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Flush with the guilty pleasure of purchasing The Very Best of the Human League, publicist Josh Norek was standing on a sidewalk in New York City wondering what Ark21, the quirky record label run by Sting's former manager, Miles Copeland, was up to. Back in 1998 the same year the label revived "Don't You Want Me" (baby), Ark21 also released Manu Chao's Latin alternative landmark Clandestino. The ring of Norek's cell phone interrupted his musing; Copeland's secretary was on the line. "I'd never spoken to Miles in my life," marvels Norek, "Ark21 wanted to start doing Latin alternative again, so he asked me to do a compilation."
A champion of the genre, Norek cofounded the Latin Alternative Music Conference last summer as a forum for expanding the genre's market in the United States. Now Copeland was offering him the chance to put his marketing ideas to the test with an album of his own design. "They've given me a lot of creative leeway," Norek says, finding artistry not only in the making of the record but also in the selling. "It's not just A&R. Basically Escena Alterlatina is the first compilation in this genre that's being marketed almost entirely to an English-speaking audience. And when I say English-speaking," he emphasizes, "I don't mean just Anglo."
Although Norek hopes to catch the ears of U.S. Latinos, he offers himself as living proof that taste can run thicker than blood. "I live for Latin alternative," he declares. "And I do come from an Anglo background." Norek got his first earful of Spanish-language rock when he traveled to Buenos Aires at age twenty. "When I first heard [Los Fabulosos] Cadillacs, I was shocked," he recalls, "feeling like, “Wow, I never got to hear this music in the United States.' It's so repressed in this country; the radio is so segmented. How are the kids here supposed to learn about new bands?"
Norek has a number of ploys to teach kids about Escena Alterlatina. "One of the first things I insisted we do is a money-back guarantee," he says. "We're taking the risk out of it." He also is targeting English-language media. So far he's succeeded, convincing English-language stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles to host promotional concerts for the project.
If some of his strategies seem obvious, that's a symptom of the often sorry state of alternative marketing by the majors. "We'll be one up on all the Latin labels just by putting this in the stores," the publicist claims, citing the local example of the media blitz featuring Tijuana singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas in New Times, the Miami Herald, and El Nuevo Herald simultaneously. "I saw SoundScan that week: Two units sold. No one could find the record in the stores." To make sure there's no scarcity of Escena Alterlatina, Norek has not only slotted the disc into the major chains but also has locked down listening booths in every Borders in the nation.
Even with those assurances, Norek is keeping his expectations low. "If we sell 10,000 units I'll be content," he sighs. "We did this on a pretty bare-bones budget, so we should be able to recoup costs. I've sat in on meetings at record labels, and people are saying, “We expect to sell 200,000 copies in the United States.' These are the most unrealistic goals." For Norek the greatest satisfaction will come from reaching gringos like himself. "When I look at the SoundScan report and see that we've sold units in Iowa," he concludes, "that's what will make it worthwhile."
Miami resident Gustavo Fernandez has his own romance going with Latin alternative. Reversing Norek's trajectory, Fernandez came to Queens from Argentina with his family when he was six years old and grew up to serve as director of sales at WEA Latina for most of the Nineties. Discontent with toeing the bottom line, Fernandez broke away in 1999 to found DLN Distribution. While Fernandez does plan to operate an independent label, Delanuca, in the near future, he set up a distributor first because he believes most indies put the cart before the horse.
"A lot of people make a mistake," he observes from the rambling Design District house that serves as office, artist hospice, CD launch site, and home. "All the investment of time and the effort is put into the label and then they say, “Now we have to get the album into the stores.'" Secure that the creative side already is developed, Fernandez focused on hitting the bin. "When you're a small label, you don't need [distributors] to send out 100,000 units," he explains. "You need someone to be there everyday and say [to the retailers]: “Do you need another three?' Then you'll grow organically."
Working at WEA Latina gave Fernandez the time to do the math. "Since '91, I've been looking at these bands on the rock side, and they're consistent," he says. "They might not be taking the Grammys and filling the arenas, but they do decent business, and I felt that nobody was representing them. They were being signed, but then fifteen minutes later they were being forgotten internally. If the market permits [this music] to sell only 10,000 to 15,000 units, let me get 100 of these bands and do the best job I can."