The Battle of Los Angeles

If the fourth annual edition of the until-now fairly successful Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) had taken place in New York as it had before, chances are it would've been lost in the blackout. But things in sunny L.A. weren't much better.

Held at the Beverly Hilton from August 14-16, this year's LAMC was a surprisingly cold and lackluster event. Founded and organized by Tom Cookman (manager of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and La Ley), it's a remedy for the lack of airplay and label support the genre has endured since emerging in the early Sixties. Its panels, booths, and networking opportunities have become a key element in the global development of Latin rock. "LAMC is a must and it's growing, no matter what people say," said Luis Tamblay, singer and bassist for WEA Latina's Miami-based power pop band Volumen Cero, one of the acts featured at the free shows.

However, the feverish anticipation felt in past New York editions was missing in L.A. The biggest surprise was, paradoxically, the lack of musical surprises, except for Alex Lora's (leader of the jurassic El Tri, Mexico's biggest rock institution for 35 years) dated acoustic set in front of 80 people during La Banda Elástica magazine's awards show at the Mayan Theater. It was one of many showcases that would have packed a club in years past. Instead, it was a sad and at times embarrassing sight for an Angeleno movement that justifiably takes pride in being a stronghold for U.S. rockeros.

What went wrong? Some believe it was due to a lack of heavyweights. Chile's La Ley (due to personal problems, exhaustion, or the fact that it never agreed to perform in the first place, depending on who you ask) and Mexico's El Gran Silencio (which is now sponsored by McDonald's and had other commitments) were two of the biggest absentees.

The acts that did show up ranged from average to promising. Among the locals who performed at Hollywood's Knitting Factory, the all-female and much-hyped Go Betty Go turned out to be a powerful, edgy punk band in desperate need of better songs. Led by Chilean Lady P, Los Abandoned proved that it's the best bilingual band in California with an unexpected, soaring version of X's "Los Angeles." At the La Banda Elástica event, fun Argentine quintet Los Pinguos showed their rockero heart with a show-stopping cover of "La Rubia Tarada" ("The Dumb Blonde," a hit by Eighties Argentine superband Sumo). Los Pinguos's climactic performance can only be compared in terms of intensity and freshness with a similar performance by Las Ultrasónicas (not surprisingly, they didn't fare as well during their appearance at the acoustic showcase). Known for their colorful wigs and hits like "Vente En Mi Boca" ("Cum Into My Mouth"), the Mexican all-female surf-punk trio showed power, attitude, disarming humor, and above-average songwriting skills that overshadowed their limited musical chops. Kronos Quartet and the Nortec Collective's brilliant collaboration at downtown L.A.'s California Plaza, on the heels of their work together on Kronos's Latin Grammy-nominated album Nuevo, was like Ronaldo playing in the MLS; and Mexican newcomer and Latin Grammy nominee Natalia Lafourcade's energetic mix of pop, rock, and bossa nova provided a much-needed breath of fresh air during the LAMC closing party at the El Rey Theater.

Highlights from earlier LAMCs, though, included Manu Chao's performance at Central Park's Summerstage, which broke attendance records; and Puerto Rico's Circo making its concert debut, kicking off a meteoric career that landed it two Latin Grammy nominations and a major-label deal with Universal Mexico last year. In contrast this year felt more like a small family reunion than a major music conference.

This was evident at the acoustic showcase. In previous editions attendees risked missing the full-capacity show unless they got there early. Not this time. The low turnout made the Highlands Theater look like the Hollywood Bowl, minus the people. And unlike before, the power onstage decreased as chatter from the crowd of label execs, press, managers, and musicians increased. "I think you're talking too loud," said Argentina's Erica Garcia, one of the most eagerly awaited performers of the evening. The fact that she sang two unreleased English-language songs didn't stop them.

But Tom Cookman argued that the poorly attended showcases didn't derail the proceedings. "This is a music conference, not a music festival," he said. "All the panels were very heated and had standing room only, and that's how you rate a successful conference." He said there were around 1200 registrations this year, continuing a slow but steady annual increase in attendance.

Indeed the panel discussions on sundry aspects of radio, TV, and marketing were the conference's most successful feature in terms of attendance and passionate debate, even though the same topics are always discussed ("Do we need a Latin rock radio station in the States? How to do it?") with little or no progress being made. As usual it was at the radio panel where the most sparks flew. Enrique Prosen, director of the Mexican media giant CIE Group's radio division, argued that the 60 percent English-language alternative and 40 percent mostly Argentine rock format at Buenos Aires's Rock & Pop 95.9 FM could work in the U.S., too. "Unless you play hits, it all becomes meaningless, because eventually the listener gets bored," he said.

But the Mexican participants in the discussion seemed to disagree. "After my radio station switched to rock en español, we went from 61 [out of 62] to number five in eight months," said Jorge Rugerio, producer and host for "Grita: Los Sonidos del Rock en Español" on Mexico City's Orbita 107.5 (XHOF-FM). "What we need is a true passion for the music."

In spite of this year's difficulties the LAMC will probably return to L.A. in 2004. But Cookman (who believed this year's edition was "the best conference so far") admitted that he'll need to tighten some loose screws before next year. "If the [label crisis] continues [and we find it hard to bring big names to the conference], I'm considering partnering up with the city somehow to begin preparations this October, instead of waiting 'til midyear as we always do," he said.

"With all due respect to [international music trade show] MIDEM and others, we don't do music conferences for a living," he continued. "If MIDEM had a Latin MIDEM that didn't do well financially, they'd stop doing it. We wouldn't because we're not in the business of selling conferences. We're still a young conference and we're here because there is a need for it, and we'll keep doing it because if we don't, no one else will."

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Enrique Lopetegui