Latin Grammys 2018

Sony/ATV Latin President Jorge Mejia On Writing Music Memoir, Composing His Own Works, Going on Tour and Snagging 'Despacito' Writers

Jeffrey Salter
“As an artist, it’s difficult to take emotion away from anything you evaluate in the music,” says Mejía, photographed June 13 at Sony/ATV Music Publishing in Miami. “But when you look at music as a business, you look at it as objectively as possible. That can only help an artist step back and assess his output.”

This May, after "Despacito" had become the most-streamed song of all time in 2017, Sony/ATV Music Publishing extended its worldwide deal with lead songwriter and artist Luis Fonsi.

The agreement was brokered by Jorge Mejía, the Colombian-born, U.S.-raised president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing for Latin America & U.S. Latin, who oversees 19 countries and six regional offices, including U.S. Latin, based out of Miami. Mejía, 45, an avid surfer who lives in the city, was upped to president in 2016 after successfully helming the company as its executive vp, a post to which he rose after beginning as an intern in 1997.

The Fonsi deal is just the latest in a string of high-profile accomplishments for Mejía, who in 2016 and 2017 led Sony/ATV to the first-ever Latin publisher "Triple Crown": being named Latin publisher of the year by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. (In 2018, the company won both the BMI and SESAC awards.) Success for Mejía -- who also has deals with "Despacito" co-writers Erika Ender and Daddy Yankee, and signed Colombian superstar Maluma to a global publishing deal in 2017 -- has come easy, in part, because he can relate. Mejía is a musician himself, a pianist-composer with a performance degree from the University of Miami who is known for connecting on a visceral and musical level with his songwriters.

Now, Mejía is further exploring his own talents. In May, he released An Open Book: A Memoir in Music, a book and album of short classical piano pieces with orchestral accompaniment that tell his own story as a bicultural, bilingual artist. The Open Book Latin American Tour, which Mejía narrates and performs, has included performances in Ecuador and Uruguay. Here, Mejía speaks about his music, Fonsi's success and betting on the Latin market.

How much does "Despacito" contribute to your bottom line?

It was one of those "not in a long while" sorts of songs. I don’t think in the Latin world we had ever had a song that was that big. It was definitely a boost.

In the middle of that boost, Fonsi’s deal expired. How did you get him to stay?

You win the renewals during the contract. Ideally, when you have taken care of your songwriters and their songs properly while they’ve been on your roster, that goes a long way toward them wanting to remain in the family. It’s different with every writer, but the first and main thing is, whenever anybody reaches out to me, I’m there and I’m available, wherever I may be or -whatever it may be about. I think that’s the main thing, and it’s a simple thing. I have a team for basic issues, but any time there are issues, I will get involved personally and I am quite hands-on about it.

"Despacito" hit a bump in the road after the remix, when there was an issue with the splits. How do you deal with those disputes when they arise?

The Justin Bieber version had other writers, but the fact that the original song is controlled by us has made life much easier. In regard to splits overall, the first thing I like to tell my writers is, "Before [you record] anything, agree to a split." That’s the best-case scenario. Absent that, when you have songwriters and collaborators jumping onto a song, the easiest thing is to split things evenly. Absent all that, the only thing that remains is for all of us to get onto a phone call and, through conversations, reach an agreement.

Prices for new publishing deals have soared. What is the situation like in the Latin market, and what’s your strategy to make sure bets pay off?

Valuations are very high, but they are based on what we are assuming is continued growth. Deals are more competitive, and with the growth of the market, I’ve been given a lot of leeway from [Sony/ATV chairman] Marty Bandier and [U.S. co-president] Danny Strick. Our strategy is to effectively collect all the money out there, particularly on the digital side. Five years ago, we didn't have agreements in place with the streaming services [in Latin America] or the correct structures to administer those deals. We've set up a system of four big hubs: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and the fourth hub is all remaining Latin territories. Over the last four years, our digital revenue has grown triple digits percentage-wise, and our streaming revenue has virtually doubled from fiscal year '17 to '18.

Do you look at digital performance more than radio for signings?

Its not that we look at streaming versus radio. But all of our deals these days have a heavy streaming component when it comes to both new signings and renewals like Daddy Yankee. For instance, Nicky Jam broke on YouTube several years ago and then went on to have a string of massive radio hits. That’s what you’re looking for, an artist with the best of both worlds. On the other hand, you also have such artists as Bomba Estéreo, a group that has done exceedingly well on the touring, synch and streaming fronts but not necessarily on radio [yet]. But they are more of an anomaly than the norm. And we look at the whole package as far as what the songwriter can do: their ability to co-write, to produce, to play songs with other artists and to transcend markets. Maluma, for instance, is a bona fide superstar, and his music is universal at this point. And he mainly sings in Spanish.

What sets the past year apart for you?

This year was the advent of Latin in the digital realm and on the world stage. The amount of Latin artists in the top 10 of the digital charts is crazy, and this is the year where it’s all starting to happen. Sony/ATV is very well-represented among all of those artists. It gives us a better seat at the worldwide table. We’ve always been the translators of the Latin world to the Anglo world. But in the past, we had to explain very clearly who our artist was and why it was a good thing for a [mainstream] artist to work with him or her. But this year, we’ve started getting phone calls from artists all over the world looking to collaborate with our artists, which wasn’t always the case. All of Latin America is a big winner in the digital era. And we’re getting revenue out of markets like Central America, Peru and Ecuador, which we thought we had lost. They’re small markets, album sales were low, but it turns out there are a lot of people with cellphones streaming music.

How has that changed how you do business?

It feels like we’re on an upward curve. Mexico and Brazil are some of the biggest territories in the world for Spotify and YouTube, even for Anglo artists. We’re looking to invest in artists we hope can have as much digital presence as possible. A lot of those major global artists are coming from the U.S. Latin labels. They are hugely successful in the U.S. Latin market, and that becomes the key platform for crossing over to the rest of world.

You’re a classical pianist. Were you ever tempted to go pop?

No. I’ve had the luxury to be able to focus on artistic output merely because I love it and it makes me happy and I can sleep well at night. Whether it has five streams or 5 billion has not been the driving force. Everybody wants validation. But working in classical music, you realize the market is only as big as it is. One of my goals is to help bring classical music to a wider audience, which is why my pieces are narrated. The narration serves as an emotional connection between the music and the pieces.

This article originally appeared in the June 30 issue of Billboard.