Hitting The Limit: Riffmusic’s Chris Ortiz Is Busier Than Ever

Chris Ortiz
Chris Ortiz, President of Riff Producciones.

Riff Producciones started life as the promoter of Spain’s renowned blues festival, Bluescazorla, now in its 27th year. Legends like Solomon Burke, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, and many more have performed there throughout its history. Today, Riff is one of the most successful independent promoters in the country, the list of international stars it has worked with includes Mark Knopfler, Roger Waters, Depeche Mode, Bob Dylan, Sting, ZZ Top, Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz, and more.

Riff also manages artists and promotes them outside of Spain. Melendi, for instance, toured Miami, Orlando, New York and Puerto Rico this past fall. Flamenco singer Miguel Poveda toured LA, New York, and Miami earlier this year. Pollstar spoke with Chris Ortiz, president of Riff Producciones, who said his team has never been busier. New tours are competing for space with all the shows postponed in 2020 and 2021, and Ortiz went deep into the reality of dealing with the post-pandemic glut.

Spain had been facing some of the toughest COVID restrictions on public life in Europe, but the live events sector got hit particularly hard. There was one point during the summer of 2020, when one could sit outside a restaurant in a group of ten ahead of a concert, drinking wine, listening to music, but once at the concert venue, even families would be separated to sit apart at a mandated distance, had put on their masks, and weren’t allowed to get up unless they wanted to use the toilet. Naturally, many people didn’t bother buying concert tickets under such circumstances, and it took resilience to survive this time as a professional working in the live biz. “Promoters in general, we’ve always been hard-headed, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer people,” said Ortiz, “When we all had to reduce format, we reduced format. When we had to do it like this, [we did] it like this. Reserved seating? Okay. We’ve been saying ‘yes’ to everything, just trying to push forward. And that first summer wasn’t a good summer, and a difficult year, economically.”

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Sharrie Williams performs on stage during Riffmusic’s Bluescazorla Festival at Plaza de Toros in Cazorla, Spain, July 23, 2011. (Photo by Jordi Vidal/Redferns)

Shows had to be postponed constantly, sometimes due to local restrictions, sometimes because a band member or crew tested positive. And while Ortiz isn’t entirely sure forcing shows through under such adverse circumstances was “the best idea,” it did keep his people busy. Riff came back strong in 2021, with a postponed tour by Spanish songwriter icon José Luis Perales, which is one of the reasons, Riff ranks second on Pollstar’s Spanish promoters chart. When Perales went into rehearsals in early June, the country was still in a lockdown state, but outdoor venues opened back up at full capacity right ahead of the tour’s opening night at Starlite Festival in Marbella, July 28. Ortiz and his team got lucky again, when buildings were allowed full capacities again in September, just when Perales’ farewell tour started to go indoors. Sales really started picking back up in September through December of last year. “That’s changed,” says Ortiz, “since the middle/end of February, ticket sales, with a few exceptions, have been slow across the board.”

There are various factors for that, he continues. In general, the war in Ukraine has been dampening people’s spirits, and rising gas prices have made every-day life much more expensive. Many are thinking twice about spending money on concert tickets. Plus, says Ortiz, “we’re hitting our limit as to the amount of shows [on sale]. There’s all kinds of events happening in all cities. I notice it within my family, that whenever we try to do something on a weekend, there’s always something else going on. Somebody always has a ticket to the football match, or a show. Every weekend in July, there’s really big shows, or major tours. That wasn’t like that before. I just came from back from a show we had in Murcia, and the city’s bullring hosts close to 20 shows this summer. They never used to do more than five back in the day, I’m talking four or five years ago, not just pre pandemic. And it’s not just the bullring, there’s six pretty major festivals happening in the same city between now and September, October. No doubt, there’s definitely an oversupply.”

Manuel Carrasco at the Bullring in Algeciras, Cádiz, May 14, 2022.

Ortiz has been working in live since 1998, and he’s never come across this type of congestion in the market. Most of the colleagues he speaks with say the same thing: “it’s an enormous volume of shows, everyone has more than too much on their plate, starting with the promoter to the marketing guys to our ticketing team, ticketing companies, supply companies – everyone right now is scrambling to get people, scrambling to get equipment.”

And because promoters have such a tough time saying “no,” Ortiz also doesn’t want to turn anyone down, not the new band dying to finally go on tour, not to the veteran act you’ve been working with for decades. “It has definitely taken the fun out of our business. We have nine shows this weekend, you just go from one show to another, you no longer have time to celebrate a successful show, or take some time off between shows,” he explained.

“It’s like the perfect storm, you have the volume that was already there, plus the volume, which should have gone up the second year, then you have new [and established] acts deciding to tour, plus many just taking advantage of the opportunity to sell shows and get some of these fees that are being paid by festivals.” Last but not least, artists that could easily fill arenas decide to do a tour of underplays, to get a bit more intimate with their fans and experience that energy unique to smaller venues. They’ll usually announce many more dates than they would playing arenas, which just adds to the volume of shows. Ortiz, being a big fan of the smaller rooms himself, doesn’t blame them. Riff runs a 750-capacity club, Sala Custom, in Seville, which was only able to survive one-year-and-a-half years of lost business due to Riff’s size, as well as a generous landlord. “For most people who own a club it has been impossible to go 18 months with almost no openings, and almost non [financial] aid. A lot of our historical venues and clubs have been closing or look like they will be closing,” said Ortiz, adding, “that’s worrisome. I don’t know who’s going to fill that void once those clubs aren’t around.”

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Charlie Musselwhite on stage at Bluescazorla Festival, the event that started everything for Riff Producciones (Photo by Jordi Vidal/Redferns)

Everything in life moves like a pendulum, and an unprecedented shutdown of this industry is now followed by an unprecedented return to business. Ortiz is sure, that, once things balance out again, Spain is all set for a bright future, but warned to not mistake the current glut as a sign of things being back to normal. “Imagine a company that makes chairs, and all of a sudden, that company has a supply issue, and cannot make chairs in four months. When they come back, they’re selling double the amount of chairs over the next five or six months because they had a backlog of orders. Doesn’t mean the company’s selling twice. They’re selling more, because they had a period when they weren’t selling at all. That’s where we are. We need time to digest all this information, have it pass and then see what happens, see where we are next summer.”

Riff’s upcoming highlights include the farewell tour of Spanish songwriter icon Serrat, and Manuel Carrasco’s 65,000-capacity concert at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, June 11. International tours are still waiting to commit to Europe, as travel is only gradually becoming easier, and prices are high across the board.

It has always been the goal of Ortiz and his team to promote great artists outside the main cities of Madrid and Barcelona, to show that the country offers a great variety of venues and settings for amazing live experiences: Cazorla, home of Bluescazorla, a town of whitewashed walls and tiled roofs, Fuengirola, where Riff has promoted Carlos Santana, Sting, Rod Stewart, and others, and the many cities featuring traditional bullrings, which happen to be spectacular concert locations. A lot of artists Riff has worked with, including Sting and Mark Knopfler, have said how much they love performing in bullrings. “The experience is incredible, for the artists and the fans, it’s like a pressure cooker, like what happens at the Royal Albert Hall. I think Mark Knopfler said it was like a wall of humanity.” Italian world star Eros Ramazzotti will launch his upcoming world tour in September at the Maestranza bullring in Seville, one of the oldest and most beautiful bullrings in the country. “We’ve been trying to do shows there for a really long time, and we’re finally going to be doing a series of five or six shows there this summer,” said Ortiz.

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