When Roberto Medina began dreaming of mounting a global rock concert in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1980s, he could hardly have picked a more uncertain moment in Brazil’s history.
After two decades of military dictatorship, Latin America’s largest country was experimenting with democracy and was still shaky on its feet.
His plan was even more audacious because he did not have in mind a moderately sized event, or even a large one, which in the Brazil of that era would have been about 30,000 to 40,000 people. What he envisioned was a show that would be enormous even by global standards.
“I did not dream of doing something with 200,000 people, I dreamt of doing something with 1m people, and that’s what I did,” says the brash advertising man, who was selected as the EY Entrepreneur of the Year for Brazil in 2016.
In the end, 1.38m people came to the first 10-day edition of the festival that is to this day Mr Medina’s trademark, Rock in Rio.
That was 30 years ago. Since then, more than 8.2m people have participated in Rock in Rio festivals in Brazil, Portugal, Spain and the US, with the event broadcast to more than 1bn people on television and online. Rock in Rio last year was streamed to more than 300m Chinese viewers.
Originally conceived as a marketing platform for a beer brand, Rock in Rio is used to sell more than 600 licensed products, generating $1.5bn of sales in 2013.
“What I want to do, this is the dream . . . is to have a music brand that is like the World Cup,” Mr Medina says of his efforts to turn Rock in Rio into a global franchise.
Aiming low has never been a character trait of the energetic Mr Medina, 66.
The owner of an advertising agency, Artplan, he started out in the 1970s working for whisky brands. One of his big breaks came when he managed to persuade US crooner Frank Sinatra to sing on one of his advertisements. Then in 1980, he drew Sinatra to Brazil to sing live before a crowd of 175,000 people in Rio’s Maracanã football stadium.
He maintained the relationship and it proved useful again in the mid-1980s, when he was trying to attract bands such as Iron Maiden and AC/DC to perform at the inaugural Rock in Rio. He recounts how he knocked on countless doors but no one would take him seriously. Brazil at that point was suffering endless economic crises and several other foreign artists had lost money performing there, according to a profile on Mr Medina in magazine GQ Brasil.
Mr Medina called Sinatra. “He said: ‘What can I do for you?’ And I said: ‘Gee, I need to get people to listen to me, the [US] media to listen to me,’” says Mr Medina.
Mr Sinatra’s people made some phone calls and the following day Mr Medina held a press conference attended by all the major media. One day later, the bands signed.
The entrepreneur emphasises that Rock in Rio is very different from the US or overseas model of music festivals, whose main revenues are based on ticket sales.
Brazil’s high costs, with most big name bands coming from abroad, meant Rock in Rio could not survive on ticket sales alone. Instead, it is driven by corporate sponsorship and advertising. Brands buy access to the youth market drawn by the festival.
He contrasts it with US festival Coachella, which he says earns about $4.5m from corporate sponsorships (although it made over $84m in ticket sales in 2015, according to Billboard). Rock in Rio, he says, makes about $54m from corporate sponsorships. “This event is very different from what happens in the rest of the world,” he says.
But it has not all been plain sailing for Mr Medina. In June, 1990, he was kidnapped for 17 days and was only freed after his family reportedly paid $2.5m. Bearded and wearing the same suit in which he was originally abducted near the headquarters of Artplan, he was lucky to escape with his life.
There have been business setbacks too, but nothing seems able to rob him of his enthusiasm. Brazil, he says, will stage a good Olympics in August in spite of concerns about the mosquito-born disease Zika and other problems.
He believes the country will also bounce back from its current political and economic crises of rising unemployment and the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, just as the sentiment of outside investors has improved towards Argentina following last year’s election of Mauricio Macri as president to replace the populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
“You changed the environment in Argentina and Argentina emerged from its crisis very quickly. I think the same thing will happen in Brazil. I am very excited about what will happen,” he says.