Bad Bunny Manager Noah Assad on Launching a Label, Landing the Super Bowl & His Near-Deal With Interscope
Noah Assad fell first for the voice: a deep bass with the ductile consistency of brown taffy, rapping over sparse trap beats. Then he discovered the voice belonged to a grocery bagger who called…
Noah Assad fell first for the voice: a deep bass with the ductile consistency of brown taffy, rapping over sparse trap beats. Then he discovered the voice belonged to a grocery bagger who called himself Bad Bunny.
“Just from the name, I wanted to sign him,” recalls Assad, 29, speaking to Billboard from his airy home on the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he is sheltering in place with his wife and daughters, ages 6 and 2. “I loved the name.”
So does everyone else. Three years after charting on Billboard for the first time, Bad Bunny is the most successful Latin music artist on the charts today, with 3.8 billion career on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, and a record 83 hits on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. He closed 2019 as the No. 1 act on the year-end Top Latin Artists list, and his new album, YHLQMDLG, or Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana (I Do Whatever I Please), has been No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums tally since its Feb. 29 release.
Assad, who in 2016 signed Bad Bunny to his nascent label, Rimas Entertainment, has also been Bad Bunny’s manager ever since. Now, Rimas has grown from a staff of six to 60 and opened offices in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Miami. Although Assad personally manages only one other act, singer-songwriter Tommy Torres, he has over 100 artists and songwriters signed to his label and publishing divisions.
“You go with the flow,” says Assad of his quick success, speaking in a lazy, hard-to-pinpoint drawl (his mother is from the Virgin Islands’ St. Croix, and his father is Lebanese) that matches his easygoing surfer look.
But behind the chill, there’s a relentless hustler with sharp instincts and a business approach that’s grounded firmly in data. Rimas began as a YouTube aggregator that served as a launching pad for Bad Bunny and others. Today, Assad regards it as a “major label,” with similar global reach. And although both Assad and Bad Bunny have been heavily courted by the big three record companies, Rimas has stayed independent, and Bad Bunny remains signed to the label. (Assad declined to share the terms of their agreement or when it had last been renegotiated.)
Since the coronavirus outbreak, Assad has been hunkered down at home, his first extended stay there in years, he says. A dedicated baseball fan, he’s using some of his free time in between a steady stream of phone calls to play the PlayStation game MLB the Show.
You launched Rimas in 2014 when you were only 24. What were you trying to do?
I wanted to be a major label. At the time, I would do anything to make a dollar in the music industry. I was a road manager, I would book artists, I had a studio and would rent it. We would create compilation albums before the streaming era. Rimas was initially created to be a music hub of some sort. It was always supposed to be a label, but we didn’t expect it to be a stand-alone, one-stop shop. Today, anything you want to do, we’re there.
Rimas first became popular among artists as a company that helped many of them make more money from YouTube. What was YouTube like when you launched?
I call it the “reggaetón depression era.” I managed a bunch of artists from 2011 to 2014, 2015. I started seeing commercials on YouTube and realized that in Puerto Rico, no one was claiming their assets. I thought, “Why is that? Who makes the money?” And little by little I realized that money went to the rights holders, but there was no one on our island claiming it. I met Mauricio Ojeda [YouTube’s music label partnerships manager for Latin America, who was then based in Colombia] in 2014, and he was able to get me the technology to claim assets for clients.
Rimas became known for its YouTube campaigns for very big artists, including Maluma and Ozuna. Is that still part of your business?
Today, I would say label revenue is 50% of my business, publishing is around 30%, touring is 15% to 18%, and sponsorships are 5%. At the time, we got into the promotional side to create relationships inside the industry, more than to make money from it. It was about networking, helping people. There are a whole bunch of artists — huge Anglo acts — who would contact us to do their marketing campaigns. That meant a lot to us. But we no longer work a song or one-offs. It takes too many resources to support a song for an artist who isn’t even signed with us.
How have artists and labels changed their YouTube strategies since then?
Now it’s about who can organically make things happen. For Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola” [which topped YouTube’s global charts in April], not one dime was put into digital marketing. We didn’t invest anything. We put the video on YouTube and it went viral.
In that video, Bad Bunny dresses up like a woman and talks about female empowerment. He’s a straight guy known for his flamboyant get-ups. He paints his nails. He bends gender norms very daringly, but is hugely popular with men and women. How do you explain that appeal?
If you saw him walking down the street, he doesn’t look like a traditional rapper. He looked like your average Puerto Rican, who was working for $7.25 an hour. That’s what makes him very appealing. Everyone can see something different in him.
In 2019, you came close to signing a deal with Interscope for tens of millions of dollars, according to many sources. Why didn’t you?
It was very close. First of all, they’re all amazing human beings — [CEO] John Janick and [then-Geffen Records president] Neil Jacobson — but the people that made the final decisions weren’t able to approve the deal that I wanted. It wasn’t necessarily about money. For me, money is not the first thing that comes to mind. But some things that were important to me, we couldn’t come to terms with. And it wasn’t about ownership. It was always going to be a distribution deal. I own all or part of all my masters, and I would never, ever, ever give up ownership. Maybe when I retire.
You’ve said before that you are a major label. What types of deals do you offer artists?
We have distribution deals, we have record-label deals. What people don’t understand about a distribution deal is that it’s taking something from A to B. So we don’t dedicate all of our resources on distribution deals. I’m not fond of distribution deals. In a record-label deal, we’re involved in everything: the marketing, correctly pitching to platforms — not everybody knows how to pitch music correctly. Every artist is different. But I have some type of ownership in all my label deals. I can give you the advance a major can give you. But the advantage we have over any label is the way we see the playing field and our music culture IQ. Every six months there’s a pivot in the industry, and I see it coming.
Bad Bunny has released two albums: X100PRE on Dec. 24, 2018, and YHLQMDLG on Feb. 29. Those aren’t traditional dates to drop albums, and for X100PRE, some songs were delivered to your label just 48 hours before release. Is there a method to the madness?
We plan everything out. Of course, I didn’t plan for the album to be finished two days before, but the release date, the timing, that’s all set, and I keep [the streaming services] informed constantly. Today, you need personal relationships with the platforms. The release dates have a meaning. As a kid, [Bad Bunny’s] happiest day of his life was Christmas, therefore Dec. 24. And with YHLQMDLG, we stuck to our concept of releasing it Saturday, Feb. 29, [because 2020 is] a leap year. Had we released it on Friday, it would have been No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
How has the coronavirus affected your business?
Consumption has gone down, but subscriptions have gone up. I’m releasing music every week. You just have to know when and how. But I haven’t stopped a single one of my releases.
This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.