Latin Players: How Mayimba Music Built an Empire by Defending Artists' Rights

Courtesy Photo
Zoila Darton, Carlos Martin Carle and Marti Cuevas of Mayimba Music, Inc.

It’s not easy being indie. But for those who do it right, the payoff can be huge. That’s the case of Mayimba Music Inc., a full-spectrum, New York-based independent music company which, for the last 16 years, has quietly carved a niche in Latin music through its spirit of artist advocacy.

Starting out as a music publishing company in 1999, Mayimba now offers music licensing and publishing administration services for third party publishers and independent composers, in addition to full administration services for record labels. Beyond that, it also produces, releases and distributes music via its specialty label, Mayimba Records.

A Publisher of the Year winner at the 2015 Billboard Latin Music Awards, Mayimba counts Romeo Santos among its administered writers. A dream client by any measure, Santos made Mayimba his publishing home long before he went by his moniker, the king of bachata -- back when he was starting out as part of the game-changing Dominican American boy band Aventura.

Representing emerging talent – the bulk of Mayimba’s roster -- often means fearlessly taking on the big guys, as the company did recently by taking Sony to court on behalf of Dominican songwriter Ramon Arias Vasquez in a high-profile copyright infringement case surrounding Shakira’s 2010 song “Loca.”

Founder and president Marti Cuevas says she started the company out of a desire to help artists navigate the increasingly complex music industry. In a crowded scene run by multinationals, that philosophy has given Mayimba an edge.   

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“I think what sets us apart is the musician mentality that we have,” says Cuevas, an accomplished saxophonist who traveled the world and worked for a label specializing in tropical Latin music, J&N Records, before starting her own business in 1999. “Even before I started working for the record label I had this desire to give back to the musical community and try to find justice for artists, songwriters, and musicians. Over time, I earned that reputation, especially with the old-guard Dominicans.”

Today, Mayimba remains a family-run business, with Cuevas’ son Carlos Martin Carle serving as VP. An accomplished guitarist and producer, Carle also oversees production at Mayimba’s cozy in-house studio, while his sister, Zoila Darton, serves as VP of marketing. Even today, Mayimba has only six full-time employees, and the company outsources help as needed.

“We like to keep it small and personal,” says Darton. “I think that’s why artists feel comfortable coming to us. We don’t try to sign deals constantly. We have those bigger artists that bring in the bulk of the money and because of that we’re able to move our time around and work with some of these smaller artists. I have this conversation with people in the industry all the time about artists as a brand -- sure, yes -- but they’re also human. And it can get really scary when you’re out there by yourself. Most of the people that we work with come to us first for advice and then they’re like, ‘I love these people, I want to work with them.’”

With streaming being the hot topic that is is (thanks, Taylor Swift), Mayimba finds it especially crucial to educate artists on their rights.

Cuevas learned from her own mistakes when she was an artist. Granted, the industry was a bit different back then, but it was never black and white. “While living in Europe our group recorded a really fantastic album and I don’t even know where that master is,” she confesses. “I was one of those people that I would like to help out now. I didn’t have a clue. I just wanted to play my sax all day long, but eventually I fell in love with the business. Like everything, it’s a pain the butt once in a while,” she adds with a laugh.  

One of the most common mistakes Cuevas sees songwriters make these days is signing what she calls “Machiavellian deals,” or ones in which they “have to produce and deliver stuff with no money to go the studio and then the people that they signed the deal with own the copyrights for a lifetime.”  

Cuevas points to a songwriter friend of hers who got a similar contract recently and passed it along to her for review. “I was scratching my head,” she recalls. “I gave him a bunch of bullet points and he went to another meeting with the company interested in signing him and he came back saying, ‘They agreed with everything that we said.’ And I said, ‘It’s not about agreeing; they have to put it down on paper.’ Whenever I can, I’ll help that type of an artist because they can’t pay an attorney at $300 an hour.”

“And even if they can afford an attorney,” adds Cuevas, “those people may be good at negotiating a major deal contract, but they may not be as good at negotiating some of the smaller ones. Plus, most attorneys will probably kill the deal. I try not to do that; I get on the phone and talk to people.”

In that spirit, Cuevas and the Mayimba team compiled some valuable advice for today’s emerging -- and even established artists -- looking to wrap their heads around the intricacies of the music biz.  

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1. Through word-of-mouth and personal interviews, seek out a person knowledgeable and experienced in your exact area. A person steeped in the R&B American market will know nothing about industry standards in the Hispanic market, and vice versa.

2. As a beginning artist, you may have to bargain away more rights to find a deal, but a smart negotiator will leave the door open for more favorable rights in the future. You may have to draw a delicate balance of maintaining dignity without pricing yourself out of a deal.

3. Never allow any third party to provide services without paperwork that clearly establishes and memorializes your verbal deal. There are no "favors" that do not come back to haunt an artist, once that artist has success. The trusted person / adviser should be able to revise paperwork, or to refer the artist to another skilled professional who can.

4. Pick your artistic name with care and trademark it only AFTER a thorough search by trademark professionals -- even though it is expensive. Trademark is complex and of paramount importance.

5. Learn about the various rights organizations available for musical compositions composed by the artist (performance rights societies), and artist rights organizations such as Sound Exchange - as well as neighboring rights opportunities outside of the U.S.

6. Learn the difference between a performance rights society (which collects on broadcast and other performance rights), and a music publisher or administrator, which licenses and collects on all other royalty opportunities.

7. A beginning artist will most likely not have the resources to put together a team to cover the many crucial bases in the entertainment industry. So, the artist will have to double, triple and quadruple as businessperson, publicist, blogger, social media expert and general creative force behind all aspects of his/her career. Being an artist is HARD WORK! For those lucky enough not to have a day job while pursuing music, the artist's gig IS a day job and a night job too. It is simply all of the time.

8. Digital streaming may be a bitter pill to swallow, but there is another, brighter side to it, if you’re a completely unknown artist with no money behind you. Although there are issues with these platforms, you can make things happen for yourself because people are starting to pay attention to Spotify numbers and Soundcloud numbers. Have no shame in promoting yourself. You might not make money, but it might help you close that deal that you’re looking for.