Jose Tillan has made a career of working with musicians. The executive VP/general manager of MTV Tr3s, the network that fuses Latin American and American music and culture, has a particularly keen understanding of their struggles. Not long ago, he was a working musician himself.
Tillan cites a 1980 Police concert in Miami as a seminal event in shaping his passion and career. “It was my first new-wave rock show and I thought, 'I want to do this.' I was in eighth grade,” he says.
Tillan played bass in a number of bands through high school and college. After earning degrees in music and business at Florida International University, he made a go at his dream.
“I had my degrees and they were just tucked away in a drawer, and my mom was like, 'When are you going to let [music] go?'” he says. “But at the same time, I was learning—about the different areas of the industry.”
Without a manager, Tillan became his band's de facto booking agent, publicist and rep. The skills came in handy when, in 1994, he moved away from the full-time pursuit of music and spent four years building MATT Entertainment, his artist management company.
His next stop was MTV Networks, beginning in 1997, and he's been there ever since. Tillan arrived at MTV Tr3s three months ago from MTV Latin America, where he most recently worked as senior VP of creative, content and music. In that position, he led the award-winning Unplugged series, winning two Latin Grammys. He also oversaw production of Los Premios MTV, the Latin American version of the Video Music Awards.
“Jose is able to stay in touch with his gut and his immediate sense of where music is and where the audience is,” says MTV Networks General Manager Stephen Friedman. “He's open in a way a lot of executives are not.”
In his time at MTV Tr3s, Tillan has helped launch the soap opera Isa TKM and Quiero Mis Quinces, which is similar to MTV's My Super Sweet 16, a franchise Tillan is building out to include the wedding reality show Quiero Mi Boda. And he will be overseeing the eighth annual Los Premios MTV, which will air live on MTV Tr3s Oct. 15.
Tillan has also been meeting with focus groups, trying to tune in more to the vast, multicultural mix that makes up Latino youth culture. While his business background serves him well, Tillan credits his experience as a songwriter and producer with allowing him to cultivate strong relationships with artists.
“When I speak to an artist, I always speak music first and we're always one-to-one,” says the executive, who has worked with pop stars ranging from Shakira and Spanish pop sensation Alejandro Sanz to the Beastie Boys and Metallica. “I think there's always that mutual trust that I would never put them in a situation where [they] or their art are going to be compromised.”
Tillan wears that balance between creative trust and business instincts well: The man charged with developing branded entertainment and content strategy for a network that penetrates more than 38 million households walks around his plush Midtown office in black Chuck Taylors.
Tillan splits his time between New York and Miami and makes frequent trips to Spain, where he was born before moving to Miami as a child. And while his work as a network executive pays the bills, Tillan still plays bass and writes songs for Popvert, a side project he started with a pretty impressive pedigree of friends. The band's guitarist, Marthin Chan, is a member of popular band Volumen Cero, and drummer Brendan Buckley has played with Shakira and hip-hop/Latin/rock hybrid Ozomatli.
“I record whenever I can't fall asleep,” says Tillan, who has a studio in his Miami home. “When I need to disconnect, I go into music for Zen. I never did it for the fame and fortune or for the money; I did it because I loved it and it taught me the discipline of doing something because you love it, and then things eventually happen.”