Walter Kolm came of age at a time when "labels had too much power," he says wryly, looking out at Biscayne Bay from his 15th-story office in Miami's Brickell business district. In 2011, when the 48-year-old executive branched out on his own, he had spent more than 15 years at Universal Music Group (UMG), most recently as president of Universal Music Latino/Machete, the U.S.-based label that had oversight of superstars like Juanes, Paulina Rubio and, at the time, Enrique Iglesias. By then, the music industry that he had entered as a punk-rock lover and indie-label owner in his native Argentina had changed dramatically: Sales were down, labels were no longer all-powerful, artists had clout -- and managers had even more.
When UMG restructured its Latin operations, Kolm lucked out when one of his former artists, Mexican superstar Cristian Castro, asked him to helm his career. The relationship didn't last, but Kolm's appetite for management did. Today, he oversees a staff of 12 at his WK Entertainment and is credited with reviving Colombian superstar Carlos Vives' dormant career and jump-starting Maluma's (see story here). Both are finalists for the Billboard Music Awards, as well as the Billboard Latin Music Awards: Maluma is up for seven honors; Vives, six. Together with another Kolm client, vallenato star Silvestre Dangond, the three grossed more than $100 million in touring alone in 2016.
Kolm also manages reggaetón star Wisin and, together with former UMG colleague José Puig, is a partner at 2PK Management, which represents a slightly more specialized roster of acts, including Bacilos and Fito Páez.
Changing gears was a good decision for the dapper Kolm, who wears Thomas Pink shirts, drives a Ferrari and has a weakness for Dominican cigars. "I'd never go back," he says about the shift away from labels. "I like this world more, and it's a more lucrative business -- at least for me."
As a manager, how do you use your label experience to your advantage?
I know what the label doesn't want to hear. They don't want to hear unsubstantiated complaints. As an executive, I had so many managers come and ask, "What are you going to do for me?" Labels want partners. I will never ask for a check without saying, "Let's see the books, let's make a deal, and let's make a deal that's fair to both [sides]." I try to strike a balance so the label-artist relationship grows every day.
What can you do as a manager that you can't do as part of a label and vice versa?
As a label executive, I was very involved in the creative part. Now, I let the label do that. Before, I'd say, "Let's do this or that." Now I ask, "How are we going to do this?" I try to separate my roles and act like a manager, as opposed to a former label president who still wants to be at a label.
How do you choose artists to sign?
I look for artists with the potential to fill arenas, who can gross $1 million a night.
When you signed Vives in 2013, however, he didn't have a label and hadn't played arenas in years.
That's why I say "potential." When I signed him, his last arena concert in Miami in 2005 had sold out. I felt that he hadn't declined but simply taken a long break. I went to see him and he sang his new songs for me with his guitar, and it was all there. I always seek out the artists I want to sign. Except for my very first one, Cristian Castro, who came to me and initiated me in this business.
Ironically, he is no longer your client.
We prefer to be friends. I think my value as a manager is the advice I can give, and if you're not going to follow my advice, there's no sense in working together. I'm not an agent. I work for the artist, so that their brand has a before and after. I'm the brand manager and they make the music. The single objective is to grow the brand, but the artist has to agree with me.
Most of your acts are signed to Sony. Why is that?
I believe my artists deserve a company with potent A&R, and I think Sony's is the best. I don't necessarily look for the biggest advance, but I do look for the best conditions for my artist.
But you must have had a few bad experiences.
Well, yes, but you overcome them. The first time I took Maluma to Mexico, I told promoters he was the artist to watch, and they all came back with offers for 800-seat venues. So I hired my own promoter, we rented the Pepsi Center in Mexico City and we sold 6,000 tickets in two weeks.
When you signed Maluma, he was brand new.
I saw him perform at an awards show in Colombia. I walked in there, and I saw all these girls going crazy for him. I saw a star.
That's a leap -- he didn't have any hits.
That's true. But I believe there are artists and stars. I think Maluma -- like Vives, like Silvestre, like Wisin -- are stars, celebrities. They're charismatic and charming. With Maluma, I did my research, and one thing I've learned is, when an artist has a solid base -- a market, a country -- we know there's the possibility to go beyond that. In Maluma's case, he had this huge fan base of girls despite the fact that he only had local marketing behind him -- just social media. I wanted to take him to the next level.
You're from Argentina. Why so many Colombian acts?
I believe Colombia, due to its geographic location [between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and at the top of South America] is generating the best music right now. Plus, Colombian acts have a great look, and that's important today.
I see you don't have any female artists. Why?
I have two women: My girlfriend and my daughter [Barbara, 23]. And that's enough. [Laughs] Eighty percent of my team are women, and they help me make decisions in life and work. But, if the right female act comes around, I'm open.
What if you love an artist's music and it's a niche act? Would you sign him or her?
I'm not a romantic. I used to be a romantic. I need to see the business.
Streaming barely existed when you left UMG. Now it's huge, particularly for Latin music. How has it changed your business?
We make money. Today, we're finally seeing big numbers again, and labels finally have the economic clout to invest again in their acts. In my case, the bulk of our revenue is from shows, followed by endorsements and then publishing.
What is the advantage and disadvantage of working in the Latin market?
I don't see disadvantages. If we see the Latin market as a single country that begins to the South in Argentina and ends to the North in the U.S. and spreads East to West from Chile to Spain, it's an amazing territory and we're fortunate that we all speak one language. That's why my business plans are made for the entire region.
Is the current political climate affecting your business?
I think it affects touring in the U.S. The undocumented fans are afraid to go out. It's unfortunate that people live in fear.
How important is a crossover to you?
Crossover is not about language. It's [what] happens when an artist reaches different audiences by being himself. A crossover to me was Juanes' "La Camisa Negra," or Carlos Vives and Shakira's "La Bicicleta." We have a great crossover tool today, with danceable music in Spanish used in Zumba and other classes worldwide. That's the real crossover. No one understands a word, but they can dance.
This article originally appeared in the April 29 issue of Billboard.
Walter Kolm will speak at the Billboard Latin Music Conference April 25. To register, visit: https://billboardlatinconference.com