News Column

Sound Fundamentals

September 2007, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Michael T. Mena


Traditionally, there are two ways a musical act makes a living in the recording industry. Touring and record sales account for the majority of an act's income.

That and a day job.

In a volatile industry facing titanic technological change, and with sales the big boys would see as modest at best, the seven full-time members of the Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli have blazed a unique trail and created success, musically and financially, on their own terms.

They have redefined the way musical acts can be compensated in the recording industry. Together more than a dozen years and with four full-length studio albums to their credit, the members of Ozomatli have no day jobs and there's no need of any in sight.

Critics have always been kind to multicultural, multi-ethnic Ozomatli, whose name is taken from the Nahuatl word for the Aztec astrological symbol of the monkey. But while the band has topped Billboard's Latin Pop chart, its discs don't appear in the upper reaches of the mainstream album charts.

Nor has mainstream radio really embraced Ozo's sound, a hybrid of Spanish-English mash-ups of hip hop, salsa, cumbia, dub, and Middle Eastern funk. This concoction, which in the hands of lesser musicians might prove disastrous, has earned Ozomatli two Grammy Awards in the Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album category, one in 2001 for Embrace the Chaos and the second in 2004 for Street Signs. And while its current CD, Don't Mess With the Dragon, has garnered the most significant radio support of any Ozomatli release so far, it too peaked at No. 154 on the Billboard 200.

Core Competency
How has the group succeeded and made a decent living without massive record sales or major radio support? The short answer is that it is as innovative from a business perspective as it is from a musical one, finding ways to mine new profits from its core competency – playing live. The band has created multiple streams of income beyond the staples of touring and record sales.

"Ozo performs between 175 and 250 shows per year," states its manager Amy Blackman, known to band members as Amy B. "Our initial mission statement was, 'say no to nothing.'" While the number of gigs has remained constant over the years, the band has gone from playing bowling alleys, film screenings, and quincea๑eras to festivals, fairs, and stadiums.

Its raucous, party atmosphere has helped the band tap into a lucrative performance opportunity known as the "corporate gig," which were especially common during the dot-com boom. Performing at a special, closed corporate event for company bigwigs and their guests often pays 10 times that of a standard club gig.

Ozo is also a band's band. It is the favorite of many musicians – Carlos Santana was an early and vocal advocate – and has been invited to perform as an opening act at numerous stadium tours, including one for the Dave Matthews Band.

Being road warriors and playing in front of tens of thousands of people has caught the eye and interest of companies looking for eyeballs. The band is outfitted with soft drinks, clothing, gear, and more from various sponsors, who pay the band a tidy sum to wear their goods on stage and promote their beverage.

Ozomatli's music has also been sought after by music supervisors who have placed the band's music in more than a dozen TV shows and films. If a scene in a film requires a celebratory Latin-flavored music cue, Ozomatli often gets the call. These placements generate income and exposure within the industry.

"A lot of Ozo's success just happened," Ms. Blackman says. "We never said, 'Let's get our songs placed on TV. Let's go after corporate sponsors.' The odd thing is that I have not been able to replicate this with any other band. Although many of these instances may seem accidental, knowing what to do when an opportunity presents itself has been very consistent."

Their business savvy is equaled by their social consciousness. The band itself was founded through a shared political ethos – the members met through the Peace and Justice Center of Los Angeles – and even its first gig was in support of a strike. The band's fervor hasn't cooled – the song "Temperatura" on the latest CD was inspired by last year's pro-immigration marches, and "Magnolia Soul" takes on the Bush administration for bumbling Hurricane Katrina relief.

[That and their anti-war stance hasn't alienated the government – the band returned in July from free shows in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, where they performed as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department.]

Even the band members acknowledge that capitalism isn't the default position of many socially active bands.

"Music is something that is rooted in the heart," says guitarist Raul "El Bully" Pacheco, "so the idea of a band as a business can seem counter to one another. The reality of surviving as a musician forces you to look at it as a proper business quickly.

"You must manage your cash flow and assess the pros and cons of almost every project. Is a project good for our career? Is it just a good money project? Is there something we gain from a project that is more important, in the long run, than money?"

Ms. Blackman is the only manager Ozomatli has had for 11 years. She earned the band's trust early on by helping out, getting its bio written, booking rehearsal studios, etc.

Her informal assistance took a turn when Ozomatli's bass player, Wil-dog, introduced Ms. Blackman to someone as his manager. Perplexed, she asked, "Am I your manager?" The unanimous response from Wil-dog and the band: "Yes!" Ms. Blackman's business prowess has provided the stability of a monthly paycheck, health care, day care, and more for the band members. While neither she nor the band would reveal its exact annual gross, she notes that more than seven people are making a good living.

Industry Woes
The volatility of the record industry over the past few years has been punctuated by slumping record sales. Downward record sales have prompted major retailers, such as Tower Records, to close. The Big Seven major record labels have morphed into three.

Year-end statistics provided by the Recording Industry Association of America show that aside from a short spurt in the black in 2004, the recording industry has put up negative sales numbers several years in a row.

Ozomatli's CD sales are solid but not extraordinary.

Its best-selling CD was its self-titled debut, which came out on Almo Sounds and was distributed by a major. Released in 1998, it sold 271,000 units according to Soundscan. The band's follow-up, recorded for Interscope Records, sold 88,000 units. Its first record for Concord – better known for its jazz and Latin music than pop – rebounded with 113,000 records sold.

How its current record will fare in terms of record sales is still being written. Dragon was released in March and has sold 24,000 units so far, but it's still early in the lifecycle of this release. Ozomatli knows the best way to extend the life of a record is to tour extensively.

For a smaller label like Concord, these sales are satisfying. But major labels with huge overheads and expenditures would view Ozo's CD sales as modest. The standard for success in the recording industry used to be 500,000 units sold – a gold record. But anymore, for a major label, gold status is not always enough to recoup the investment.

Meanwhile, Internet downloads are exploding. This suggests that while public interest in music remains high, the $40 billion global music industry hasn't yet found a universally successful way to profit from that.

But Ozomatli has.

"The Internet is huge for us," Ms. Blackman says. "Twenty-three percent of the sales from our current CD were from iTunes. Even iTunes was surprised by that number." She cites the Internet as the second most important marketing tool after touring.

Ozomatli's Web site ( is a fully realized community designed to interact with its fans. The message boards, the online journal, and the store are all pretty standard fare for a rock band Web site, but this Internet awareness has helped Ozo plot its tour dates. For example, Nashville, Tennessee, might not seem like a ripe market for Ozo. Fan interaction from that market takes the guesswork out.

"Grit combined with non-traditional thinking has been quite lucrative for Ozo," comments Ian Faith, a Los Angeles-based record producer and CEO of the Global Creative Group. "They were ahead of the curve with movie music placements and corporate gigs. Now they seem to be working the Internet properly. Hats off to them because they have the equation down."

Dollars and Sense
So, is Ozomatli run like a business?

"Yes, but not always in a traditional bottom-line sense," says Mr. Pacheco, the guitarist whose last day job was as a staff person for a government-funded community project that focused on after-school tutorial and sports projects.

"For instance, we are on a tour of Europe right now to promote Ozomatli. We have not been here for this amount of time in years. Because of that, our name – or brand – is not as familiar to as many people as we would like it to be. We are breaking even in expenditures to tour and ticket receipts, but we see this as an investment so that when we return we will able to generate more revenue and even more the time after that. Right now, we are planning to return in February 2008 and summer 2008."

Offering advice to aspiring musicians, Ms. Blackman says: "Play and play. Get out there and perform. Ozo created a following in such an organic way. A residency at a club resulted in a record deal that enabled the guys to quit their day jobs for one year."

Before that year ended, the requests for gigs started mounting. A dozen years later, the dreaded day job is still at bay.

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and, Copyright (c) 2007 All Rights Reserved.

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