‘The Volume Is Insane’: Q’s With Chris Ortiz, President, Riff Music

Christopher Ortiz Riff Music
Riff Music CEO Chris Ortiz.

Riff Music is one of few independent promoters doing major business left in Spain. Headquartered in Cordoba, Andalusia, the team around co-founders Chris Ortiz and Carlos Espinosa counts 18 full time staff in the office, plus 12 working externally, mostly directly with the artists that are not just promoted, but in some cases also managed by Riff. It is this close involvement in artists live careers, coupled with vast experience of the Spanish and Latin American markets, that allows this independent business to thrive in a live entertainment world dominated by large conglomerates.

As it turns out, the most difficult part of the job is keeping up with the sheer volume of live entertainment offerings on sale at any given time. If people are keeping a tight budget in these uncertain times, they’re certainly not de-prioritizing live. At least that the impression Chris Ortiz is getting, whenever going on sale these days. It has created issues within the live supply chain, and it’s hard to find qualified staff to handle the amount of events taking place, unless you’re an established company with long-standing business relationships.

When we last spoke in November, you thought that you might see the overall sales volume drop, or at least slow down due to the slow economy, a certain saturation of shows, etc. It sounds like that still hasn’t happened.
There’s definitely some saturation. There’s a lot of shows that seem to not be selling well, and a lot of festivals that have been overdone, but that’s always been the case. Most new tours we’re putting on sale, are all selling very well. If you have a show that’s hard to defend, you need to get out early, because people’s schedules are completely packed. We had a show in Seville with Melendi last night, an arena of 18,000 people, his biggest show ever in Seville, and probably twice the business he did on his previous visit. The night before, there were 50,000 people in the stadium watching ESTOPA, another Spanish band, which has a very similar fan base to Melendi. Five years ago, having those two shows on the same weekend would mean that both would have suffered. Now we’re here, and they’re both sold out, both acts doing record numbers. One on a Saturday night, one on Sunday night, same weekend in a city that is not Madrid or Barcelona.

We’ve all been expecting a slowing in sales, because of the inflation, as interest rates are going up, and people are paying more on their mortgages, they’re paying more in the supermarket. But they’re continuing to spend record amounts in live music.

It’s an indication of how much live entertainment means to people, isn’t it?
Yes. In our business, we always said that music was recession proof, people would always find a way to go to shows. Look at the example of Argentina, or Chile, countries that have been in difficult economic situations for decades. Yet, all the records in live music seem to be broken in Argentina: Roger Waters, Coldplay did 10 stadiums in 2022, Luis Miguel did 10 Movistar Arenas in 2023. Here’s a country having all these issues, and live music is still able to thrive.

It the same for restaurants, and leisure in general. You can’t get a reservation at any of the top restaurants in Spain, everything is always packed. People made a decision. I don’t know if that means sacrificing savings, or expenses in other areas, but concerts, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, festivals – business is just really strong across the board.

Melendi Concert In Albacete
Melendi, promoted and managed by Riff Music, performs on stage at Estadio José Copete in Albacete, Spain, May 25, 2024. (Photo by Juan Naharro Gimenez/Redferns)

As one of the few independently operating promoters in the country, how do you deal with the huge volume? Can you talk about navigating this booming live economy as an indie?
It definitely seems to be getting harder. A major part of our ticket sales have been from national acts that we also manage, book exclusively, and promote in most parts of Spain, and sometimes even outside of Spain. With these acts, it’s such a personalized service: you’re involved in the design of the shows, selecting band members, helping with a number of things, plus, you’re touring with them. My partner and I are at least at 80% of our artists’ shows. It is a service that a large company is not able to provide, at least not as efficiently as we’re able to do it because in order to do that you need to have the time to spend with the artist.

Melendi, for example, is doing record business, and by record, I mean, he’s probably doing three times the volume he’s ever done. With Malú, coming off her 2022 tour that was not so strong, we are now doing great business. And Manuel Carrasco’s just gone through the roof. There’s definitely a combination of reasons, I’m not saying that’s solely because of our management. Both Malú, and Melendi, this year, came out with anniversary albums, and it’s definitely brought back the older fans. But I don’t see an international company, a large group, being able to help these types of artists on all levels, like we’re currently helping them.

The volume is insane, but we’re lucky to have very good teams in place. Each artist has their own personal team. On top of that, we partner with independent promoters around the world, relationships that we’ve forged over 15, 20 years, in some cases even more. We’re comfortable working in that little niche that we’ve carved out. We partner with other promoters on a lot of tours. So, a lot of the time, we don’t have to send a full team. In each market, we have very good, loyal, local partners. At the end of the day, this is always going to remain a relationship business, you need people on the ground you can trust, and they need to trust you. That includes relationships with our suppliers, the one part of the business right now, that I’m definitely worried about. The amount of volume they are facing has gone insane. We have suppliers, staging, security, sound, who are doing 25, 30 shows on a weekend. There’s definitely a shortage. You have to plan your tours very far in advance to make sure you have your suppliers locked in. We have gone very late on sale, and we’ve been able to find suppliers, but it’s because we have mutual loyalty. If it was a smaller company, I don’t think it would have been the same. It’s gotten very difficult to find people.

Any upcoming highlights you’d like to point out?
Manuel Carrasco will play the Bernabeu, the Real Madrid stadium, at the end of this month, June 29. We have the 30th anniversary of Blues Cazorla coming up in July. And Melendi’s tour is probably going to be one the largest ticket-selling tours by any Spanish act this year. He’s selling out everywhere we go, Valladolid, Seville, Zaragoza, Valencia, you name it.

Cazorla Blues Festival 2023
Susan Santos performing at Cazorla Blues Festival 2023. The festival, organized by Riff Music, celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, July 4-6. (Photo by Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images)

Have local artists, regional repertoire, become more important to your business compared to international in recent years?
International is getting more and more difficult. A lot of acts you used to work with, now work directly with festivals, which is understandable, it’s what everyone is doing. Local repertoire wasn’t really something we had planned for. But due to our experience having done a lot of exclusive national tours for national and international acts, working in every single province of the country, as well as our experience in Latin America, we’ve been getting stronger in that area. There’s been a tendency for artists to look our way. So, domestic, right now, is definitely a stronger part of our business than it was five years ago.

Are there any cities or markets in Spain that have not traditionally been part of a tour routing, but have emerged in recent years?
In general, I think every city has gone up exponentially. Just yesterday, I was talking to a promoter friend from Granada, a city of about 400,000 people. We were talking about how, last year, we had Joaquin Sabina in the Bullring, two nights, Friday, and Sunday, sold out. During that time, there were concerts in an outdoor auditorium of the Alhambra Palace, there was a show in the sports hall with 8,000 people, there was festival right outside of the city with about 20,000 people. All those shows, 10 years ago, would have been the annual amount of live events in Granada. And here we are, having 10 or 12 shows on one weekend. We were remembering this, because a similar amount of events was taking place this past weekend, including a local artists doing two stadiums, while an older local artists was doing the Bullring.

We used to be worried about not getting younger people to shows, but the crowds are getting much younger. On average, they’re going on to a lot more shows than they used to a few years ago. People, who used to go to maybe two, three shows a year, are now going to eight or 10, and it’s catching on.

Any other trends you’re observing?
We’re seeing a huge resurgence of bands that once struck a chord with people, during a positive time in people’s lives. There’s a couple of bands in Spain that had a few hits years ago, songs you always hear at weddings or parties, that have become part of people’s memories. Over the years, those bands would play to 2,000 people in a city like Madrid. Now, they are doing tours selling out 13,000, 14,000-capacity venues over the weekend in multiple cities. It’s just insane, but something you see internationally, as well. Important bits from your youth, bands that haven’t been together in 15, 20, or 25 years. It happened to us last year with Fondo Flamenco, a band that had split up 10 years earlier. They weren’t gonna get back together, but we started talking to them about doing a few shows. The first show we went out with in Seville, we went to a 3,500 capacity venue to play it safe. We sold out, put out another one, sold out, put our another one, sold out. We ended up doing four, and could have done more, we just didn’t have the availability. They ended up doing Madrid, two days at WiZink Center, 14,000 each night. They were never anywhere near those numbers before their split.

I could come up with five albums immediately, that I would definitely go to see performed live.
But 10 years ago, if you saw a show of theirs announced, you would have been like, ‘wow, those guys are still playing?’ It wouldn’t have necessarily been considered a fun night out, but something has switched. Now, groups of friends are going out to relive these memories. A band called Camela just played in Cordoba this past weekend. They were the first guys, who started selling their cassettes at the gas stations in Spain. They’ve always had a following among truck drivers, and taxi drivers, all these guys are really into them. Over the years, it turned into a cult. Now they’re selling five, six times more than they ever sold in their career. There’s a number of acts like that.

In general, the quality of the shows, and festivals has really gone up. People leave these shows very content. Those experiences turned into something parents want to do with their kids. That’s a dream scenario: to go to a show with your whole family. It’s one of the best possible experience you can have.

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