“This is the first day of the LAMC so when you’re doing something virtual you really get nervous until you actually see it up on the screen,” says Tomas Cookman, the founder and prime mover of the annual Latin Alternative Music Conference now in its 21st year and which, like so much else these days, has gone entirely digital. “Now that it’s moving and it looks great—we were really excited and all the people watching and commenting—I can actually have a long night of sleep now.”
Cookman, who runs Nacional Records, its publishing and management divisions and its parent company Industria Works, deserves the rest after putting together a first class event despite the challenges of the day’s global pandemic, quarantining and civil unrest. The conference line-up includes such industry luminaries as Walter Kolm of WK Entertainment, Lionfish’s Rebecca Leon, Live Nation’s Emily Simonitsch, Amazon Music’s Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s Monica Herrera Damashek, UMG’s Elsa Yep, TikTok’s Noel Nuez, Juanes and Billboard’s esteemed Latin editor Leila Cobo among many others.
Traditionally held in July with an array of panels in the day and music discovery by night, this year’s LAMC moved up a month and still included nearly 40 digital performances with acts such as The Mavericks, Mala Rodriguez, Goyo, Thee Sinseers and Los Caligaris. Though the LAMC was free for its more than 10,000 registrants, Cookman & Co. were able to line-up major sponsors, including Amazon Music, City National Bank and Taylor Guitars among others.
Cookman is monitoring the conference from his downtown Los Angeles offices with his team. “So far so good,” he says, “we’re fortunate to have the level of speakers who all have a high level of insight. Scheduling made everything that much more complicated, putting six of them together in the same conversation, it was a minor miracle. We’ve been pre-recording them over the last two weeks, but it all happened, and we’re really happy with the way they turned out.”
Industria Works hired Jose Tillan, whose credits include the Latin Grammys and MTV Latin America, to produce and pre-record the conference’s 4-6 hours of daily content for four days (June 9-12 followed by an LAMC show celebrating Pride Month on June 13 in conjunction with NYC’s SummerStage).
The backstory of how Cookman became a leading light in Latin music business starts on New York’s Lower East Side, a tough and widely romanticized part of the city, where he grew up and played in, rather unexpectedly, punk rock bands—his band The Colors were managed by the late Hilly Kristal of CBGBs and put out an EP produced by Blondie drummer Clem Burke.
“I sort of became ‘woke’ so to speak, to the other side of my Latin heritage, and many different Latino cultures while I was in New York,” Cookman says. “It was at CBGB’s one night and met a guy who I didn’t know at the time who was a massive rock star legend—sort of Bob Dylan-ish of Argentina.” That person Charly Garcia invited Cookman to come to Argentina where he intended to spend six months but ended up staying for five years.
“It was ’85 to ’90, where I met the guys in Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and we became instant friends,” he says, “that’s when I decided to stop trying to be a musician and became a manager. From sleeping on the floors of apartments together, we went on to sell millions of records, and fill stadiums in so many different countries.”
LAMC HQ straight out of Mexico City, where Nacional has an office as well as one in Madrid. The company employs 21 people.
Cookman explains how massively the Latin live market has grown since those days along with other genres of a growing music ecosystem which may have little crossover as the long-tails continues growing. “We live in a niche world,” he says, “and every year goes by with new technologies that allows us to go deeper into things we actually like. If you think about the gospel world, you think about the country world, you think about all the different hip-hop scenes, there’s so many amazing success stories going on, and it’s okay not everybody needs to be as big as Beyonce or Justin Bieber. If I have an artist that can do 23 cities across the United States stadiums in Latin America, or even not do stadiums in Latin America but does sold out shows from anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 a night, and you don’t know them, I’m okay with that. Maybe years ago, I wasn’t, but that’s okay because I don’t know everybody in country music that’s doing incredible business, I don’t know everybody in underground hip-hop that’s doing incredible business, and that’s okay.”
The LAMC’s inception, like so many good ideas, stemmed from identifying a massive void in the market. “The reason I started the LAMC 21 years ago is because I remember going to the New Music Seminar and all these other conferences and it I felt like I was almost a token, like, ‘Okay, we’ll give you a panel,’ and it was always at 9:00 AM or a horrible hour. I was always on the panel and I always noticed it was standing room only—it was packed. I thought well, ‘Shit, we should try one of these ourselves.’ Coming from an organizational background, being on tours, managing and playing, I said, ‘We can make this work.’ It was right in the beginning of one of the first big internet booms.”
One of LAMC’s early big supporters is perhaps someone unexpected but a leading light in the live industry. “Twenty-One years ago one of our biggest supporters was Marc Geiger, then at ARTISTdirect. “They were our title sponsor the first year, so it was amazing they supported it as did a whole bunch of other people. We did it at the Hilton in New York and it sold out. Which was like ‘Holy Christ!’ It allowed us to do the first year, and then go on to the second, third, etc. The word ‘alternative’ was never meant to be flannel shirts and the Seattle sound. Alternative for me, and the reason I used that word, is because I really wanted something alternative to what was big in Latin at the time. With all due respect to Gloria Estefan or Enrique Iglesias or whoever it could have been at the time, I always felt there’s so much more out there, there’s so many different sounds, there’s great rock bands, there’s great hip-hop acts, there’s great electronica acts, there’s even great reggae acts, etc. and I thought that there needed to be a platform for these artists to be heard.”
The longtime manager and label owner recalls the growth of the Latin touring market over the years: “Back in the day, it was really difficult to get agents to be interested in all these types of artists, until you started showing them they actually sell tickets. It wasn’t about just playing the Latino market—which was maybe similar to what the African American market used to call the Chitlin’ Circuit, there used to be that in the Latin market, you had the guy you did a show with in Oakland who also owned the supermarket chain. At the time, you were very happy the supermarket chain owner wanted to be in live music as well, but it started becoming a lot more serious and a lot more professional. Then you started having a bunch of agents.”
Nacional Records over the years has had some major envelope-smashing artists, including Aterciopelados, Nortec Collective, Manu Chau, Bomba Esetero, Kinky, Los Amigos Invisibles, and Ana Tijoux among many others. “I remember when Manu Chao played right before Rage Against the Machine, at Coachella,” Cookman says. “Although I’m sure there were a lot of people in the audience that knew Manu, there was a lot more who didn’t and it was incredible that by the last song he had them all jumping up and down—and that’s the power of really good music.”
These days, as is often the case, what is once considered outside the mainstream, quickly becomes front and center (see punk, electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, outlaw country and so much else). “Going full circle, last year was our 20th anniversary,” Cookman says. “We did a big free Latin Grammy LAMC joint 20th anniversary concert at Central Park Summer Stage, and we’re going back stage and I remember one of the heads of the Latin Grammys going, “Tomas, the word alternative, it’s finally come full circle—what was always alternative is now the most commercial.’ Because if you look at who’s the biggest artist in Latin music, it’s not uncommon to see somebody with green hair, or pink nail polish — and I’m talking about the men. What was once alternative is now part of the mainstream.”
The 20th edition of the LAMC conference held in 2019 in New York City.
When asked if he’s personally ever felt discrimination in the industry, Cookman says he has. “I’m a light-skinned Latino, so that definitely gives me a different perspective, but I’ve felt prejudice, not necessarily because they perceived me to be something else, but because I work in the Latin market. For years it was almost like saying, ‘I’m focused on high school musicals’ or something. That’s my world. Nothing against high school musicals, of course.”
Today, one would be foolish today to underestimate the massive power of the Latin market.
“It’s been a whole bunch of stuff,” Cookman says. “Successful tours, successful sync placements, commercials. I remember for example with Ana Tijoux, we had almost three minutes usage of one of her songs in ‘Breaking Bad’ in a key scene as well as the theme song to “Broad City” by [Chilean hip-hop and electronic producer] DJ RAFF. It’s been a whole bunch of things, not to mention the whole new urban craze, whether its Calle 13 or J Balvin,or Ozuna, or Bad Bunny—Bad Bunny’s on the cover of Rolling Stone, that’s incredible!”
“We’re living in different times, though, because it’s the music that’s really big now,” Cookman continues. “It’s not by coincidence that J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Ozuna and Residente, they’re all urban artists, and urban is the captivating force for a lot of young people. The sounds that Bunny sings or the sounds that J Balvin sings, or the sounds that Residente sings, they’re all very, very current. Back in the day, you would think, ‘Okay, it maybe takes six months, nine months, maybe longer for that beat, that sound, that song or whatever to get to those different countries and those different markets. Now, something comes out and everybody has it the exact same moment that helps make a sound a lot more current. All a sudden for artists from Latin America can have two, three, four, five hundred million streams.”