Canceled US Music Festivals Threaten to Slow Momentum for Rising Latin Acts

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"We see festivals as tent poles. These moments allow us to lay the foundation of what our artist’s career will look like," says manager Doris Muñoz.

Just as relatively new indie festivals devoted to Latin music -- like Los Dells in Wisconsin, Ruido Fest in Chicago and Viva! Pomona in the Los Angeles area -- were building audiences and growing their brands, their momentum has come to a halt in the pandemic.

Since the coronavirus forced the live music industry into a standstill in March -- and as COVID-19 now spikes across the country with more than 2.5 million confirmed cases in the United States -- it’s looking increasingly unlikely that any major summer festivals will take place this year. And as states struggle to reopen local economies, summer Latin music festivals like Ruido and Los Dells are stuck waiting to see if they can proceed, holding off on firm announcements around their 2020 events for as long as they can.

“Since March, this thing has only grown and affected all of our lives,” says Damon Rey, who along with his father kicked off Wisconsin’s Los Dells festival in 2017, which has featured Bad Bunny, Banda MS and rising singer Cuco. In the past three years, the event has taken place during Labor Day weekend, but this year, neither a date nor a lineup have been announced.“We’ve been watching, waiting and hoping things improve, but there is a real possibility that we won’t be having festivals this year," Rey adds. "No one is in control of the situation.”

Newer Latinx-focused festivals, most of which are run independently, have become much more than just a platform for up-and-coming Latinx artists. They also create opportunities for community-building and are instrumental to the development of rising Latinx artists.

René Contreras, who launched Viva! Pomona eight years ago and features mostly English- and Spanish-language indie rock bands at the fest -- which is typically held toward the end of August -- echoes Rey, saying a ninth edition of Viva! Pomona this year is still up in the air, which is why he hasn’t announced a date yet for this year’s edition. Contreras says he’s concerned about the impact canceling his event and others like it might have on developing talent. “Not having these local independent music festivals will only hurt an up-and-coming artist’s development and prolong their growth into a bigger stage,” he says.

Think of Latin music festivals as summer camp, says artist manager Doris Muñoz, founder of Mija Management, who works with La Doña, Royaljag and Amindi, and previously Cuco. “It’s when we all see each other again. You’re running around, high-fiving people you run into and planning new projects. Seems like we won’t have that this year, and that will be detrimental to any Latinx artist,” says Muñoz. “From a manager’s perspective, we see festivals as tent poles. These moments allow us to lay the foundation of what our artist’s career will look like. Cuco, for example, headlined Viva! Pomona in 2017, which allowed us to set the tone for the festivals that we were able to book for the following year.” Cuco went on to play at Coachella in 2018 and was scheduled to perform there again this year.

Music agent Devin Landau, who works with Pabllo Vittar, Cuco, The Marias and Omar Apollo, among others, says a summer without festivals limits his newer artists' visibility. “By being able to play at a festival and have your name on the same bill as Los Tigres del Norte or Daddy Yankee when you’re an emerging artist, it’s an endorsement. Festivals like these invite discovery. Los Dells being the only fest of its kind in the Midwest is the perfect example of that. It’s not in a major market but they’re pulling fans from other cities around. It actually widens the reach that an artist would have typically.”

And that’s not to mention the major financial toll a festival-less summer would have on the performing artist. “Most of the time, festival fees might be more lucrative to the artist than what they would do on their own headlined show in that market,” Landau adds.

But not all momentum has to be lost, says Landau. During this time, he’s advising his clients to keep exercising their creative muscle.

“It’s really important that an artist stays engaged with their audience, continues to release music and takes on live streaming opportunities,” says Landau. “This isn’t time off but rather a time to recalibrate and assess. The goal is to still have a visible growth, at least digitally, to hit the ground running when we book again. The silver lining is that this is something that is not just specific to Latinx artists. Everyone is on the same boat.”

Marty Preciado, head of programming for Grand Park, a department of The Music Center in L.A., suggests this standstill can be a key moment for promoters to reveal ingenuity.

“There’s a huge opportunity for these festivals to develop a hyper local identity,” says Preciado, whose Our L.A. Voices festival moved online this year, producing more than 18 hours of content for a two-day livestream event with musical performances by Puerto Rican band Balún and L.A.-based DJs like Samurai Guru, Linafornia and Jansport J.

“Does that mean work to produce hyper local shows? Maybe it’s no longer a festival, maybe it’s a week of shows or a month of special experiences,” she adds. “It’s a perfect time for promoters to find how they can leverage that brand and position they have to support local artists, shows and venues. There’s a huge opportunity in redirecting our attention and resources to working with the community.”

Contreras, who also curates the lineup for the Sonora Stage at Coachella and the Chella Celebrando La Comunidad at the Riverside County Fairgrounds, has been using this down time to find and spotlight independent artists around Latin America in a virtual space.

“I've been able to connect with musicians from all 32 states of Mexico and create a playlist with their music. I did the same thing with artists from Peru and right now, I’m focused on researching independent artists from El Salvador. It’s like I’m in a dark area but I have a flashlight and I’m trying to light things I didn’t know existed. So, I don’t consider this a lost year,” he says.

It’s unclear what the live music industry will look like when festivals are allowed to return, but Contreras predicts he’ll likely drop the price of tickets for Viva! Pomona.

“I started the show eight years ago at $12 per ticket and right now we are at $25,” he says. “Thinking that next year, I’ll actually decrease it by $5 and make it $20. The focus has always been to make it affordable for those who want to come out for the show. Keeping it affordable is the best way moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Rey says there might be more “hand-washing stations and antibacterial stations and events will distribute or sell masks.” He notes, “We’ve had conversations with our production team, but we aren’t certain how we can implement a plan to keep social distancing in place.”

He remains hopeful for a fourth edition of Los Dells later this year, but realizes the chances are slim. And he isn’t sure yet what kind of impact a canceled event might hold for next year’s edition.

“It’ll be disappointing because our festival is in a growth stage,” he says. “It’s like we’re frozen in time. But if the festival doesn’t happen this year, we’ll pick up where we can rebuild the momentum. It’ll take time, but fans have shown us that they want Latin festivals and they’re anxious for them.”

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