How Kobalt Cracked the Latin Code, Snagging Some of the Genre's Biggest Names

Getty; Design by Jessica Xie
Ozuna, Karol G, Carlos Vives, Anuel AA and Natti Natasha

Four years ago, Kobalt's Latin business didn't exist. Nestor Casonú, previously CEO of EMI Latin America, had signed on as managing director after six months as a consultant, and for a year, "I stared at the wall," remembers the Miami-based executive. "We didn't even have an office."

But recently the company signed publishing agreements with some of the biggest names in Latin music, from urban newcomers Ozuna, Anuel AA, Karol G, Brytiago and Natti Natasha to known acts like pop duo Jesse & Joy, bachata/tropical star Prince Royce and producer-songwriter Ovy on the Drums. In 2018, Kobalt logged 29 of the top 100 performing titles on Billboard's year-end Hot Latin Songs chart, up from 12 the year before. So far in 2019, the publishing house is on pace to top that mark, racking up 25 entries among the top 100 titles since the beginning of the chart year.

One reason Kobalt has been able to muscle so quickly into the Latin space: After a stagnant period of artist development in Latin music, the past two years have brought the fast rise of young acts who had never had publishing deals. "There are a lot of new artists who had no publishing, or who had something informal in place, or who were working loosely with an indie," says Casonú. "It was ripe territory to do this work."

Signing Enrique Iglesias in 2018 after his contract came up at Sony/ATV also has helped Kobalt lure today's Latin stars. And the generous terms Kobalt offers to songwriters in every genre -- rich advances and administration deals that allow the writers to retain copyright ownership -- have catalyzed the 19-year-old company's new Latin business as well.

"Latin was just waiting to break out to a global audience with the help of streaming," says Kobalt founder/CEO Willard Ahdritz. "I saw the market was underserved and the potential was enormous, so it was a no-brainer."

Casonú brought deep connections to the industry and a profound knowledge of publishing in Latin America. One of his first moves was to create Kobalt's network there, establishing direct connections with collecting societies in every country; previously, the company had direct deals with Sacem in Mexico and Abramus in Brazil, but administered all else through Spanish collection agency SGAE. "Now they pay our artists directly through our London office instead of going through affiliates," says Casonú. "It's a more centralized process."

A major moment came in October 2016, when Casonú signed Carlos Vives, his former artist at EMI, to a global publishing administration and neighboring rights deal, giving Kobalt administration of one of the most prestigious catalogs in Latin music.

The key to signing significant names, says Casonú, lies in competitive advances and deep relationships like the one he had with Vives at EMI. "It's a blend of having a company that offers different kinds of services, with the fact that [creative vp] Leslie Ahrens and I have worked together for over 20 years and have a lot of credibility in the business," he says.

Casonú then signed Iglesias in 2018 to a deal that includes both his catalog and future works. "I'm a frustrated teacher, so I was able to sit down with a flow chart and show him exactly how the rights and payments work."

For Anuel AA, says manager Frabian Eli, the decisive factor was financial: Kobalt offered a more tempting package. But there were other factors at play, including Kobalt's online portal, which lets artists watch their money flow in. Says Eli: "We can see every detail of the money they're collecting and what's coming."

This article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.