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POP MUSIC

Ready for Higher Heights

Jose Behar went from being a mail clerk to leading the second-biggest Latin music label in the U.S. Now the discoverer of Selena is riding the wave of a burgeoning genre.

May 23, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

Maybe he's not quite as hunky as Ricky Martin. And no one really knows if he can sing. But that doesn't matter. Jose Behar is still one of the two most powerful men in the U.S. Latin music industry--and by far the most powerful Latin music executive in Los Angeles. Indeed, nationally, the only other person to wield as much power is producer Emilio Estefan.

Behar, 42, is president and CEO of EMI Latin, the nation's second-largest Latin music label. Only giant Sony Discos sells more music than EMI Latin. And when it comes to the Mexican regional market, EMI Latin, the only Latin label based in Los Angeles, is king.

While 10 years ago such a ranking might merit a curious shrug, these days it is the stuff of serious business. According to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, Latin music sales increased 24% in dollars between 1997 and 1998, a rate twice the overall industry's growth. Latin music now accounts for close to 4.5% of the $13.7-billion industry and is growing.

A story like Behar's could easily be told in numbers, as it was on the cover of Variety, where it was reported last month that his 10-year-old label just completed its most profitable year ever, with more than $108 million in revenues.

There's also the company's sustained 25% growth rate over the past two years, and the 1996 raise Behar got from EMI Recorded Music, which his lawyer John Mason said increased his annual salary by 500%--putting him somewhere in the low seven figures.

But it's much more interesting to ride with Behar in his black two-door Mercedes to the gated North Ranch site in the city of Westlake Village, where he is building his "dream house." The big, bulldozed lot is cut into the side of a hill, almost at the top; a neighboring hill is crowned by Heather Locklear's mansion; close to that, Hulk Hogan's. Down the street, Richard Carpenter, of the Carpenters, is building a new house; years ago, Behar used to deliver Carpenter's letters as mail clerk for A&M Records. "It's a nice neighborhood," Behar says with characteristic understatement. "And my kids can play with other kids. That's why I'm doing this. If I was single, I'd be in a one-bedroom apartment. But the kids and my wife are a key motivating factor in all of this. I feel blessed that I'm able to build this compound for them, with a theater and a gym."

Behar, well over 6 feet tall and dressed elegantly in black slacks and shirt, walks to the edge of the property, where he spies a bloody snake that has been mauled by the construction equipment. He frowns and squats next to it. "Is it dead? It is? That's awful." Behar looks up and says, quite sincerely, "That's one of the reasons I wanted to live out here, you know. There are deer here, and rabbits. It's peaceful."

Behar walks back to the Mercedes. The passenger side mirror is cracked because, in his haste to make a 5 a.m. personal training appointment, a sleepy Behar drove into a wall on his way out of the driveway. It was a Sunday. He had to exercise early because he had promised his daughters, Siara, 6, and Deidre, 10, he would spend the day with them.

Behar's spotless corner office in Woodland Hills, decorated in pale banana shades, is filled with photos of his kids. In addition to work, these are the things that consume Behar: family, charity and working out, all of which he approaches in much the same perfectionist way he approaches his career.

Behar's wife, Jamie, a former speech therapist, met Behar in 1979, when he was a mail clerk and college student, and says even then she knew he was destined for great things.

"I knew I was attracted to him, and I'm not attracted to losers, or at least I wouldn't admit it," says Behar's wife. "If he'd said his dream was to be a 'Baywatch' lifeguard on Santa Monica Pier, I would have said, 'OK, let's move on.' I knew he would go places. He's not happy with mediocrity."

Behar's personal trainer, Kevin Lewis, says the big problem with his client is that "you have to make sure he doesn't overdo it. Like a lot of successful people, he usually pushes himself too hard."

*

Behar also pushes hard at EMI Latin, which he persuaded London-based EMI Recorded Music to launch in 1989. Until that time, the conglomerate had licensed its Spanish-language music to RCA Records as sort of an afterthought. Behar, then a high-ranking talent scout at CBS Records, came to EMI with a novel idea: Latin music was a profitable U.S. domestic venture that should be sold in the same stores as regular pop music.

"I met with the EMI head and I said, 'I know my business is not of interest to you today,' verbatim, 'but I just want you to know that the future of this business is in Latin music,' " Behar says.

EMI gave Behar two small offices on its classical music floor, a couple of employees and a $1-million budget, which he used to sign artists such as Eddie Santiago and Lalo Rodriguez. Within three years, Behar had increased EMI Latin's budget 800 times over, and EMI Latin took over the entire floor.

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