Tomas Cookman Reflects on 20 Years of Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC)

Annie Tritt
Tomas Cookman, Founder/CEO of Cookman International, Nacional Records, photographed on June 26, 2015 in his Los Angeles office.

"The word 'alternative' was alternative to what was presently big," he recalls

The Latin Alternative Music Conference -- best known as LAMC -- comes full circle as it turns 20 this year.

Originally launched at a time when Latin alternative bands like Café Tacuba and Molotov were major players in the Latin musical landscape and there was broad optimism for what was then considered "alternative" music, the conference saw wild ebbs and flows. Latin alternative as a genre never quite exploded as many expected, and yet, it persisted and evolved, as did the LAMC with it.

This year, the conference celebrates two decades at a time when much of what was considered “alternative” 10 years ago is now mainstream. Witness Rene Pérez Joglar (Residente), an early LAMC featured act who returns this year for a Q&A as a major global star.

"When we started LAMC, the world ‘alternative’ was alternative to what was presently big," says founder Tomas Cookman.

Born and raised in New York, where LAMC has spent most of its years, Cookman is also the founder of indie label Nacional Records, which now falls under Industria Works, a company that also encompasses publishing, management (clients include Mala Rodriguez and Alex Andwandter) and live events.

Cookman spoke to Billboard and reflected on 20 years of alternative prior to the LAMC, which takes place July 9-13 at the Stewart Hotel in New York City.

Twenty years! Did you ever think it would last so long? 

As a serial entrepreneur we think everything we will do will be successful. We thought there was so much talent out there and we needed to talk about it. When we started LAMC the word alternative was alternative to what was presently big; what went beyond K-Love and Gloria Estefan. With all due respect to all these amazing artists we thought there was something more to talk about. And you fast forward 20 years and the top artists have green finger nail polish and there’s all kinds of music being played. When we started off, for a rock band to play five cities in the US was a big deal. Now you see Café Tacuba, Cuco playing 20-30 cities easily. We were always very encompassing about the music. We had Pitbull and Ivy Queen in early showcases. It was always about sharing what wasn’t No. 1 on the charts. Now it’s 20 years and we have to make new goals. It's LAMC 2.0. Because a lot of the things we spoke about, they happened. It’s exciting times for music. 

If the “alternative” acts of yesterday are No. 1 now, what is alternative today? 

It’s not, I feel taking market away from one to give to another. There are more and more artists for whom the world is the market, and it’s not just Monterrey, Houston, Miami, Buenos Aires. I think that’s a testament to ‘this is a great song and this is a great artist,’ and its easier for them to make noise now that we don't need just a small room of people to decide who gets to be a big star. This is a business, so there will always be some manipulation, but more and more and more people get to decide. 

Can you give me an example of more and more people getting to decide? 

Last year we had Tomasa del Real [at LAMC] who was just bubbling under, and she’s an amazing woman and we just did an ad campaign with Adidas and she played Coachella. This is happening by the fact that people want them.

There are so many artists you’ve showcased through the years. Who are you particularly proud of? 

Calle 13, Manu Chao, Natalia LaFourcade when no one really knew her, or Julieta Venegas at the beginning. Even Zoe. Pitbull. I thought he was such an entertaining guy and I said, heck let’s put him on a panel. And when we [did that] I think everybody thought, he’s going to be a star. Mon Laferte, Ana Tijoux, Carla Morrison who’s been one of our discovery winners. It’s interesting to see when you look at all the artists, the amount of acts that came out of LMAC -- Bomba Estereo and Chocquibtown I signed out of LAMC. 

Both were signed for a while to your label, Nacional Records, which now falls under your music company, Industria Works. How important is LAMC to Industria Works? 

Number one, if a company is truly dedicated to the arts, it’s great to support it, and LAMC is a great incubator for people to talk and artists to talk. You can’t just have SXSW or Billboard [Latin Music Week]. You have to have many places. We’re not all doing the same thing. It also speaks very much of how diverse Latino culture is. 

What is the big topic of conversation today? 

Twenty years ago, it was "how do we get heard?" "How do we get past 100 people in New York City?" And now it’s, "okay, how do I get played in France, or a big festival in California? How do I get Spotify or Apple to pay more attention to me?" The goals for a bigger selection of artists have gotten bigger. There are many independent artists who live independently and have shown that Si se puede. Bad Bunny, Ozuna, they’re hustlers in that world and they’ve brought that bravado to the business.

One big hump to overcome? 

The fact that urban music continues to grow in volume so much is amazing and wonderful, but I also feel there should be other genres coming up: really good rock bands and really good reggae bands, for example. The next step should be more and more space for other genres. People say urban music is the new pop; I think urban music has helped redefine what pop is. Okay, now it's redefined, so let’s truly redefine it. I mean, why doesn't Kevin Johansen have a big hit here?