Horst & Keytrade Bank

Their Way: In conversation with Avril Ceballos

With ‘Their Way' Keytrade Bank and Horst inspire their shared philosophy of entrepreneurship and innovation through a new interview series.

Avril Ceballos

‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and cover compelling stories, challenging ideas and integrity from around the world.

‘Their Way’ is about making entrepreneurship, and the challenges that come with it, easier. We feature insightful people across different communities, visions and industries. Because we believe interesting things happen when different ideas collide.

This month, we’re speaking with Avril Ceballos, co-founder of the international booking agency futura. We meet up in Berlin to get a taste of her day in the office.

Futura Artists

Horst: Hi Avril, can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how futura came to life?

Avril: I come from Mexico City, where I was born and raised. It’s where I studied literature and where my passion for music originated – mostly by going to raves from a very young age, 15 or so. Eventually, I became involved in the music- and film-festival scene. 11 years ago, I decided to move to Berlin, working as a tour manager for the label Cómeme, bringing together several Latin-American artists in Germany. The tour was fantastic, and from there on I took over the label, which I've been managing since, in partnership with Matias Aguayo. My ties to the music industry in Germany grew and became more solid, which allowed the label to grow organically and for me to meet people all over Europe. A crucial encounter was the one with Meri Bonastre, who joined the label to help me on some projects. We got along immediately and started collaborating more intensively. She’s my partner in crime.

It’s pretty complicated to make a living from running an independent label, especially one focusing on music coming from Latin-America aimed at a Euro-centric market. Whenever the label would release a new production, we always felt this urgency to self-organise a tour for the artists to make their music known. Before futura existed, we noticed that we were doing a lot of work ourselves when dealing with external agencies, or even advancing so many costs on transport and other logistics. Basically I was giving away time and energy on something that I could be earning from. So, partially out of interest, but also out of survival-instinct, the idea grew between Meri and myself to start our own agency. The link with the label allowed for the agency to start its activities very organically, without a major starting budget or third party investors. At some point, we did draw up some business plans, and rebranded our project into ‘futura artists’. Asides from that, it’s juggling and hustling various projects simultaneously and working 100% day and night to make it work.

Horst: futura is described as an agency based in Berlin and Barcelona. How do you make this work?

Avril: Meri moved back to Barcelona, so our activities are indeed split between two cities at this stage. It’s great, as it gives me a proper excuse to go to Barcelona regularly. Meri works with Juns Castella: she’s in charge of all things production. Here in Berlin, Ben Bar-Or is my left and my right hand, and also my eyes, ears, everything. We’re a very small team, and we’re constantly connected. This happens mostly through Slack and plenty of phone calls a day. Meri and I each represent our own artists from the roster, though we do operate as a team, keep each other updated on everything, and make sure to optimise potential encounters and opportunities for our artists.

Horst: The job of an agent is sometimes hard to pinpoint and often comes with misconceptions. How do you approach your role and the position that comes with it?

Avril: True, the job of an agent is often misinterpreted. Many people think you just make deals and come pick up the money. Sometimes I wish it was that simple (laughs). No that’s not true, I’m happy it’s not like that. There is a lot of invisible work that often doesn’t get remunerated, especially if the gig, and thus the commission for the agency, doesn’t fall through.

The personal relationship is of primordial importance, especially with upcoming talent. It’s a form of taking care and amplifying their talent for music – which is why we’re all here.

"Asides from the practical aspect of booking artists though, I’m mostly appealed by the other side of the job: facilitating artists in reaching their goals, building strategies together, connecting them with the right people and having insightful conversations about their passions, and the challenges that come with that."

Horst: In the competitive and business-minded music industry, your project truly stands out as an authentic and sincere agency, what is the philosophy behind this? Do you consider yourself an ambassador for Latin-American music?

Avril: We exclusively work with individuals that make music out of passion and artistic motivation. The artists we work with, our roster, grew out of Cómeme and interests that evolved later on. So yes, our focus started and has remained Latin-American - these artists often don’t get opportunities to come to Europe, or to have a platform to distribute here. Our roster has grown though, so we now represent a quite international, eclectic and diverse group of artists. 

In addition, people often expect that this music will echo salsa, or that it features bongo’s or has a kumbaya-vibe. It’s tricky to get the message across, as people have so much bias, expectations and internalized stereotypes.

It’s true that Latin-American electronic music carries a lot of groove and passion, even when we’re talking heavy techno. You dance to it with your full body. Of course the culture has to do with it. Teto Preto productions for instance, has a very punky approach in terms of the lyrics: they are often very political. But this isn’t a condition. We also promote Columbian experimental music or four to the floor-techno. There is not one characteristic that unites everything.

Many of our collaborators that are now big on the scene, started with us when they weren’t so well-known. This is exactly what we’ve been doing for the past years: working hand in hand to get them out there, building a path together and making sure it’s a sustainable one. It’s these long-term collaborations that we truly believe in.

Horst: During covid-19 when most actors in the industry were on furlough, futura came with a different thing, a small artistic project. The DO-lense. Can you tell us a bit more about it? What was the idea behind it?

Avril: At the beginning of the pandemic, we got scared with all the cancellations coming in, and became nervous about the time ahead of us. We wanted to inject some positivity into this general meltdown, and did a release on Bandcamp, featuring music and poetry. In addition, we sent out small gifts to peers and partners in the scene, as a way to remind everybody of the fact that we’re here for the music, but also for each other. It counted as a message of hope; to ignite the idea that we would bounce back collectively and with the help of each other.

Horst: Without being all too negative. Agencies employ people, often rent offices and have ongoing costs in terms of software and so on. How are you experiencing the current period? And how do you see the future if there's not much income?

Avril: Fortunately we didn’t have to lay off our employees. We are paying them less though for the moment, in order to try to keep them with us in the long run. The government support in Germany helped to alleviate the situation, though this isn’t a sustainable solution. It’s rough and it will get even more difficult, which is why I hope to create a network of agencies with whom we can share resources and software. We need to build a resilient and economically more efficient industry, based on collaboration, exchange and solidarity.

It’s the same as with our roster, where there is also some sort of ecosystem and balance in play: some artists generate revenue, allowing us to grow more slowly with others. This is what makes the job so interesting.

Horst: How do you feel about the clubbing scene moving to the digital realm?

Avril: At first it was pretty interesting, you try to hold on to something that you don’t want to lose. However, gradually there was a content-overload, and nobody was getting paid. People will always stay tuned, but if this becomes the ‘new normal’, we need to figure out a system where at least the artists get remunerated. I also hope this doesn’t change our way of relating and communicating with each other all too much.

With our collective BFF (Best Films Forever), a group of women working on the tech side in the music industry, we are trying to generate open source methodologies for people to stream properly from home.

Horst: Both the impact of covid-19 and the events that spurred the Black Lives Matter protests have raised numerous questions on the state of our music industry, what things should change and if it was even worth saving. Do you think the current crisis will have an impact for good? Or will it only affect the vulnerable?

Avril: Black Lives Matter isn’t something new; it has been there all along. Same with what is going on in Africa, Asia or in Latin-America. These politics, the mess, the underrepresentation, the cultural appropriation without supporting the roots, … these problems have always caused frustrations that many people have been trying to address. It’s harsh, but if it wasn’t for the current pandemic, I think we still wouldn’t be having these conversations, or at least not in the way they are happening now. Currently, there is no money flowing in music, nobody is earning anything, so people finally come to the same level. There is suddenly time to reflect on the discrepancies that flow out of systemic racism and discrimination.

I am personally not fond of the cancel culture, and I think or would wish that inside of our community/scene there would be more chance to dialogue. For centuries, we’ve all been miseducated, so there is definitely a need for change, and quick, though we should remain vigilant and conscious of our actions. A chance for change and accountability should remain at the base of dialogue in my opinion, even if it comes accompanied by inevitable mistakes. And most importantly, intersectionality should be at the base of all the conversations we need to have: so not addressing gender and race, but also class and economic equality. Otherwise the conversation is basic, segregated, and will never reach the profoundness we need to be able to make proper changes.

"Everyone in the industry needs to do their homework and speak up, in order for the industry to rebuild itself ethically. This comes down to regulating fee’s and policing for equal chances."

So in the end, it’s not a question of whether or not the music scene is worth saving. It will always exist, since art is always present. The big question is whether this radical shift will finally generate some equality and start remunerating properly those individuals, often minorities, which make up the underground. We all know that’s where inspiration and true experiment comes from.

In Berlin we have a network of sister agencies with whom we discuss extensively about these issues. Together we put together diversity-clauses, which we try to impose on promoters we’re working with. It doesn’t always work, but at least it causes organisations to reflect on their ethics and politics.

Horst: Your personal trajectory reads as the perfect resume for every aspiring music professional, from various curating roles to Boiler Room. Was there a masterplan guiding your steps? How did this grow?

Avril: To be honest I never thought I would have a booking agency, I thought I would never want to do that job, but that is life; it laughs you in the face.

I guess it was a mixture between ambitions and being intuitive. I always had to hassle, especially because I’m not European, I’m from a so-called developing country and I’m a woman. I had to work trice as hard, just to show that I’m able and capable, in addition to having to learn a foreign language. In an industry dominated by white men, I did have some rough, or let’s call it interesting experiences. However, I was always very lucky to find women, and also a few men, that supported me and were generous with information, who pushed me in order to persist and do my thing. Meri and Matias were two of those, we are basically family, we’ve grown together over the years.

Horst: I can imagine your private and professional life are very much infused with each other. How do you deal with that?

Avril: My job and my private life are very mixed yes, which is something I’ve noticed more and more over the years. I’m passionate about that, though it’s necessary to keep some form of boundary. Working freelance automatically implies being available 24/7. But it doesn’t have to be like that. This capitalist mindset of working and consuming all the time isn’t healthy; we shouldn’t all run like little hamsters in a wheel. It’s empowering to acknowledge that people need time off.

For many years, I’ve lived with the people with whom I work. It was tricky to find a balance between friendship and work. But I have learned how to switch off. I also have a few tricks, such as separating software and social media; Telegram for work and WhatsApp for friendship for example. I also set hours that I’m not available. Over time, I learned to detach myself from this constant demand, though it’s only after a few meltdowns that I could do so. I realised it’s not good for me, nor for the people I work with. Setting limits benefits everybody, and people are actually very understanding and respectful of that.

Horst: Do you have any advice for young professionals looking for a job in music?

Avril: Try to visualise, to substantially grasp what you want to do. Get in touch with people, look out for peers, always dare to ask and don’t remain silent or be afraid. Put your foot where you want to be, start from the beginning, reach out, and work for it with full motivation everyday (and don’t forget to take a break from time to time). 

Video interview
Track: Katerina - Be A Child (Cómeme)