How Rosalía Got Signed: The Power Players Behind Her Rapid Rise

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Rosalia photographed at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio on April 19, 2019. 

In the summer of 2017, Rosalía -- then a rising star in the tradition-bound world of flamenco -- sat on a stool and, accompanied only by a guitarist, played an intimate acoustic set at a Madrid festival. At the time, she had attracted critics’ attention in Spain with her independently released, Universal-distributed debut album, Los Ángeles.

The festival audience was small, but it included two big names in Latin music: singer-songwriter Bebe and her superstar friend Juanes, who was so impressed by Rosalía that he invited her to perform with him in Madrid later that year. He was far from her only fan: Rosalía was already talking to labels including Universal and Sony, and Sony Music Spain president José María Barbat was especially enthralled.

“He called and said: ‘I have an artist who is going to drive you crazy. Her name is Rosalía,’ ” recalls Afo Verde, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Latin Iberia. Verde didn’t see Rosalía in person until months later, at the Latin Academy’s Person of the Year event in November 2017. She participated in a tribute to Alejandro Sanz (another prominent fan of hers), accompanied by a string orchestra playing an arrangement Rosalía herself had commissioned.

That crowd was immediately smitten -- a common reaction from the many artists and execs who have observed Rosalía’s charisma up close and then immediately lent their support, spurring her uncommonly fast rise. Juanes’ manager, Rebeca León, saw Rosalía’s sound check for her Madrid performance with Juanes and was struck by her self-assurance both onstage and off as she worked with the concert production staff (especially since at that point Rosalía was unsigned and did not have management). A few months later, she took her on as a client. “I didn’t know what the hell she was going to do next,” recalls León. “But I knew I wanted to know.”

By early 2018, Rosalía had recorded “Malamente” as the first single for what would become her next album, El Mal Querer. “She was very convinced about these songs, even though they didn’t sound like anything else out there,” says León. Rosalía was close to signing with Sony Music Spain, but León wanted her to release “Malamente” by May to make Latin Grammy submission deadlines. She went to YouTube’s global head of artist relations, Vivien Lewit, who says she was “immediately mesmerized by Rosalía’s voice and presence in her visuals.” Lewit signed her “on the spot” to YouTube’s Foundry international artist development program, providing Rosalía with funding for the “Malamente” video, along with tools to build a fan base on the platform. (“Malamente” ultimately earned three Latin Grammy nominations and two wins.)

Just a month later, on June 15, Rosalía arranged her own appearance at Barcelona’s Sonar (traditionally an EDM-centric festival), where Barbat and his entire team watched her, entranced. “It was like witnessing the apparition of the Virgin [Mary],” he says today. “This artist took the flamenco and music scene by storm.” He sent a video of the performance to Verde, who in turn passed it to Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer; he invited Rosalía to perform at the company’s global convention in New York that September.

“There was interest, frankly, from all our labels,” says Jenifer Mallory, executive vp/GM for Columbia Records. While Rosalía sang in Spanish, “we saw a huge global opportunity. She represents a new face of pop. Between Lizzo and Billie Eilish and the people owning American culture right now … there has to be an edge, a uniqueness.” With multiple labels interested, says León, “at some point, we just had to make a decision. Columbia seemed to be the right fit. They really understand the flamenco side of her, and they’ve taken the time to immerse themselves in that part of the culture.”

Ultimately, Columbia and Sony Music Latin entered a joint venture to release El Mal Querer in November 2018. León, meanwhile, connected Rosalía with agent Samantha Kirby Yoh at WME, who immediately booked her for major festivals in 2019, including Lollapalooza in Latin America and Coachella in the United States.

“We have seen these [tipping-point] moments before, but never quite like this,” says Mallory. “People feel ownership over her. The word-of-mouth around this project is so powerful -- it’s a quality that artists would die for.” Indeed, Verde was at first a bit worried by how fast things were moving for Rosalía. In October, Sony had arranged a live show in London “in a space that fit 1,000 to 1,500,” recalls Verde. “The next day, they told me 1,500 people had been left outside.”

When El Mal Querer came out last November, it debuted at No. 1 on the Latin Pop Albums chart. And though Rosalía has yet to score mainstream success on the level of male contemporaries like J Balvin and Ozuna (who have both collaborated with her and, along with Bad Bunny, frequently gush over her on Instagram), her label is treating her as a global superstar and investing accordingly. Her first solo shows in Spain arenas, scheduled for December, sold out in hours. But she and her team are keeping a relatively low profile -- agreeing to only select collabs and a limited number of shows -- as she prepares to record her second Columbia album (and third overall). “We’re not going to rush,” says Mallory. “We are investing in the long-term future of Rosalía.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 12 issue of Billboard.


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