Afo Verde sits in a brightly lit meeting room at Sony headquarters in Manhattan, texting with Rosalía. The Catalan singer, songwriter, dancer and all-round dynamo was in São Paulo the night before and performed in front of around 8,000 people on her Motomami world tour, and now she’s in Buenos Aires, in Verde’s native Argentina, with some time to kill before playing two back-to-back nights at the city’s Movistar Arena. “Last night she killed it in Brazil; now she’s in Buenos Aires asking me, ‘Where can I get good pasta?’ Verde says with a laugh, “I send her recommendations.”
Restaurant reviews for South American cities are typically not among the services offered in standard recording contracts. But Verde, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Latin-Iberia for the past decade, doesn’t run his company like a typical label, and his artists often don’t sign typical contracts.
Over the past several years, Verde has instead positioned Sony Latin as more of a central hub for creativity, with a web of intertwined contractual relationships with many top Latin acts through a series of deals and associations (an approach he is able to take , he says, “because of someone called Rob Stringer” – and the Sony Music Group chairman’s ethos of “a music company trying to do the right thing”).
Some, mostly veteran artists, are signed directly to the label (Marc Anthony, Shakira, Romeo Santos); others are signed in partnership with Sony-owned distributor The Orchard (Anuel AA, Ozuna), with Sony Latin handling marketing and other services; and still others are connected through minority investments and joint ventures that Sony has made through artists’ management companies and independent labels such as Walter Kolm’s WK Entertainment (Maluma, CNCO, Prince Royce), Federico Lauría’s Dale Play Records (Bizarrap, Duki, Nicki Nicole) and Nelson “Polo” Montalvo’s La Buena Fortuna (Residente, Kany García), among others.
Increasingly, partnerships—notably with Noah Assad’s Rimas label, home to superstar Bad Bunny—involve distribution deals directly through The Orchard (although Verde still refers to both the company and those artists as “family members”), while he originally signed Rosalía in Spain before she landed her a front line deal with Columbia Records. (Sony also acquired leading Brazilian label Som Livre in a $255 million deal that closed in February.)
It’s a formula that has led Sony to an industry-leading 45.1% market share in US Latin music by 2022 so far, according to Luminate. “I didn’t want to be a tax agency asking for percentages,” says Verde, explaining his approach. “So we bought percentages of management companies in the region; so in some cases artists want one of our companies to be their managers, and that’s cool. As long as they feel like they’re getting what they want, I’m happy . And that’s what happens. I love it, from the pure distribution deal to a full-service marriage, if they’re happy, if they’re enjoying it, then we’re doing the right thing.”
Verde got his start as a musician and producer in Argentina before making the jump to A&R in the mid-2000s, then to president of Sony Music Latin in 2009 and his current role in 2012 — and he’s honed that artist-first philosophy along the way. “Sony, at least as a solo artist, has been part of my growth and Afo has been my ally,” says Romeo Santos, who has been signed to Sony both as a solo artist and with the boy band Aventura for most of the past. three decades. “He has understood all my musical whims. He has always been there for me. His whole team has, but he is the person I always turn to.”
Animated, quick to laugh and self-conscious about his understanding of English despite his clear skills, Verde is fond of metaphors that describe the company and the company he joined more than ten years ago as a football team with the right players in the wrong positions, and himself as the coach who needed to reorient the squad with a new, music-first philosophy. So he did what any record executive would do in that situation, at the bottom of a company that had been decimated by piracy and freely available music: He signed a chef.
“It didn’t happen in our world that a record company would sign someone who wanted to cook who didn’t bother to sing at all,” he says. But it forced his team to think outside the box about ways to market and promote her, partnering with a cleaning company (“After you cook, you have to clean,” he reasoned) and releasing a series of cooking videos paired with music from Sony Latin Artists. “I learned more than ever that any person can have the right skills to achieve great goals, but it’s about doing your part as a manager and helping them and learning, ‘OK, it’s a goalkeeper, it’s a striker, she can be the coach.’ That was about it.”
Thinking creatively to find solutions that suit individual artists is a calling card of sorts for Verde, and it has led to a deepening relationship between The Orchard and Sony Latin in recent years. “Afo is passionate and driven,” says The Orchard Chairman/CEO Brad Navin. “In some ways, he’s ahead of the rest of the industry, which is just catching up, he’s been saying for years about the rich and diverse talent pool of the Latin market. He’s been there, he lives it, he walks the walk, and he talks the talk, and I think when you put the artist first, the rest will follow. That’s the business we’re in. And that’s what he does as well or better than anybody.”
For some record executives, it may seem frustrating, even counterintuitive, not to be in the Bad Bunny business at a time when the artist is the leading light of not only Latin but all popular music in the United States—his Un Verano Sin Ti is the No. 1 album of the year so far, according to Luminate, and he has a clean distribution deal through The Orchard. But Verde doesn’t see it that way; for him, the wider Sony infrastructure is an extension of the opportunities he himself also gives his artists.
“I love Noah, Bad Bunny, and I love Rimas – they’re a great, 100% independent company, period. We can have a beer, we can have fun; if they need us, we’re there; but they do everything on your own,” he says. “It’s not about, ‘This is mine.’ It’s about, ‘How can we help these people who are extremely talented so they can achieve their goals?’ And sometimes I need my partners.”
Ultimately, “We are successful when the artist is successful,” says Verde. “This is someone who decided to invest his life in being an artist and decided to believe in what we can do at Sony Latin.”