For the last 40 years, Pablo Pinilla has been one of the most influential composers and producers in the Spanish and South American music industry. He considers himself a “talent hunter” who’s willing to fight anything and anyone to achieve his goals. Pinilla started his career at the young age of 16 as a session drummer, later founding his band Diseño. Then came the eighties, where millions of vinyl records were sold and the synthesizers represented the main form of expression for an entire generation. Pastora Soler, Flans, David DeMaria, Malu, Modestia Aparte, El Platon, and David Bustamante are just some of the artists Pinilla worked with, achieving great sales and revenue numbers that earned him a number of prestigious awards such as the ASCAP’s “Best South-American Song”. His successes led to other important roles, including one as Coca-Cola México’s musical director. Later, in 2018, he became the vice-president of SGAE, where he still sits on the board of directors. In our interview, Pinilla discussed the post-COVID music scene and the differences between working in Italy and Spain.

If I am convinced of my ideas, I could even argue with God

Pablo Pinilla

These days, the Internet, and especially digital platforms such as Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube, play a key role in music distribution and have a serious impact on the market. As a producer, how do you feel about the Bruxelles situation and the arising problems on intellectual property?

When it comes to intellectual property, the situation is very complex. Multinationals, with their monopoly, were able to move in advance closing very advantageous contracts with the different platforms. By coming late, the copyright management companies have found themselves splitting only the crumbs – to the detriment of minor artists. As a result, the bigger fish have gotten stronger and the smaller ones weaker. Despite Bruxelles’ efforts, it’s hard to change the situation because the agreements between Sony, Universal, YouTube and others remain shrouded in mystery. The interest is huge, but little has changed. In fact, you can find representatives of music corporations within the same copyright societies. How can you win a war if you are sitting with the enemy? I feel sorry for independent artists, who would need pop-star numbers to make a living on these platforms. Their only alternative is to rebel against the system. I’m sure it’ll happen someday.

You’re on the SGAE’s Board of Directors. Can you tell us how complex it is to make decisions about the future of music and television in Spain? 

This situation is also complicated. Actually, it looks like a war because the SGAE doesn’t only deal with music; it also manages other arts like visuals and cinematography. Striking a general agreement is practically impossible, since too many representatives and interests are associated with each college. Right now, the SGAE situation looks like the TV series Game of Thrones. We just need to show up at meetings with swords. It’s so absurd that I feel ashamed for it. I really hope that this October’s elections will improve things.

There has always been a music axis between Italy and Spain. Is your experience based on this, too? 

Yes, I’ve worked a lot in Italy because the quality of your musicians and professionals is amazing. I’ve always been a bit jealous of your country. If a Spanish musician gets tired, he’ll walk out after five hours. If he’s Mexican, it might be only two. But if he’s Italian, he’ll just need a little break before he gets back to work. Here we need two months to record an album, while you only need 20 days. That’s a big difference, especially in terms of costs. When my job was at its most intense, I decided to turn to your country – like the time I had to produce ten albums in a single year. Or like when I called some of Bryan Adams’ band musicians to get that typical American sound. That’s when I realized that by doing it from scratch with the Italians just worked it out better. It seems that in Italy music is considered as a noble art, while in Spain “musician” seems to be synonymous with “lazy” or “delinquent”. I don’t want to say there are no great professionals in my country, but creating a team with the right harmony is much more difficult.

Pablo Pinilla and the Spanish singer Malu after a live concert in Madrid, 2004
Pablo Pinilla with Malu, live tour, Madrid, 2004

Do you have any stories about it?

Sure. It was during the fifth edition of “Operación Triunfo”, a similar show to your “Amici di Maria de Filippi”. I got a call at one in the morning from Sony’s artistic director: “Pablo, you’ll be the producer for this year’s winner, come to my office!”. The next day, he told me I had only 15 days to produce an album that would selll 100,000 copies. If I couldn’t do it, he’d call someone else. I was puzzled for a moment, because the artist, Sergio Rivero, was not a composer and had no repertoire. So I called my Italian and Spanish collaborators to explain the situation. We worked 24/7 for 15 days and we never left the studio. We sold 220,000 copies achieving our goal. But the story, unfortunately, doesn’t end here. In the following months, while Sergio was living in my home and discussing his next album with me, I got another call from the record company informing me that I wouldn’t be Sergio’s producer anymore. You can imagine my reaction. It seems there’s no place for gratitude in this industry. It’s a story with a bad ending – just like Sergio’s second record. It sold 24,000 copies only!

What is the best way to reach both Italian and Spanish audiences?

Making a great song that knows no borders. Today we tend to jump on trends and currents, like reggaetón. But I think that, regardless of the genre, that’s not the right way to go. Music happens when there’s a genuine dialogue and exchange between different kinds of creativity. When I was working in Mexico between the ‘90s and the ‘00s, I paused my career to work with Coca-Cola as their musical director. It was an international experience, very different from everything I’d done before, but also very important for my development. It taught me how to manage an important company. It was in that period that I discovered “La mia storia tra le dita” by Gianluca Grignani. I realized how the success of that song was possible, despite its origin. The same happened with Nek (Filippo Neviani), especially when he hit the top of the UK charts with his dance covers of songs by The Police. And how could I forget “La Solitudine” by Laura Pausini? I knew she’d be successful the first time I saw her on stage.

Even if it’s probably difficult to choose, is there an artist in particular that you feel the most attached to?

You’re right. It’s very hard to choose, especially when you’ve worked in the music industry for 40 years and collaborated with so many talented people. Here’s the thing: every time you finish a project it feels like you’ve just lived the best professional experience of your life, but then a new artist always comes along that makes you feel even better. It’s all about context. For example, in 1988 I started working with Modestia Aparte (a Spanish pop band). I had a very close relationship with them. It was one of my first experiences, and there wasn’t a lot of pressure. We recorded six albums and sold six million copies. In 1997 I worked with David DeMaria. We recorded eight albums and sold two million copies. From then on, I met many more artists.

Pablo and Spanish pop band Modestia Aparte celebrating Gold Award, 1991
Pablo with Modestia Aparte, Gold Award, 1991
Pablo Pinilla and Platon celebrating Platinum Award winning, 1992
Pablo with Platon, Platinum Award, 1992

From your biography, we can see that before your success there always was a crisis that challenged you. Can you tell us more about this?

The secret is to reinvent oneself. Every time I thought I was finished with something, life happened and surprised me. After my experience with Coca-Cola, for example, I decided to leave Mexico. Between 1988 and 1993, I produced basically every album in Spain. I felt like a “God”, to the point that I thought I didn’t need the music industry. I thought that value didn’t belong to brands, but to the people who represented it. So, I created my first own label, Elsa Music. The problem was that I underestimated the real importance of the budgets and reputations of the majors labels. If you go to war without guns, you’ll be knocked out soon, especially if the enemy has phenomenal strength. It wasn’t easy for me. To get out of there, I had to take advantage of every contact I had. I asked for favors wherever I could.  I put together 60 different songs, and with my last bit of money I bought a ticket back to Mexico. This wasn’t a risky move as it might seem, because in Mexico I was known for writing very famous songs. Ask any Mexican if he knows the song “Las mil y una noches” – I’m sure he’ll sing it to you. I came back empty-handed from my first trip, but, after many tries and thanks to the support of those who loved me, I returned to Spain with a great hit. This story helps you understand that it’s possible to take risks, but not blind ones. In my case, I’m very stubborn. I don’t give up easily. If I’m convinced about my ideas, I could even argue with God himself.

Is there an artist you’d have liked to work with but never could?

Hard question. In Spain, I worked with practically everyone. Abroad, I’d name two above all: Pino Daniele and The Beatles.

Finally, what is the element that you consider fundamental in your work?

The human feeling. It’s important to know who you are working with, where he or she comes from, and why they’re into music. From afar we are all very similar, but it’s the details that make us unique. Our job is not like sitting in the office. We work and share many aspects of our daily life with people we probably won’t see again for a long time or maybe forever, which contributes to creating a very intimate and human relationship. In my opinion, the figure of the producer is like the master of a ship: he has to take the best decision respecting the role of each crew member.

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