Damon Zumwalt Dreams Latin: The Founder of Los Dells On How He Created a Latin Music Festival In the Midwest
Damon Zumwalt describes himself as “Mexicano de corazón.” The founder and CEO of Contemporary Services Corporation, one of the leading crowd management and event security firms in the country, may have been born in Arkansas, but he has many ties to both Mexico and Latin culture in general.
Zumwalt founded CSC as a student athlete in UCLA back in 1967. He lived in San Diego, had many Mexican friends, crossed the border frequently, and to this day, speaks Spanish fluently. But his inner Latino reached a new level last year, when he founded and launched Los Dells, the ambitious, multi-day Latin music festival that takes place in the Wisconsin Dells, literally in the heartland of America.
When Los Dells held its first edition, many thought it wouldn't see a second year; who, after all, would go see Latin music in literally the middle of nowhere? Then, Los Dells booked rock stars Maná and reggaeton superstar Daddy Yankee, and all bets were off. Los Dells was, by all accounts, a success. This year, the festival returns for its second edition Sept. 1 and 2, again featuring a marquee, and eclectic, lineup that includes Wisin & Yandel, Flo Rida, Bad Bunny, Karol G, Victor Manuelle, Banda MS, Cuco and Molotov, with sponsorship from Toyota.
Zumwalt, who runs the festival along with daughter Dasha (in charge of production and sponsorship) and son Damond Rey (who curates the lineup) told us how it all went down.
Los Dells takes place at a 1500 acre ranch in the area known as the Wisconsin Dells. Was your original intention to do a festival?
We do a lot of things at the ranch. The Los Dells is the newest. I bought this ranch in 2002 and most of the ranch is a guest ranch for people to stay in cabins. We have over 100 horses and buffalos and some of those animals we’ll use for the kids who come to Los Dells. Most of the ranch is trail rides, and that sort of thing. And about 300 acres in the North, we built a sport complex there for sports and music.
Where does this affinity for Latin music come from?
Soy mexicano de corazon. I lived in San Diego, cerca de Tijuana, and my best friends were mexicanos. And at the time I spoke fluent Spanish. One of the greatest compliments I’ve had is crossing the border to Mexico, the police officer asked me for my ID. I said, ‘solo tengo una licencia para manejar. Nací en el estado de Arkansas.’ And he turned to a sargent and said ‘this guy claims to be American, but he has the tongue of a Mexican.”
You were actually majoring in Spanish at UCLA and on a football scholarship, until an injury made you switch gears…
I was so distraught I changed my major, and I started a security company to work music. In a different format I’ve been in the music industry for many years. When the music world transitioned from oldies and goodies to rock and roll, they needed a new approach to security, so I stated peer to peer security, where I was using people who were the same age. I started working rock concerts in 1967 and 1968. And over the years we expanded into sports. I never really wanted to be a promoter. But I had this great space.
This is the first festival you produce, right?
Yes. And I really didn’t want to be a promoter. I told [other promoters] about my property, but they waited too long and finally I said I’ll do the show myself.
Why do a Latin festival in Wisconsin?
Even in the smaller towns, people completely underestimate the Latino population in the US. They talk about millions, but there’s a lot more. I frankly think the Latin community has been underserved. I felt it was proper to bring live music back to the people. Last year we had 26 bands. How long would it take [fans] to see 26 bands of that level? It would take them 10 years. And they can see it all in one weekend. That was my goal—to provide the Latin community with music. Plus, I work many shows -- EDM, country-- but most of the Latino shows I see are either in auditoriums, convention centers and arenas, but not festivals. And I thought, 'Don’t the Latinos want to have the same experience the other Americans are having? The great outdoor experiences with stages, just like they do in Coachella and Bonarroo?' And I can’t tell you how many people stopped me and said gracias.
Last year did you make money?
It was pure investment. We had minor sponsors. This year we have Toyota. I think we would have had twice as many people the first year if they actually believed it was going to happen. I’m committed to it. We didn't have a single security incident last year. The families were great, the stages were great. They saw it was real, they saw there were 26 bands and there were 15,000 people a day. I think we will be double the size as last year. It was just a matter of getting another great lineup.
What are our long-term plans?
This is a long-term commitment. Money isn’t everything. If [Los Dells] breaks even, or is in the black, and it’s still great for the community, that’s great. Because I make enough money with my company. Obviously, I can’t sustain this if it becomes foolish. But I guarantee you after 3-4 years, a Live Nation will want to buy in. Whatever will be the best for the future of the festival is what I will decide to do. I think in a few years we’ll have 60-70,000 people a day coming in to Los Dells. It’s a great property and the people around me are hungry for this experience and great Latino music.