Rebeca Leon, co-founder and CEO of Lionfish Entertainment, oversees the careers of three of the biggest artists in Latin music: J Balvin, Rosalia, and Juanes, with whom she founded the company several years ago. A featured executive on Variety’s International Music Impact list, Leon began her career with marketing and A&R gigs at Sony Music and EMI before making the move to AEG, where over the course of a decade she not only turned its L.A. venues into premiere destinations for Latin artists, she expanded the company’s — and the country’s — touring circuit, expanding into cities that few had considered strongholds for the genre.
There’s lots more to come in the months ahead, but she looked back and shared some of the wisdom and knowledge she’s accumulated along the way — including a brief period in which she managed singer J.D. Natasha a decade ago — during a chat with Billboard’s Leila Cobo at the Midem conference in France last week. Excerpts from that conversation follow.
How an (almost) all-female team has made Rosalia into a star
In the beginning many people didn’t understand [Rosalia], they said it was too left of center, you’re gonna have to spend too much money, it’s never gonna work. So we went to YouTube, and I showed the videos to a woman there named Vivien Lewit [the platform’s head of content partnerships]. She immediately got it and helped us to finance the first two videos, which then put everything into motion and then we got the deal [with Columbia Records].
One of the most exciting things about Rosalia is that she’s supported by a team of women: myself, her mom, her sister, [day-to-day manager] Cayetana [Smith], Vivien, Jennifer Mallory at Sony Music, Jody Gerson at Universal Music Publishing, Sam Kirby from William Morris. It’s really been incredible to see her meteoric rise — it makes me feel so proud that it’s a girls’ club.
What she learned from J.D. Natasha, the first act she managed
We signed her when she was very young, 15 or 16. I thought she was amazing: She sang and wrote in English and Spanish, she’s a guitar player with amazing voice, she had this Alanis Morissette type of vibe. But that was the first time I learned that you can’t want it more than they do. They have to want it so much that they can’t sleep at night. The artists who make it are the ones who can’t see themselves doing anything else and if they weren’t making music they would die. That’s what I look for: that kind of commitment. Because it’s so hard: There’s so much rejection on the way up, and even when you get to the top there’s the criticism and “what’s next?” It’s a really difficult journey.
Why generating money for the company is a key way to get ahead, especially for a female executive
When I started in the music business, most of the jobs you saw women in were marketing or PR jobs and jobs that didn’t necessarily have to do with money — not to discredit anybody who does those jobs, they’re undervalued, but it’s because of this dynamic that exists around profit centers. In order for you to make more money and have a seat at the table, you have to make them money. This is a business, and it starts when you’re a little kid. My parents are very supportive and always told us we could do anything we wanted, but if my dad was buying a car, he would take my brother and not me, and I never got exposed to business and negotiating. Negotiating is probably the most important tool you can have in anything — you’re going to negotiate all your life with your husband and kids and boss and artists and your label and to buy your own car. And I didn’t have that skill.
At AEG I became a promoter and started generating money for the company — I built [their Latin music] division and I made them a gazillion dollars over the 11 years I was there, and everything changed. You’re writing the checks. You’re paying artists, venues, radio stations, TV stations. And I always used to tell my team, remember who writes the check, because that’s where you learn about power. And if you are ambitious and you want to make money, you have to make money for other people.
My husband says I’m the worst negotiator on the planet. I never got the skill, so I just have my own way of doing things.
On working with Beyonce (who appears on J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” remix) and the Rolling Stones
It was amazing — I mean, she’s Beyonce. It’s funny, we weren’t allowed to talk about it [publicly], so I came up with a code word: her name was “Chimichanga,” so when I finally met her I told her that story and was like “Chimmi!” She was amazing and her whole team was super professional, and so are the Rolling Stones, who Juanes is opening for [on some dates this summer]. These people have such a level of professionalism and mark the path for the way we all should be doing business.
For example, if the Stones say they’re going to be at soundcheck at 3:30, they’re there at 3:25. They’re always prepared — it’s about being on time and having everybody know exactly what they’re supposed to do and doing it to the T, and treating everybody with respect. We share the stage all the time, and I find the biggest artists treat everyone with so much respect, and it’s so important to mark that kind of behavior at the top. When somebody shows up two hours late, it’s disrespectful to everybody — everybody has things to do, whether they’re famous or not.
And with Beyonce, it was her level of attention to detail — in the video and all those people in the collage, every single little detail mattered. [To help with her Spanish verses], we called our friend John Rodriguez, and I said to him, “I need you to get on a plane to New York and I can’t tell you why, but I promise you it’s going to be amazing. And he called me from her house in the Hamptons and was like “Oh my god.”