biggest Hispanic TV network in the world, more specifically its popular music channel, Telehit. A crew from Mexico City was slated to record the contest in its final concert setting, and, through purchased airtime, the show was to air in sixty countries.
Unfortunately, the winds shifted and the economy fell into a crisis. With increasing costs coupled with budgets cuts, the show was twice postponed. We struggled to reschedule the dates given the complicated schedules of the judges and the special guest.
After going back and forth a lot, and keeping in mind the applicants’ need for early decisions, we decided to close our first contest by choosing the best five songs, and immediately awarded cash prizes. This allowed us to receive quick feedback from the participants. Moreover, after much deliberation, one of us had proposed that the show be moved to Mexico–an obvious location given that the content was entirely in Spanish and the show was geared towards a Latin audience. Now, we could start focusing exclusively on the Mexico show.
This happened during my senior year. On graduation, and after enjoying some time with my family, I began traveling more than ever between Boston, New York, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Guatemala.
Countless emails, phone calls, meetings, and price quotes later, my airline miles were great than ever and inversely proportional to my sleep hours. I was also hired as an intern at Sony in New York—and yet somehow managed to find time to continue producing “Berklee Canta en Español”, which demanded constant travel to Mexico. I felt like a cultural chameleon.
I then found out that Televisa was coordinating a massive concert in Guadalajara, so I quickly flew there with the sole purpose of chasing artists down backstage to get them to record short promos for the show. Not a single artist I approached said no.
After some time we were able to secure the dates to record and produce the show at the Lunario of Mexico’s National Auditorium, considered one of the world’s most prestigious auditoriums. Meanwhile, we invited several renowned artists who were also Berklee alumni to be awarded special recognition and perform during the show. Things became tricky. We were dealing with talent for a TV show, and many hidden agendas and self-interests came to the fore. Egos collided. This especially showed up in the planning of the scheduling and the communication stalls—leading to difficult negotiations. Later, I found out that this was normal for a show that included artists, sponsors, producers, directors, and light designers.
By August 2009, I had completed my time at Sony and Berklee. I immediately left for Mexico to fully commit to the project. Preparations were becoming more complex and we were running up against the clock. Also, in the midst of sealing business deals left and right, we began to lose focus on securing artist appearances.
As time ran out, the pressure continued to rise. Every element, big or small, is critical for success. But I was awestruck by how differently I had pictured the event a year before, and how I had underestimated the vast amount of minute details to be considered. Moving forward, I raised the pressure on participants, seeking to close individual deals– including the venue, the sponsoring hotel, the TV Network, the artist, and the equipment on stage.
The contestants began to arrive a few days before the show, and everything seemed to be running along quite smoothly as we began rehearsals. But, recalling that the great promoter Bill Graham had famously said, “something must be wrong if there are no problems”, I was becoming concerned.
My instinct was right. Days before the show was to open, I had intense meetings with the concert production crew, the director, the artists’ management, and the venue. There had been issues. First, two artists needed to cancel because of other conflicts. Then, Lunario’s neighboring venue, where we were going to do the dress rehearsal and the sound check, abruptly shut us off. Finally, Lunario itself gave us no more 24 hours to build the stage, do the show, and leave.
On the morning of October 7, as we prepared a press conference and an award ceremony for Berklee alumni and other special guests at a Mexico City hotel, things looked bad. All I could muster was to look relaxed, and so hide the fact that the night before I had suffered a near nervous breakdown. With national and international media present, and amidst the camera flashes, I managed to stay calm and speak. Thankfully, the awards to Berkle alumni and other guests proceeded without a hitch, and we honored Alexander Acha, Tommy Torres, Mane de la Parra, Benny Ibarra, and Rodrigo Davila of the rock group Motel.
After the morning ceremony, I had lunch with the three judges to discuss the key points of what they would be judging later that night. However, chaos had ensued in the meantime without me finding out about it until it was too late. The contestants had not yet done a sound check, despite the show being imminent. In the event, there was only enough time to set up the house band and get the lights and stage ready–so the contestants were sent back to their rooms to prepare. Thus was unsatisfactory, of course, and fraught with anxiety for the participants.
Production delays forced us to open the red carpet late. We couldn’t let anybody in for nearly an hour because of the delay in the setup.
The rock group Motel opened the show, which was great–with the caveat that they were supposed to close the show instead (thankfully, we could edit that later). Yet, once things started rolling I began feeling better. Truly, I was finally able to taste the product of more than a year’s work. It’s a short-lived sensation, however, because as executive producer you’re supposed to continue to put out fires. Despite my efforts the flames kept spreading, fueled by the friction between the concert producers, on the one hand, and the director and his TV crew on the other. Soon the main room began literally heating up because the lights were too intense and the air conditioning couldn’t keep up.
Nevertheless, in spite of all these mishaps–and after all the performances and repeats and some funny dialogue between the MCs that went on forever before they opened up the winning envelope–we crowned the winners: its was a tie! In the end, in spite of all our difficulties, the crowd went wild.
Four hours later we were shutting the cameras off with a sigh of relief. Somehow I had pulled it off. Then, after countless hours of video editing, the show was completed.
The entire project was, with hindsight, immensely rewarding for me. I had learned a lot about TV award shows, including legal contracts, lighting and design, camera angles, and, of course, the management of talent. And, of course, the show travelled into the homes of many Latin American and Spanish families who would never know the effort involved.
Latin GRAMMYS 10th Anniversary
Just days after the “Berklee Canta en Español”, I was named Associate Producer for the 10th Anniversary of the Latin Grammys in Las Vegas. I flew to Miami immediately, where the Latin Recording Academy offices were located. This was an entirely different meal to cook, but the kitchen now included an office, a boss and a desk (I previously I had none).
My job was to assist in the production of two special Latin Grammy events, “The Person of the Year Award” and “The Special Awards Ceremony”. The former was in honor of Latin superstar Juan Gabriel, and the latter for veteran artists and personalities who helped shape the Latin music industry throughout the decades.
Like Mexico, I would be preparing for events that only last a couple hours but would be seen by millions the world over. By then I knew that most of the hard and intense work tended to be tightly concentrated into the last few weeks.
In Las Vegas, I had to become a jack-of-all-trades, driving people and supplies around and coordinating transportation, preparing documents for guests, dealing with the hotels, and tackling routine assignments day and night. Despite going on little sleep, precise multitasking is critical to mind all the details at all times. Communication is critical, as words often play an important role. This is especially important when you are dealing with talent. You are at the lower end of the totem pole, running errands and being the messenger, but at the same time knowing that the quality of your work as associate producer will impact the way things turn out (I will admit to making my share of mistakes, but thankfully those who know better admonished me while giving me a chance to learn).
With only a few minutes left till show time, I had to disguise my tiredeness. The “Special Awards Ceremony ” came first. A special reception followed. In fact, the fruits of working these types of events are that they bring together so many influential people, and you eventually get to socialize and learn from them in one-to-one conversations. Some are witty, some are stylish, some are troublesome and some act out their own star status– yet all are from different backgrounds and engaging in their own right. The ceremony turned out to be beautiful, and went without hardly a hitch.
The “Person of the Year Award”, to Juan Gabriel, came later. There were about a thousand invited guests at this event, and some in this industry crowd were already aware that its preparation has taken a toll on the producers. Juan Gabriel’s band alone consisted of more than 30 musicians from Mexico and California. On top of that, there were several singers and celebrities to pay tribute to Juan Gabriel–with their entourages. Regardless, with great talent comes a great show, and Juan Gabriel literally had everybody dancing in their chairs and atop the tables by the end of the night. It was a wonderful celebration of music.
Last came the “10th Annual Latin Grammys”. I could barely imagine beforehand what the extravagant stage would be like by show time. My job was to aid special guests and artists on the main floor while running errands backstage. At this point, the show was mainly being run by the TV network Univision and its army of personnel.
Things went wild when Juan Gabriel, just named “Person of The Year 2010”, came on-stage to perform. The public thought it was the closing numbers, and he played on to a rapturous audience—but quadrupled the allotted TV time! The stage manager tried several times to get him to leave the stage to no avail, and the chaos was registered live on international TV.
For more information on the show, please visit www.latingrammy.com .
In “Berklee Canta En Español” I was my own boss, taking decisions as Executive Producer that impacted the core and the course of the project. At the Latin Grammys I collaborated in a supportive capacity. Yet, I always relied on a team of people. My advice is to surround yourself with those who are better than you and who can teach you. There is always someone willing to give you a chance.
As a producer you will have to pay attention to detail, show persistence, and brainstorm pitfalls ahead of time. Good time management and organizational skills will always be key, so that if plan A doesn’t work, plans B or C can. Above all, be prepared to learn, listen to others, be on a budget, and to experiment and take the initiative—and always get out of the way if you are not needed.
By Javier Samayoa