Exclusive Interview with Johnny Marines
Thanks to his success managing one of the hottest Latin music groups ever – Aventura – Johnny’s journey from a young kid in New York City to now is one for the ages. It’s so good that it drew many suitors’ attention, including Ben Greenman, a New York Times bestselling author and well-known contributor for the New Yorker. Greenman has collaborated on biographical ventures with various artists, such as Brian Wilson, Gene Simmons, and George Clinton. With a little luck, Johnny said the book will be released within the next year.
If you run a Google search on Johnny Marines, Wikipedia would tell you he’s an “American music executive from the Lower East Side of New York City whose clients include the Latin American group Aventura and Romeo Santos.” Yes, that’s how he made his name in the music industry, but he’s far more than just that. And how silly is it to say “just that” for one of, if not the best Bachata managers ever? That’s because Johnny’s list of accomplishments is impressive and long, spanning across the worlds of music, philanthropy, public speaking, and entrepreneurship.
Most notably – aside from his management of Aventura and Aventura’s lead singer, Romeo Santos, in his solo career – Johnny was the President of Roc Nation Latino from June 2016 until July 2017.
He’s a 3x Billboard Latin Power Player thanks to his work with Romeo. He has countless certificates of recognition from local through state and national governments for his charitable works with youths, educational initiatives, and food drives for those in need. He has spoken at schools ranging from Syracuse University to Columbia University to Harvard University – three years in a row – about his life journey, which means the world to him because he gets to share about his struggles with education.
The most important thing about that to Johnny is that he gets to encourage and inspire those who had similar struggles. He does so by using himself as proof that school and traditional education issues don’t define them and their success. As part of that, and in a more recent effort to further his business knowledge, Johnny is taking classes at Harvard Business School.
Mr. Marines is a rock-star himself, but you’ll never catch him admitting it. He’s modest, whether it be talking of his successes or how valuable an asset he is in any given scenario. For Johnny, much of that modesty comes from staying humble and hungry and wanting to learn.
“I’m not one of these dudes that feel accomplished. I don’t feel like nothing I’ve done impresses me… I take everything like it’s a job because, really, when you look from the inside out, everything is a job,” said Marines. “Look from the outside-in, and it appears to be a lot of things or whatever you’re fed through social media or TV. You know, I think the music business is a perfect example of where it appears to be too many people looking for glitz and glamour. There is a lot of that in the music business. But when I look at it, I still look at it as a job.”
To stay modest, Johnny is also big on remembering where he came from. He told a story about how his mom worked a factory job in SoHo’s manufacturing district when he was younger, and how those days alone were where he first learned how to manage his money. Mom would leave him two bucks a day, and he quickly learned how to spread that cash as efficiently as possible across snacks from local bodegas in the Jacob Riis projects where he grew up.
Johnny remembered how sodas were disproportionately expensive to his budget, so he drank sugar water instead. Through vivid memories like this, Johnny stays grounded and reflects on how far he has come.
“That was my first talent; being able to stretch out two dollars and not go starving. But I remember, I never really had enough to buy a drink with the two dollars,” remembered Johnny. “You know, I wanted to stretch it out so much for all the stuff that I never really bought a drink. So, I used to mix sugar with water, and that would be my drink.
“And let me tell you, at the time, that stuff didn’t taste bad. But I tried it the other day, and that tasted disgusting.”
Additionally, Johnny’s humility stems from being open to new opportunities and being willing to try new things. After all, that’s how he came into managing Aventura in the first place.
It all begins with Johnny’s childhood, where his mother raised him after his father passed away at 12 years old. And as many kids do, especially in that situation, Johnny struggled with traditional education because he had a tough time remaining interested in the content.
With that, Johnny bounced around the public school system and ended up with a poor track record. Johnny was very familiar with law enforcement, though. He was a huge fan of cops as a kid, continually pestering his parents to shake the hand of every cop with whom they crossed paths. This adoration for the NYPD stuck with him through his youth, all the way until it came time for him to figure out what he was going to do with his life post-high school. At that point, Johnny took a chance.
Back then, the New York City Police Academy held placement exams once every three years. Time was really of the essence back then compared to the abundance of qualifications tests given now. At the time, Johnny was 17 years old and not ready to wait three years for the next round of tests.
As fate would have it, Johnny ended up being a top-of-the-line recruit in most areas, but his troubled educational past was a large stain on his resume. The background check part of the recruitment process came around, and every school the NYPD called to ask about Johnny advised that they shouldn’t hire him at all.
Thanks to a loophole brought about by Johnny’s childhood asthma, something he claims to have been a God-send, Johnny was admitted into the academy. At that time, the NYPD’s force of 40,000 cops was only made up of 10% minorities, and Johnny proceeded to graduate in the top-10% of his class, hitting active duty shortly after that.
About ten years into the job, Johnny responded to a call at Heartland Brewery, where a woman was robbed of her purse. Johnny showed up, arrested the culprit, and booked him for a felony.
Being the arresting officer, Johnny had to testify in front of a grand jury three days later. By chance, the witness who saw the robbery and had to testify ended up being a Heartland Brewery manager.
“We’re in court, and as usual, they have you wait for hours outside of this Grand Jury room… This kid is telling me how he’s this aspiring singer. He’s an aspiring Bachata singer, and you know, he was the manager of the restaurant, but that’s not really what he wanted to do. He was just doing it to pay his bills.”
“As I’m waiting, he mentioned the group Aventura. I had heard about them, but I’ve always been a hip-hop music fan, so I wasn’t really bumping their music,” said Johnny. “So I remember he told me, ‘Oh, I would like you to meet them. That kid, Romeo, is going to come to the restaurant where you arrested the guy,’ so I gave the dude my number and didn’t think much of it.”
A couple of months passed by, and JC finally called Johnny, asking if he was on-duty because Romeo was at the restaurant.
“So I go, and I go over there with full intentions of trying to get a security gig working for Aventura,” said Johnny. “But I don’t have music experience. So, why would I want anything other than that, you know?”
Upon arrival, Johnny asked JC to put in a word for him to Romeo about doing the band’s security, upon which JC acted immediately. It was then, in that Heartland Brewery, that Johnny first met Romeo.
Johnny exchanged information with Romeo, who then asked Johnny to roll with them down to a show in Philadelphia the next night. It was during this phase of small-capacity restaurant shows that Johnny and Romeo first got to know each other and hit it off. Soon enough, Johnny was taking care of all security for the band in 2002, right around when Obsesión was getting big.
Naturally, as it often happens, the band’s rapid success brought about unhappiness with their record label. Aventura wasn’t appropriately managed, and they weren’t receiving their royalties, so they started considering their options.
Much like Johnny, though, Romeo and the rest of the group didn’t know a thing about navigating the legal matters it took to develop a new contract or find new management. Even so, the band had grown to trust Johnny not only as their head of security, but as a friend first, and they had all but decided Johnny should be their manager.
By way of what Johnny admits was awful logic, the band thought Johnny’s experience with lawyers as a police officer might help things go smoother. Regardless of the reasons why, the band was right in trusting Johnny. But that didn’t mean things were easy.
From there, it was baptism by fire for Johnny as he quickly realized that working with criminal lawyers and entertainment lawyers are two very, very different things. Johnny remembers soaking up as much information as possible in his first meeting with the record company’s entertainment lawyer.
“They didn’t know about the business neither, so they were leaning on me a little bit. Not that I was an expert, but that I could at least handle the attorney, you know?” said Johnny. “So I’m there, and I remember just trying to absorb and remember as much as I could so that I could go home and Google it… So when I came to the next meeting, I wouldn’t be as lost. And that’s exactly what happened. I went, I learned, and from that moment on, it took us like four or five months to come to terms and do a whole restructuring of the contract that Aventura had originally signed when they were 18.”
At first, when the band was offering Johnny to be their band manager, Johnny admits he didn’t realize the opportunity. He was making a full cop’s salary while also making security money from Aventura on the weekends. For a 29 to 30-year-old, Johnny was making more than ever and enjoying it. As he puts it, he was balling and having the time of his life, and Johnny didn’t think he was cut out for management life regardless.
But even so, Aventura made the case that Johnny was the only person they knew, out of all potential managers they’d met with, that hadn’t tried to take advantage of them. Plus, Johnny was already handling much of the management business.
“Sure enough, they were able to convince me because they said something to me that meant a lot,” said Johnny. “What they said was, it doesn’t matter whether you have experience or not, or how much experience somebody else we bring here has. There’s something that you have that they’re not going to have.”
“Trust. We trust you. Nobody we could bring here at this point are we going to feel that way about,” said Johnny. “And when they told me that, it meant so much to me that, even though I didn’t know anything about what I was about to get into, it was enough that I had to do it for them. At this point, we were friends… It was the fact that they felt strongly about me being genuine and honest with them was enough for me to be like, I’ll take it.
“I remember taking the position, and the first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘what do I tell the first person that calls me?’ Because it doesn’t matter what they ask me, I don’t know the answer. And sure enough, I got that first call, and I was like, ‘I’ll call you back!’ Because I had to let it sink in and absorb it, and try to come up with an answer. Whether it was the right answer or the wrong, I needed to come back with an answer. But like everything else, I was very fortunate that they were on the rise as a group, and I got to grow with them.”
Fortunately for everyone involved, the match between Aventura and Johnny was made in heaven regarding both personal and business matters. Johnny worked his tail off to take care of the band, and Romeo was very hands-on with their business direction, which made things that much easier. On top of it all, they were family. It was a deeper bond than just business. Not surprisingly, this deeper bond is a recurring theme with a lot of Johnny’s partnerships.
And that is visible in his work. Since Johnny first linked up with Aventura, they’ve had genre-leading success. They have been recognized as one of the most influential Latin bands of all time, receiving nominations from the Billboard Latin Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the Latin Grammy Awards, and many more.
Aventura has sold out Madison Square Garden countless times since first doing so in 2007. Then, during his solo tour in 2014, Romeo became the first and only Latin solo artist ever to sell out back-to-back nights at Yankee Stadium. To date, that is a historical accomplishment for Bachata and Latin music as a whole.
With all of that success, though – and with Aventura breaking up in 2010 but Johnny still managing Romeo’s solo career – came a ridiculous amount of work. Johnny spoke of how driven Aventura and Romeo especially were, and how in Johnny’s mind, it was “keep up or die.” And keep up he did, all the way to the top. But at some point, after so long, when you’ve had as much success as Johnny has, you need to try new things.
“If you ain’t focused, and you don’t have that vision… Psh. It’s a lot of work, man,” said Johnny. “And that’s why, you know, it gets to the point where I know I had my run. I had to take a step back to focus on me and find out, okay, what else can I do?”
“Like, I did this. I know, even if I step out of this bubble and I want to do something again, that my legacy here was so big that I could come back any day. They’re going to embrace me with open arms. Now, it’s up to me, though, to deliver when I’m back, right? It’s up to me to deliver whatever I choose to do in the music industry. My legacy is big enough to step away for a little bit and try a venture, and then still make a move back. There’s always a way back; you know what I’m saying…?”
“I can’t tell you the amount of artists, management teams, and record labels that have reached out to me for me to come aboard, but it’s not what I want to do right now. If I did that, I’d go back to living somebody else’s life,” said Johnny. “I need to live my life. I need to accomplish the goals that I’ve set out to do in these last couple of years, and I need to accomplish and feel good about my positioning. When I get closer to where I want to be, then I could re-evaluate if I miss that business, and I can always go back.”
The business Johnny was talking about is real estate, his next big thing. Over the past five years, Johnny’s work has been in the nightclub business. More recently, though, he has partnered with several experts in areas from multi-family apartments to clubs and restaurants. Through connections made managing Aventura and beyond, he started finding many opportunities and friendships outside of music, and he tapped into them.
“We’ve got a local kid, a local product who grew up blocks away, and he’s doing the impossible,” said Johnny, reflecting on Romeo selling out Yankee Stadium. “We ended up selling two nights, which is incredible. And I think about it, and the great thing about that was, I’m a lifelong Yankee fan. I watch as many games as I can, and many of the players throughout the years are my personal friends.
“The one great thing that I walked away from doing those nights at Yankee Stadium with, besides the success of the shows, was that I became really good friends with the president of the Yankees, Randy Levine. He’s now one of my mentors. So for me to see where I came from when I was in little league, and I was just imitating all these Yankee players, to having a relationship with the president of the Yankees and him being my mentor. It’s just something that I could never have envisioned coming out of this whole music thing.”
Johnny spoke of how much his relationship with Randy Levine meant, and how much he values his guidance. He also paid homage to Noah Tepperberg, a major player in the New York nightclub and restaurant scene, who also served as his mentor and is a founding member of the Tao Group, one of the largest hospitality groups in the United States. His partnerships sit behind the ownership of destinations such as Tao, Avenue, Marquee, Lavo, and more. He was even part of a research project out of Harvard University called Marquee: The Business of Nightlife that looked into how and for how much longer Tepperberg and Co. could keep Marquee at the height of its success.
Then, Johnny talked about some of his biggest current partners – Cesar Piña and Eddy G – with whom he is diving into this next chapter of his life.
Cesar Piña – Flipping_NJ on Instagram – is a real estate investor, developer, and consultant. Currently, Cesar and Johnny are working on an 80-unit apartment complex and a refurbishment to a local Catholic school for the Paterson, New Jersey Board of Education for Child Development.
Then, there is Eddy G, a nightlife investor who Johnny first partnered with to enter the nightlife space five years ago. Eddy was already a nightlife mogul with some 25 years of experience, and he approached Johnny after knowing each other for some time with an idea for a massive nightclub in New Jersey. Today, that nightclub is Barcode, one of the most successful nightclubs in New Jersey.
For Johnny, these more significant steps into real estate were a long time coming. He had already become involved with the restaurant and nightlife industries through his partnership with Eddy G, but he just needed to find the right time and situation to further expand his efforts.
Johnny always had a lot of interest in real estate, but he had never found the right time or situation.
“And you know, God puts people in your path at the time that he chooses is the right time. When Cesar came into my life, and I came into that relationship. I feel like it was very organic, genuine, and it was the right timing. It wasn’t forced… I’ve done a lot of this, and now I want to do real estate.
“Because one thing I understand about real estate, if you are developing and you are the landlord of all these units, what you’re creating is generational wealth. It’s wealth that will be there not only for you but for your kids, their kids, and their kids if it’s managed correctly. When I understood more about the real estate game, and I got educated by Cesar, I started to, even more, appreciate my love for real estate more than I originally had.”
When asked about his most significant reasons for success, Johnny claimed that it’s because he has positioned himself well in terms of partnerships. He works to be his best self, then works to partner with the best people he can. And so far, that has done Johnny very well.
“One of my biggest strengths in being successful is being able to partner up… Eddy G had already been a nightlife mogul for many years in New Jersey, and he came to me one day,” said Johnny. “I knew him because he used to book Aventura back when we first started… So I had developed a relationship with him…”
With that, the Barcode idea was born, and Johnny dove into learning the club business. That’s not the only project Johnny has going on with Eddy G, either. They have another project slated for completion in 2021 – Hacienda, a chic Colombian restaurant lounge based in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
“I like to say all the time that, when it comes to my life and life in business, Eddy G and Cesar Piña let me skip the line. There are a lot of growing pains that come with where they’re at,” said Johnny. “And when I step in, they’ve already been through all the growing pains. They’ve already dealt with all the heartaches, all the losses, all the mistakes. And now, I come in, and they embrace me. And they let me skip the line and not have to deal with all that.
“I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be able to partner up with guys who are at the top of their game and, in every case, make me look good. That’s because each one of them has way more knowledge in those areas. From the very beginning in music with Romeo to nightlife with Eddy G to real estate developing with Cesar Piña… I come in as somebody who has a level of interest. And now, I’m being educated as time goes on, and I’m learning and learning and learning.
“Yeah, it’s coming to a point where I could do this on my own now because you get the swing of it. But that’s not what I do. I remain loyal to the people who put me on. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this together until the wheels fall off.”
That mindset – working with reckless abandon no matter what, until either the wheels fall off or he finds success – is what has brought Johnny this far. It’s how he helped one of the greatest Latin bands ever make it to the top of the world. It’s how he received 12 Excellent Police Duty medals and four Meritorious Police Duty medals while working for the NYPD from 1994 to 2009. It’s how he has helped so many through philanthropy.
Yet, despite all of the success, it always comes back to one thing for Johnny. Humility.
He knows how important the company he keeps is and that he can’t do everything alone. With that, new pursuits, be them in business or whatever else in life, come down to trusting in the work, people, and yourself. That, Johnny reminded, will take you farther than you could ever imagine.
“I’m the beneficiary. I’m not going to toot my own horn, but yeah, I work hard! Yeah, I pull my part,” said Johnny. “Yeah, I do all those things that come when you’re a partner to any business. But the truth is, they let me skip the line.
“I’m not mad at that. I’ve been blessed.”
To follow Johnny’s journey and see the empire he is currently building, you can find his social media accounts below:
Also, check out his partners/mentors! These guys are a force to be reckoned with, and the work they do is incredible.
Randy Levine – Wikipedia
Written By: Matt Hirst