¡Promoter Gigante! How Henry Cárdenas Went From College Disco Parties To Global Powerhouse

Henry Cárdenas
– Henry Cárdenas
Henry Cárdenas was just 21 years old and a student at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago in the late-’70s when he started throwing disco parties. And though he didn’t know it then, he was on the cusp of something much bigger.
“I had about three or four disco parties a year,” recalls Cárdenas, 62, who would hire high-profile DJs from legendary nightclubs such as Studio 54. “I created a ‘battle of the DJs’ event and the disco parties went from 700 to 5,000 people. I was a promoter already without knowing it and it was going to be my life.”
Today it is his life, and Cárdenas oversees his Chicago-based company Cárdenas Marketing Network (CMN), which was founded in 2002 and focuses on three key areas: marketing, music and sports. 

Henry’s longstanding relationship with superstar Marc Anthony led to the Maestro Cares nonprofit founded in 2012 as well as 26 sold-out dates at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.
In 2018, CMN will have a gross revenue of some $150 million selling roughtly $1.3 million tickets from 200 shows in the U.S., says the C-suite level executive. This year, Cárdenas has worked with 44 artists including Natti Natasha, Maná, Marco Antonio Solís and Pepe Aguilar. 
His CMN staff in Chicago also oversees tours for Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Maluma, Bad Bunny and Ozuna. And out of his Miami offices he’s booking other artists including Nicky Jam, Daddy Yankee, Becky G, Christian Nodal and Gente de Zona.  

Henry Cárdenas & Marc Anthony
– Henry Cárdenas & Marc Anthony
“I tell my wife that working here is like running 300 weddings a year,” says Jorge Machado, CFO at CMN, “and every wedding has minor details and if something goes wrong it’s like a wedding day and it’s magnified a million times.”
And none of it could have happened if Cárdenas hadn’t moved from Cali, Colombia, to Chicago in the ‘70s, going to college and figuring out a way to make money. He did it by observing what his competitors were doing and focusing on Chicago’s under-served Spanish-language market. He became acquainted with corporate sponsors such as Goya and executives who hadn’t before participated in sponsoring music events, but the promoter always kept his cool, discussed synergies and how brands could benefit.
Brands like Anheuser-Busch, Wrigley and Coca-Cola eventually joined Cárdenas who moved from disco parties to salsa events featuring such greats as Celia Cruz and Héctor Lavoe. Today he works with Latin superstars who are penetrating the mainstream market and have a global reach that in recent years has intensified thanks largely to streaming. Anthony, Maluma, Alejandro Fernández and Bad Bunny, among many others, rely on Cárdenas’ decades in the business to help get their music to an international audience. 
“Henry is a visionary and he lives the music,” says W.K. Entertainment CEO Walter Kolm, who guides the careers of Maluma, Carlos Vives, Wisin and Sylvestre Dangond. “Henry doesn’t bet on a show, he bets on an artist, the career, and that’s a big difference.”
Together with Cárdenas, Kolm has done what few have in Latin touring: taking an artist such as Maluma from smaller shows to arenas in the U.S. and far beyond. 

Salvador Bayron, Henry Cardenas, Ivan Fernandez & Eddie Orjuela
– Salvador Bayron, Henry Cardenas, Ivan Fernandez & Eddie Orjuela
“With Henry, we started from zero and went on to fill up arenas,” Kolm says, adding that Maluma sold out NYC’s Madison Square Garden in addition to AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami and two Forum shows in Inglewood, Calif., earlier this year. He points back to partnering with Cárdenas whose strategic mindset made all the difference.
Kolm says Cárdenas’ hands-on, artist-first approach helped guide his ascent. “Henry travels a lot so we meet around the world,” he says. “He’s a strong leader and the most important thing is that he believes in the artist.”
Maluma, according to box office reports submitted to Pollstar over the last 36 months, has grossed some $547,232 with an average of nearly 8,300 tickets per show.  

The Fast And Furious and Hirsute:
– The Fast And Furious and Hirsute:
Henry’s style and swagger extend to his taste to automobiles, even back in the day, but he’s still calm in business.
Cárdenas may have a cool swagger and down-to-earth conversational demeanor, but the promoter is anchored in several philosophies that he says help drive his business dealings: keeping promises, sealing deals in person and being direct and clear.
“He’s very calm, but very aggressive when it comes to finding business,” says Lazaro Megret, CEO of Latino Events Marketing Services in El Paso, Texas, who has known Cárdenas for 30 years. “I met him while working in Chicago; we were introduced at a radio station. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from him is to take care of the artist well and make sure that artist always has everything they want in their dressing room.” A fan experience is everything, but an unhappy artist is not good business. Megret adds, “You have to remember that you may lose money with an artist today, but tomorrow is another day and when that artist rises they will remember you.”
Megret’s first project with Cárdenas was working with Mexican acts José José and Yuri, where he learned that key marketing techniques can make or break a deal. 
But no deal can work without follow-through, which Cárdenas exemplifies. “He really does keep his word,” says Megret, who cites working with Cárdenas in territories that include Las Vegas, Texas and Phoenix with acts such as Anthony, Ricardo Arjona and the late Juan Gabriel. “Henry is great at closing a deal. He doesn’t wait. He moves fast.”
Henry Cardenas with daughters  Cindy and Zaidy Cardenas.
– Henry Cardenas with daughters Cindy and Zaidy Cardenas.

That quick pace that helped Cárdenas navigate the business was honed in the New York City of the ’90s, where he met Anthony who was then making his way in the music business. The two became close friends and business partners. 

“I used to live in his house in the Bronx,” Cárdenas says of Anthony. “We didn’t have any money. He’s very funny. I used to tell him, ‘The day you don’t sing we’re going to go out to do comedy.’ He could easily do a sitcom.”
Cárdenas became Anthony’s promoter for all his global arena and stadium tours. According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports dating back to 1999, Anthony’s impressive live career has grossed some $225.3 million across a total of 298 shows. 
And over the past 36 months, according to Pollstar data, his average gross is an impressive $1.2 million with an average of 14,167 tickets.
“Marc and Henry are brothers,” says Elena Sotomayor, CMN’s EVP of Sponsorships and Brand Experience (and who is engaged to Cárdenas). “Back in those early New York days Marc was handing out flyers before he got signed by a label. Their bond is hard to miss and in those days the struggle was real. All they need to do is look at each other and they know what to do next.” 

Henry Cardenas with Emmy Award-winning  broadcaster Fernando Fiore.
– Henry Cardenas with Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Fernando Fiore.
It’s that tight friendship and business partnership that led Cárdenas and Anthony to announce a massive touring deal three years ago that that would generate $160 million with CMN representing him exclusively through the U.S., Central and South America, among other areas. In Europe the duo worked with co-promoter Magnus Talent Agency (part of Anthony’s Magnus Media co-founded by Michel Vega).
Asked why it was important to announce the $160 million deal to the world, Cárdenas switches responds firmly: “We did it because the market needs it. The general market does not understand that we are real players and these numbers are real and big numbers and that’s why I put it out there.”
“People who don’t consider us can see 1-6-0 is a big number, Marc Anthony is a big talent and we are big promoters. They’ve got to take us into consideration. We can play in the big leagues; these are not the minors anymore and that’s why I did it.”
Another example, Cárdenas notes, is that many people do not know that Vicente Fernández at one point was the largest grossing event at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., with more than 19,000 paid tickets.
“We surpassed Michael Jackson … and people don’t believe it,” Cárdenas says, adding that Marc Anthony is going to complete 26 consecutive sold-out dates at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami this year. Big brands have to understand that this guy is the real deal … and has fans with purchasing power. We are like any other Anglo act. We are right there and we’re going to be even bigger players in the next 10 to 20 years.”
The partnership between Cárdenas and Anthony also extends to charity. In 2012 they founded the nonprofit Maestro Cares, which provides abused and neglected children with housing, nutrition, and education all over the world in countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and the U.S.

Los Presidentes:
– Los Presidentes:
Henry, former United States President Bill Clinton, TracFone Wireless Inc., president and CEO F.J. Pollak and Marc Anthony attend Maestro Cares ‘Changing Lives, Building Dreams’ third annual gala at Cipriani Wall Street Feb. 16, 2016, in New York City.
Working with Latin urban music stars such as Ozuna and Becky G, Cárdenas notes the growing power of the genre. Three years ago he began having conversations with industry people such as Kolm about the lack of young talent in the market place just as a new generation of urban talent like Bad Bunny and Maluma were emerging.
“I was shocked,” Cárdenas said. “Performers used to take five to 10 years to get to those arenas. Not anymore. These guys come out and go straight to arenas. It’s because of the demographics. Our kids, my grandkids, the numbers are bigger than before and they are followed on social media and they don’t have to listen to radio anymore.”
Credit social media and streaming platforms, which Cárdenas says are now an important part of the Latin music scene reaching fans around the world. Maluma’s 23 million Facebook fans and the 552 million Spotify spins for “Felices Los 4” can’t be wrong; nor can Bad Bunny’s 13.6 million Instagram followers and the nearly 600 million Spotify spins of “I Like It,” the Cardi B track he appears on; as well as Ozuna’s 4 million Facebook likes and the 229 million Spotify spins of his track “Vania Loco.”
The massive growth of the Latin market of today also means more sponsorship dollars, which allows marketing and promotion the ability to target social media. “Now when we have $100,000 advertising budget at a place like the Forum,” Cárdenas says, “we can now spend 30 percent of the budget on social media when three or four years ago we really didn’t target social media as much.” 

Henry Cardenas
– Henry Cardenas
Increasingly, social media is a bigger part of the conversation with sponsors wanting “some kind of digital twist” involving an artist and their tour.
While radio and TV budgets are down, Cárdenas predicts in a few years most of the money will be spent on social media. Spotify and Pandora are able to cover his advertising needs in 50 states unlike terrestrial radio stations. 
“I place advertising here in Miami for an event in Cali, Colombia,” says Cárdenas. “When you get a hit in Spotify, you’re not only going to be listening in Los Angeles. They’ll be listening in Chile and probably Africa. What a change for music.”