The biggest names in Latin music may come from the well-defined worlds of polished pop, tropical salsa, or the accordion-infused rhythms of Mexican regional.
But when it comes to young Latinos, the diverse genre of Latin Alternative is hitting the mark. Even though it still has trouble penetrating the radio waves, the edgy sounds of Spanish rock, electronica, hip-hop and ska are filling concert halls from Santa Ana to Santiago.
Organizers of the Latin Alternative Music Conference, which opens in Los Angeles on Aug. 11, say faulty research and reliance on established artists has many record labels and marketing companies overlooking not just a hot trend, but some great music.
“Latinos are many different things. That’s why it’s so hard to talk to us, and to market to us,” says Tomas Cookman, music promoter and co-founder of the conference, known as the LAMC, which is in its fifth year.
“Mexicans are Mexicans. Colombians are Colombian. And yes, there are certain issues that unite us. ... Latin alternative has wide appeal.”
The LAMC has emerged as the top showcase for up-and-coming acts. This year’s conference, which is holding satellite concerts in New York and Toronto, features performances by singer Andrea Echeverri of the Grammy-winning Colombian group Aterciopelados, as well as Latin-alt veterans Los Lobos and a long list of newer names.
Based in Los Angeles for a second year, following three years in New York, more than 1,000 industry leaders and tens of thousands of fans are expected to attend the slate of concerts, panels and exhibitions, which this year include film, comedy and art.
'A very cool thing'
LAMC “is the big event for Latin alternative,” says Leila Cobo, who is Latin America/Miami bureau chief for Billboard Magazine. “You’ve certainly seen people who’ve started in those showcases become important acts and that’s a very cool thing.”
“If LAMC were not there, the movement would suffer — a lot,” she says.
Past LAMC performers include the heavyweights of the genre, including Mexico City innovators Cafe Tacuba and world traveler Manu Chao. Then there’s Julieta Venegas, a petite accordion maestra with a power-chord voice who grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, and Southern California and this year is a multi-Grammy nominee.
Mexico alt-rocker Ely Guerra will make a repeat performance, along with Echeverri, at a free concert at the Santa Monica Pier showcasing women of rock en espanol.
Guerra’s first LAMC performance, in New York, garnered media acclaim that has continued to pay off, she said recently during a break from a tour along the U.S.-Mexico border. “It was there that everything took off. It was important, very important for our career.”
Latin rock “is growing and we must continue to go for it, and continue taking advantage of this opportunity that Spanish is a language that today, in the whole world, has an important position,” she said.
The LAMC, however, is not limited to purely Spanish-language artists.
Commercial radio still elusive
Kemo, a Los Angeles rapper who hit success with his former band Delinquent Habits, mixes Spanish, English and Spanglish slang. Though he’s seen his records sell in the hundreds of thousands, and the band’s songs have been featured in commercials, Kemo says commercial radio remains elusive for Latin alternative music.
“It’s neither here nor there, it’s almost like the marketing geniuses don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “They’re still trying to figure it out how to bottle it up and put it out there.”
Cookman says radio programmers and record label executives are using outdated methods to research their target audiences, such as surveying Latinos in certain neighborhoods or shopping centers.
“I tend to have an issue with how they go out and search out these Latinos and say ‘That’s all the Latinos.’ I think there’s a big portion of Latinos who are not always shopping at the Latino grocery store, or going to the swap meets.”
Instead, the labels and radio programmers continue to focus on the established and regionally defined genres of pop, salsa, and norteno/banda. Latin-alt artists such as Manu Chao or La Ley, meanwhile, are selling out stadiums across Latin America.
Cobo, of Billboard magazine, says the movement has yet to take commercial hold because only a few acts have come out with the type of catchy, semi-pop singles which allow them to cross over.
“I do think the movement as a whole has yet to find, what would be the word, it’s breaking point,” she says.
Latin alternative “certainly gets the critical acclaim, and eventually commercial is bound to follow,” she says. “It’s just taken longer than anyone thought.”