Corner Office: Afo Verde, Head of Sony Latin, on Ricky Martin, His Producer Roots and Argentine Pride

Brian Smith
Afo Verde, Chairman/CEO of Latin America, Spain and Prtugal at Sony Music Entertainment in his Miami office on Spet. 23, 2014.

The 50 or so ­employees at Sony Music Entertainment’s Miami headquarters are used to seeing Afo Verde walk briskly, fitting for a part-time soccer player. But today, he limps, still recovering from a 3-month-old ankle fracture sustained during his company’s weekly soccer match. “I’d love to say I was scoring a goal but the truth is, I stepped in a pothole,” Verde admits. That’s not to say the sporting tradition will stop. The Friday evening bouts have been in place for years and draw such soccer-­loving acts as Carlos Vives, Michel Telo and Chayanne when they’re in town.

That mingling between artists and executives defines the culture of Sony’s Latin music operations since Verde, 48, a former musician-turned-producer in his home country of Argentina, was named president of Sony’s Latin region in 2009. Three years later, he was upped to ­chairman/CEO, adding Spain and Portugal to his portfolio of 12 regional offices and 20 countries (more than 600 employees report to him regionwide). Now supervising a roster of 500 acts, including such superstars as Shakira, Ricky Martin and Romeo Santos, Verde works closely with sister labels RCA, Columbia, MasterWorks and Epic on a variety of projects, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup official album.

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His impact on SME’s business is undeniable: Its Latin market share grew from 28.4 percent in 2012 to 30.5 percent in 2013 (among albums) and 38.8 percent to 44.6 percent (single downloads), according to Nielsen SoundScan. And growth is foremost on Verde’s mind, as he notes new offices in Peru and the consolidation of all countries in the region under one umbrella. Another career accomplishment: Verde will receive the T.J. Martell Foundation’s Lifetime Music Industry Achievement Award on Oct. 22, which in its 39 years has been given to Clive Davis, Irving Azoff, Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy. “When [RCA ­president] Tom Corson called me and said T.J. Martell was going to honor a Latin for the first time in 39 years, I said, ‘Who is it?’ ” says Verde with a laugh. “It’s an amazing cause.”

How have you applied your background as a musician to your job?
What has helped most is the years I worked as a producer [for the likes of Diego Torres and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs]. I would get together with the executives and I felt some were very close to the music and others not at all. My dream was to create a team that came entirely from the musical side. I feel a little like an infiltrator in this position, because after so many years, I understand each of [the artists’ and producers’] philosophies. That’s what it’s about: Understanding.

You started your label career in A&R, then left to work as an independent producer. What convinced you to return to labels in 2005?
It was a time when piracy really affected our markets in a major way. And while I worked in the studio, touring, producing, I came to understand the business models artists needed, and that was a 360 model. Yes, publishers run publishing, agents run touring, but an artist needs a global vision. When Sony asked me to come back [in 2005], my only condition was: “OK, but only if we change the business model.”

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What did changing the model entail?
Even back then, we signed 360 deals and occasionally incorporated members of the artists’ teams into Sony’s Latin American companies. For example, I hired the manager of [Argentine rock group] Los Fabulosos Cadillacs to be part of the company. Fernando Travi, the current senior vp of our live music department, was Gustavo Cerati’s manager. I have entire management teams in the region. Artists don’t have to use them, but they’re available.

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You collaborate with so many of Sony’s labels, like Columbia, Epic and especially RCA. How does that work?
We [label heads] meet every four months to talk about music and new projects. For example, that’s where I first presented Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida” [Which was the longest-running No. 1 single of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart in 2013]. It’s the way Edgar [Berger, Sony Music chairman/CEO of international] generates a healthy conversation about music and about the different territories’ commitments to artists. For example, in one of our meetings, Dennis Handlin [chairman/CEO of Sony Music Australia and New Zealand and president of Asia] said he wanted to do something with Ricky Martin, but we didn’t have an album at the time. So he got him to be a coach on The Voice Australia. A couple months later, Ricky is touring arenas in Australia and he doesn’t even have an album out. That’s the kind of relationship we have.

How closely do you work with [SME chairman/CEO] Doug Morris?
It depends. Shakira we worked very closely on. In fact, we went to Barcelona together when we were renegotiating her contract. He’ll see something from our world that impresses him on the charts and he’ll call me. He’s an extremely elegant chairman.

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Do you see more opportunities for Latin acts today than in the past?
I believe so. It’s our ­responsibility to take “local” artists like [Argentina’s] Vicentito, [Colombia’s] Choc­quibtown and [Spain’s] Ismael Serrano and make them transcend, like we did with [Mexican pop group] Camila. What we need to do is internationalize this music more and better each time.

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The music for the World Cup was a ­major priority for you in 2014. Was the atmosphere in the Miami office super-­competitive during the World Cup games this summer?
Yes. I have people from all over the world, and those that weren’t ­represented in the World Cup had to choose sides. We made a deal where the team that was leading could make everyone else take a selfie with the country’s T-shirt and put it up on Facebook. There are few things more spectacular for an Argentine like me than to see a Brazilian with an Argentina tee on.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of Billboard.