NEW YORK -- Hanging like a specter over the 12th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, which concluded Saturday, was the hulking shadow of Pitbull -- or "Pit," the endearment favored by his associates. He didn't attend, but his new LP, "Planet Pit," bowed at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 last month and has been the focal point for a galaxy of branding associations.
"From the start, Pitbull defined himself and stuck to who he was," proclaimed Michael Rucker, CMO of Fania Records at the panel "Patrons of the Arts: Who Are Today's Music Investors?" and everyone nodded in agreement. The urgency of branding and marketing placement is particularly salient for a genre that LAMC founder and Nacional Records CEO Tomás Cookman has always defined as "not about any one genre, beat, guitar sound or attitude."
Pitbull's greatest triumph, according to his attorney and manager, Angela "Angie" Martínez, was overcoming the apparent contradiction of being "a white kid in a black world trying to rap in Spanish." His ability to create a brand around these disparate elements were proof that an artist that doesn't easily fit into marketing categories can succeed, something that many Latin alternative types in the audience at the Roosevelt Hotel's ballroom hoped to emulate for their own artists.
This year's four-day LAMC fluctuated between being repetitive and innovative; it was buzzing with fresh new faces and at times lagged from disappointing attendance. Explaining the light crowd at Thursday night's Bowery Ballroom performance, LAMC co-founder Josh Norek said, "It seems like more and more corporate types are coming, and even though they show up to the panels, they don't go to the shows as much."
The Bowery Ballroom show featured 2011 "Artist Discovery" winner Napoleon Solo from Spain, Chicago-based heartbreak crooner Diego García, Venezuelan rappers Cuarto Poder, and precocious singer-songwriters Francisca Valenzuela (Chile) and Ximena Sariñana (Mexico). The evening's strongest performers were Cuarto Poder, who put on an eye-popping old-school New York hiphop show delivering frank, compelling messages about Caracas reality, and Valenzuela, alone on stage with an electric keyboard, cut through her own nervous chatter to reveal herself to be a stunningly talented vocalist and instrumentalist.
Still, in terms of the Latin alternative world, these two acts are caught in a commercial limbo because of the difficulty of categorizing and marketing them. Cuarto Poder is not "world" or "ethnic" enough to appeal to fans of Latino rap music and their old school authenticity is disrupted for English listeners by their native tongue. Valenzuela is fairly popular in her home country but hasn't clicked across Latin America, and there are too limited a number of Chilean immigrants in the US to make her a hot ticket.
Speaking on the panel called "99 Problems: And Putting Together a Tour Shouldn't Be One," Cristian Naselli of One World Marketing Group re-asserted that regional branding in Latin America is still the rule, and acts aren't crossing over to other Latin American countries in the past "because the money that used to come from the labels is not there to promote it." Therefore local promoters should be considering, as Manuel Moran of Live Nation remarked, "how many Argentines are in L.A." when thinking of booking an Argentine band.
But although there are seemingly well-defined notions about what can make or break a Latin alternative act, there's still room for x-factors in breaking acts that spring out of the possibilities of entrepreneurial investment. The panel "Patrons of the Arts: Who Are Today's Music Investors?" revealed how investment decisions fluctuate between bottom-line pragmatism and wild leaps of faith.
The panel's hopeful success story was told by Juan Miguel Marín of La Casa del Ritmo, who used the social-entrepreneur funding platform Kickstarter to raise all needed funds from fans to produce a documentary about Latin alternative band Los Amigos Invisibles. "We set a goal of raising $30,000 in 30 days and we came in with $31,500." Fan investors were offered packages of screen credits, DVDs of the film, T-shirts, and for $5000, a screening and performance at their home. No one took them up on that one.
While much of the panel focused on the importance of understanding the difference between individual and corporate investors and risk assessments, Or Music's Larry Miller admitted that many investments under-perform, and the model is often perceived as seizing on big hits that pay for the misses. Angel Gambino, VP of development at Sónico uttered what everyone hoping to transform creativity into profits secretly hopes is the business's crucial truth:
"Everyone is scared to death of missing the next hot thing."
Vying for the title of next hot thing on Saturday afternoon at Central Park Summerstage were Dominican techno-merengue bombshell Rita Indiana and worldbeat Colombian hip-hop trio Choc Quib Town. Despite the evidence of the aforementioned regional factor-strong loyalty from Dominican fans and huge Colombian flags accompanied their respective performances, both acts seemed to click with everyone present.
The climax of the festival with these two bands, neither rock-driven and both essentially fronted by women, seemed true to the promise of Cookman's Inclusive premise for Latin alternative's open-ended eclecticism. Indiana's transnational reality (she lives and works in Puerto Rico and achieves a fusion between techno raves and African-based Dominican tradition) came off without a hitch, and she, her very-tight band and astonishing dancers kept the performance at fever pitch. Choc Quib Town epitomized the Colombian coastal tradition of incorporating various African musical traditions, fusing it with the hippie-ish Bogotá idealism pioneered by Latin alt stalwarts Aterciopelados.
"Latino is a term used in the United States that for me means unity," Choc Quib Town's lead singer Goyo said enthusiastically in the press room the day before. And for the Latin alternative throng enjoying a picture-perfect summer day, all the talk of branding, bottom line and apps took a back seat to the sunlight and the music.