After Signing a Seven-Figure Deal, Cuco Is In Control

On October 8, 2018, exactly two years after Cuco and his band played their first live show, they almost died in a nightmarish car accident. Early that morning, as the musicians cruised down the I-40 highway in Tennessee, the driver of their passenger van lost control and overcorrected, causing the vehicle to tip over in the slow lane. As they scrambled out in search of safety on the shoulder, a tractor-trailer slammed into the van, which then hit Cuco and his bandmates, knocking them unconscious.

The next few months swirled into a punishing blur of canceled tour dates, hospital visits, group therapy, insurance bills and painkillers to alleviate the discomfort of Cuco’s injuries from the crash. Most of the material that would have become his debut album was on his laptop, which had been lost. So he started again, seeking catharsis and a way out of his trauma.

The result is Para Mí, a 13-track album composed in Cuco’s bedroom, out July 26. “Just being home and working on new music felt like escaping the fact that I just got out of [the accident],” says the Hawthorne, Calif., native born Omar Banos. “I was living with my pain, but also trying to enjoy the time with it.”

Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Cuco onstage as a special guest of rock band CHON at Coachella in April.

The album takes the whimsical synth pop and psych influences that defined his three previous projects into new territory, further exploring glimmers of bossa nova, airy piano keys and spiraling, lo-fi interludes. But the biggest shift is in the lyrics, which dig deeper than his bilingual teen-dream anthems have in the past and overflow with profound sorrow in both matters of the heart and healing after his accident. On “Ego Death in Thailand,” he contemplates self-medicating to cope: “Take this and fly away/Till the substance numbs the pain.” Fortunately, Cuco hasn’t lost his penchant for absurdist humor outside of his music: The 21-year-old often posts memes to his self-deprecating Twitter handle, @icryduringsex.

Para Mí marks Cuco’s major-label debut, following an explosive bidding war that came to a head this past spring. Interscope, which is riding a hot streak of breaking such new talent as Billie Eilish, Juice WRLD, Ella Mai and DaBaby, won him over with a seven-figure offer. Cuco will also join a roster of Latinx acts like Kali Uchis and Melii. The joint-venture licensing deal guarantees that Cuco’s music will be available in Latin America, with distribution support from Universal Music Latin Entertainment. It also allows Cuco -- who has raked in 290.6 million streams, according to Nielsen Music -- to maintain much of the freedom he had as an independent artist. He can release his music in various formats -- mixtapes, singles, EPs or proper albums -- so long as he records a certain number of tracks. He also will continue to own all of his masters.

“It was a huge relief to finally have that settled,” says Cuco of ending the ongoing negotiations, citing Interscope’s flexibility as a winning factor. But he’s glad he took his time and recommends that any other indie artist on the fence should do the same. “It helps you see the bigger picture,” he says. “There are definitely some things you can’t do without a label,” but when it comes to signing, “you need to really know what’s happening. Why you’re making these decisions. Essentially, it’s always going to come down to the terms you get.”

Christopher Patey
Cuco photographed on June 13, 2019 in Los Angeles. 

Cuco is far removed from his days as a college dropout who would perform with his band in Los Angeles backyards. He can trace his big break back to one show in particular in early 2017. Music manager Doris Muñoz -- an L.A. native who was 23 at the time and had founded a management firm fresh off her college graduation -- had heard whispers of Cuco’s talent from friends and decided to drop by one of the backyard gigs. There, she found herself smack dab in a horde of smitten local teens.

“The connection he had with his audience at that point was unmatched to anything I had ever seen,” says Muñoz. “[There were] Latinx teens singing every single lyric in English and Spanish to his music, which is inspired by our culture; it gave me chills. When the trumpet came out and everyone started screaming, that was the moment I knew Cuco and his fans would shift the culture for our community.” The next day, Muñoz convinced Cuco to join her Mija Management firm.

Christopher Patey
Cuco photographed on June 13, 2019 in Los Angeles. 

Within a year of working with Muñoz, Cuco nabbed a slot at Coachella; performed at Selena for Sanctuary, an immigration benefit at New York’s Lincoln Center last summer; and unveiled Fantasy’s Easy Living, his own streetwear line. He had effectively emerged as a heartthrob who wasn’t afraid to explore vulnerability and tenderness in his soft-boy synth-pop ballads. Cuco insists he was just nurturing his creative impulses -- and, eventually, wants to buy his parents a house.

But for now, he’s happy to live in the present. “I’m really proud of some of the things that I’ve done with my music,” he says. “I feel like [the takeaway] is: ‘This is it.’ ”

You Should Know: Cuco | Billboard

Cuco's Core Crew

Devin Landau
Agent, Paradigm Talent Agency

His Role: Landau has represented Cuco since the artist joined Paradigm in 2017. The tours Landau has booked have strategically helped Cuco transition from intimate backyard shows to the larger festival circuit.

On Visibility: “There is a lot of connective tissue with the first-generation community, and having him out on the road has been undoubtedly inspiring for young Latinos searching for an artist to look up to.”

Doris Muñoz
Manager; Founder, Mija Management

David Rodriguez
Doris Muñoz

Her Role: Since working with Cuco, Muñoz has grown her firm’s management roster to include independent artists August Eve, Inner Wave and Jasper Bones.

Top Moment: “Night one of Cuco’s Asia tour, in Jakarta, Indonesia. The second those kids started singing every single lyric to ‘Lo Que Siento’ and ‘Amor de Siempre,’ I lost it. The representation of our community was now on a global scale.”

Carlos Cancela
A&R Executive, Interscope

His Role: After two years of courting Cuco, Cancela helped close his seven-figure major-label deal with Interscope this spring.

Instant Connection: “The first time we hung out in my office, we spent an hour-and-a-half going down a rabbit hole, showing each other music. He was so passionate and excited to show me music I had never listened to, and the breadth of what he understood was so wide. I was already sold, but that moment further cemented it.”

This article originally appeared in the June 29 issue of Billboard.