Alt- America

A report from the Latin Alternative Music Conference

Mainstream English-language magazines and newspapers have been friendlier. In fact music editors assembled at LAMC claim they have had to beg for material from the Latin divisions of the major record labels, most of which are located here. Jon Dolan, reviews editor of mainstream-music powerhouse Spin, said he rarely receives Latin recordings in time to get reviews out. Mike Shea, of the important national music magazine Alternative Press, admitted he has a hard time getting Latin material at all. “One time I received a plain brown paper package from WEA-Latina,” he recounted, “but nothing else. I was happy to get it; I just didn't know what it was.” Intrigued on another occasion by titles released on Sony Discos, he said the division's hard-to-get reputation led English-language colleagues to tell him: “Don't even bother.”

Over and over again participants complained that the major labels staff Latin divisions with people who know how to sell salsa and merengue but have no expertise in promoting hip-hop or rock. Miami is so closely associated with tropical Latin sounds that the most important Spanish-language alternative magazine in the United States, La Banda Elastica, pointedly has contributing editors in Los Angeles, New York, Argentina, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, Texas, and Chicago -- but not in the Magic City. Miami's own Spanish-language magazine, Boom, run by tireless Latin alternative booster Kike Posada, had a booth at the conference hall but was not invited to participate on the print media panel.

“I'm grateful to all the radio stations in the United States that don't play our music, because it makes us stronger,” joked Gustavo Santaolalla, founder of the influential Seventies Argentine rock outfit Arco Iris and currently one of the most powerful producers of Latin alternative music. Head of Surco, the new alternative label distributed by Universal, Santaolalla is behind success stories such as Molotov and Café Tacuba, as well as the Puerto Rican rockers Puya and the Afro-Cuban hip-hop crew Orisha. For him the coming of Latin alternative is a social phenomenon and not a record-company invention. “The context of alternative music in Latin America is very strong,” said Santaolalla, with less frenzy but just as much passion as he would show onstage with Molotov later that night. “You feel it from the day you are born,” he explained. “What you are struggling against has a face and a name. That gives the music an energy, a voltage, that's very strong.”

Molotov explodes on the Watcha Tour
Cynthia Carris Alonso
Molotov explodes on the Watcha Tour
Andrea Echeverri plunges into alt-fusion
Cynthia Carris Alonso
Andrea Echeverri plunges into alt-fusion

Camilo Lara, the general director of Virgin Records Mexico, claimed that the problem in selling Latin alternative is not lack of energy but lack of funds for production. “We want to be competitive in the Anglo world,” he said, “but we do not have budgets that are competitive -- at least not in my country. When I go to the store, I don't go to the Latin section. I go to buy either Marilyn Manson or Molotov. If I have only $15 or $16, I have to buy the best record.” Santaolalla agreed, “Great records, most of the time, require big investments of money. That's one of the things that we pushed as producers: to make expensive records for a kind of music that is usually done cheaply. To make records that don't have anything to envy from the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Jane's Addiction.”

Latin-American youth have long listened to music in English made by their North American and European peers. Turning that relationship around might mean changing little more than the language. “Growing up in Latin America, you don't necessarily just listen to Latin music,” pointed out Andres Levin, the Venezuelan-born producer of Aterciopelados and of his disco-fueled compatriots, Los Amigos Invisibles. “It's completely acceptable that a band be completely drum and bass and be from Nicaragua.” Depending on the band, singing in English might even be organic, added Santaolalla. “I don't push the band to do anything other than what they're already doing,” he said. “For a band like Molotov, who has a drummer from the United States or with Puya, from Puerto Rico, it makes sense to sing in English and in Spanish.”

If Latin artists and producers are thinking in terms of social movements, industry execs think in trends, viewing the Latin alternative boom-to-be in terms of the slow growth of alternative rock in English that finally exploded with the success of Nirvana in the early Nineties. “It's like 1984,” observed Brian Long, director of A&R for MCA. “It's going to take an artist who's Latin, who is going to sing in Spanish” to make it really big and set off a signing frenzy among the major labels. Kim Buie, senior executive at Palm Pictures, who recently signed border electronicistas Nortec and previously hooked up happiness-meisters Plastilina Mosh with Capitol Records, said the LAMC reminded her of the 1982 new-music seminars that gave a boost to early altrockers such as R.E.M. and Sonic Youth.

Camilo Lara lived a different history. “It's like Mexico in 1990 or 1988,” he said, when there were few rock en español venues and major bands like Maldita Vecindad and Café Tacuba had not yet reached mass audiences. “We just need to have this one great band to happen,” Lara added reassuringly, “and things will change.” Brian Long sees the one-great-band theory as fraught with danger. “After there's a major success, all the major labels will promise the world,” he warned. “Ninety-nine percent of that time the world will not happen. You probably won't even get America.”

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