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Former UMPG Head Zach Horowitz Reflects on His Latin Side, Accepts Latin Songwriter Hall Award

Zach Horowitz talks with Billboard about his longstanding love affair with Latin music and how he launched Universal's Latin division. Horowtiz, who recently stepped down as Chairman and CEO of…

Among all the honorees at the recent Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame gala was one who isn’t Latin at all. Zach Horowitz, who recently stepped down as chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, was honored with the Ralph S. Peer Premio Editores (“Editors Award”).

The honor was fitting — Peer was a maverick in the music industry and an early champion of Latin music and composers. Horowitz, who was long president and COO of Universal Music Group, was the person behind the initial creation of Universal’s Latin division and the thrust behind many of the subsequent expansions and acquisitions that would make it the biggest Latin label in the U.S.

“There is no other Anglo executive in the music industry as knowledgeable, as passionate about Latin music, as Zach,” said Sony Music Entertainment chairman/CEO Doug Morris, who was formerly chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group.

Horowitz, who is currently “decompressing” before he decides his next musical step, spoke to Billboard about his Latin side.

So, how does a guy from Los Angeles who doesn’t speak Spanish fall in love with Latin music?

Zach Horowitz: I live in a city that’s infused with Latin culture, so I had it around me growing up. My first job as a teenager was cleaning a factory downtown on weekends, and I was surrounded by lots of Latinos and their music played all day. I don’t think it was any one thing. I also collect Chicano art, going back to my 20s. And I wasn’t blind to the demographic changes taking place in the country, and I could see what was going to happen. I just felt on so many different levels that there wasn’t enough attention being given to the music.

Zach Horowitz accepts the Ralph S. Peer Premio Editores Award from the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.

 

Your first inroad to Latin music was the distribution of Rodven [whose catalog included Andy Montañez and early Ricardo Montaner], a Venezuelan label that was very powerful in the 1990s. How did that come about?

The challenge for us in 1994 was we didn’t have a Latin division at all, and we had no companies in Latin America. [We thought:] ‘We don’t have a Latin label, but we have a wonderful distribution company. And if there’s a company that has significant success but needs distribution into mainstream stores, we can do that.’ Rodven was the first. I went to Venezuela and convinced them to distribute with us. That was a very big deal for us. They were probably 8% of the market.

Did you get any pushback inside Universal for this?

It was an experiment to see if we could actually do the things that I believed we could. Latin sales were shifting more and more to mainstream accounts like Walmart and Target, and I believed the same sales people who sold our pop, rock and urban albums to those accounts could also sell them Latin music. Once we were able to show how effective we were with Rodven’s music, it was a lot easier to convince the legendary Fania Records, and Ralph Mercado [then the founder and owner of seminal tropical musical label RMM] to trust us to distribute their labels as well. And that brought in La India, Tito Puente, Marc Anthony’s catalog and so many others. In 2001, we ended up buying RMM.  

Another major deal for you was signing producer Gustavo Santaolalla. How did that come about?

In 1995, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times on the ten best Latin rock albums of all time. It seemed like half of the albums in the article were produced by someone from Argentina named Gustavo Santaolalla. So I went out and bought the albums he produced, got very excited, and called the reporter […] and asked him if he could arrange for me to meet Gustavo. We met for lunch at the Universal Studios commissary. He told me that with all the success he had had as a producer, what he really wanted was a chance to actually sign artists — and no one had believed in him enough to let him do that. Universal didn’t yet have a Latin division, but I was so bowled over by him, I immediately made a deal with him to be a talent finder and consultant to us for Latin music. The first act he found was [Mexican rock band] Molotov. We sold 1 million albums around the world and had success in places like Germany and Japan.   

So you have a distribution company, but still no label. What was the next step?

Jesus López [currently the chairman/CEO of Universal Music Latin American and Iberian Penninsula] was hired in July 1996 with the goal to create a Latin division. A Latin label in the U.S. and to open Universal owned companies in Latin America so we could better market our Anglo product there and we could also sign local artists.

As we well know, Universal exploded from there. What were the milestones?

So many milestones. The relationship with Gustavo evolved into a joint venture, Surco Records. Among other things, it brought us Juanes, whose first album alone sold over 2 million. The launch of Machete Music, a full service, wholly-owned label to capitalize on Latin urban and reggaeton music. It became the industry leader in the genre, with artists like Don Omar and Wisin Y Yandel. Our distribution deal with the Chavez family-owned record label, Disa — which represented 10% of the entire Latin market — and which gave us a major presence in the regional Mexican music genre for the first time. And, of course, a transforming event was our purchase of Univision Music Group in 2008, which included the biggest independent Latin label in the industry — Fonovisa — bringing us artists like Los Tigres del Norte, Jenni Rivera and Marco Antonio Solis.

Does it frustrate you that regional Mexican music is still largely ignored by the mainstream when it’s such an important part of the market?   

Regional Mexican music is the most popular Latin music genre in the US, responsible for two thirds of all Latin music sales in this country. Yet the mainstream media doesn’t see it as sexy, and tends to treat it — and the artists that perform it — as if they don’t exist. It highlights some really troubling broader issues. There are over 50 million Hispanics in the U.S. today. It’s a demographic that more and more will exert an enormous impact on the social, cultural, political, and economic life of the US. But it’s a demographic that too often isn’t given its proper due in all sorts of way. Ignoring the significance of regional Mexican music is just a microcosm of a much larger problem.

How do you see the future of Latin music when it comes to new technologies and business models?

It has the potential to dramatically expand the consumption of Latin music and create new revenue streams. You can see it in the explosion of streaming services in Latin America. In the way Hispanics overindex on Vevo. And in the disproportionate consumption of Latin music on things like Cricket’s Muve. Mobile is really key for this demographic. I’m very bullish about the opportunities.

Today, several Latin acts are “shared” with sister labels, including Enrique Iglesias, who is released by both Republic and Universal Music Latino. Is this the ideal state?

Hispanics represent about one out of every six people in the US. One out of every four babies born here each year, and 95 percent of the projected teen population growth through 2020. All the research I’ve seen indicates that second- and third-generation Hispanics tend to have the same musical tastes as the general population, although Latin crossover artists will be even more popular with this demographic, particularly when the consumer is bilingual or speaks mostly Spanish at home. So, even when it comes to Anglo artists, a “smart” label will maximize its success by marketing to the Hispanic consumer. If it’s a Latin crossover artist, the potential impact is even greater.