It’s surprising at first to learn that Tomas Cookman, the most fervent ambassador of Latin alternative music, spent his teen years as a dyed-in-the-wool punk rocker in New York, hanging out at CBGB, rocking skinny black slacks and pink socks, and drumming in a band called The Colors, whose first EP was produced by Blondie drummer Clem Burke. It seems unlikely not because the executive is a married, 54-year-old father of two, but because he lives and breathes Latin music. In fact, July is a milestone month for his two most prominent enterprises in the genre: It’s the 10th anniversary of his independent label Nacional Records, and earlier in the month he staged the 16th Latin Alternative Music Conference in Manhattan. In 2014, he also launched the Los Angeles-based Latin music festival Supersonico, which drew an estimated 10,000 fans and returns in October.
As it turns out, the DIY spirit of Cookman’s businesses was forged from the attitudes of punk rock. In the last decade, Nacional (which is distributed by Sony-owned RED) has released 150 albums and garnered nine Grammy or Latin Grammy wins (from 72 nominations) and several MTV awards, and sells around 300,000 albums per year worldwide. But record sales are a small part of the Cookman International empire, a full-service company with 11 employees and divisions in management, publishing, touring, licensing and synch. Its music has been featured in Breaking Bad, Big Love and Broad City, as well as in ads for McDonald’s, Chrysler and many video games.
Nacional/Cookman is ground zero for Latin alternative: Artists from all of the genre’s far-reaching styles are under its roof, including Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, Mexican electro experimenters Nortec Collective, Latin punks La Vida Boheme and, previously, veterans like Venezuela’s Los Amigos Invisibles. The company’s roots are thematically on display at its new, 6,200-square-foot office just east of downtown Los Angeles, where mariachi outfits and religious imagery sit alongside a giant Elvis Costello poster (not to mention the fact that the company manages New York punk vets Tom Tom Club).
After Cookman, who was raised by a Puerto Rican single mom on New York’s Lower East Side, hung up his drumsticks, he began managing Argentine ska act Los Fabulosos Cadillacs in the late 1980s (a role he still holds today) and gradually picked up more artists before launching Nacional. The company’s gradual, multifaceted growth has been a key to its success. "We’re not home-run hitters yet," says Cookman, "but we consistently hit singles, doubles and the occasional triple."
A dozen years ago, many people thought alternative would be the next big thing in Latin music, but it has not yet happened. Did you have bigger expectations when you created the label?
I would have felt very cautious if we’d had a "reggaeton moment" [of explosive popularity]. "Niche" used to be a scary word, but there are country artists and gospel artists who do massive business, so why shouldn’t there be Latin acts who also do massive business but aren’t on the tip of the tongue? There always will be big names like Shakira and Ricky Martin. And it’s OK not to be Ivory soap or McDonald’s -- there’s a lot of room in other places. If there were fewer tours, fewer synchs, fewer sponsorship opportunities, and if Supersonico weren’t so successful, then I’d be worried.
You have had synchs in major TV shows, films and advertising campaigns, which is unusual for a Latin label. How did they happen?
For some of the people making the decisions, this is their favorite music. Also, we make it easy. With a majority of our artists, we control the masters and the publishing, so [branding executives] can walk into our office and by the end of the day the deal is done: We already have all the parts and can send out the [song] stems [for editing the music] immediately. We also understand that you have to have a good relationship with music supervisors -- sometimes they say they have $60,000, sometimes they have only $20,000. You have to trust them and [look at the big picture]: "Is this a good place for my acts?"
Do you see Latin alternative crossing into the mainstream?
My hat is off to Enrique Iglesias, who I think is the ultimate crossover act. But I see us in more TV shows and films. Ana Tijoux’s "1977" was used in Breaking Bad, for example, and it took that song around the U.S. and the world. DJ Raff got the theme song to Broad City. A new Dodge Dart campaign used Mexican Institute of Sound. The fact that major brands continue using these types of songs is a big deal.
Some of your acts have been scooped up by major labels -- Bomba Stereo and ChocQuibTown both went to Sony. Is that frustrating?
No, because there are a lot of artists out there -- and there have been certain cases where we’ve sold a lot more records than their major-label releases, which is fine as well. When an artist comes in and says, "Label x is willing to offer me x thousand dollars," I’m happy for them. At that point, if they can leave contractually, I’m not going to counter the offer. We tend to come into artists’ lives at a point where they’re either starting or redefining who they are.
Do you have an artist now who is in a "redefining" moment?
Spanish singer-songwriter Jarabe de Palo, who used to be with EMI. We sat down and talked about what’s important to him. He loves touring, so we booked him in 38 cities across the United States. That’s incredible if you’re a troubadour from Barcelona.
How are your deals different from those of the majors?
They’re all different. For example, La Vida Boheme’s first record was finished when they sent it to me, so it was a license deal. But we have clauses, so if we sell a certain number of records or reach a certain amount of synch income, we extend the release for another license period. We had McDonald’s synchs and a Target synch on that album, and lots of TV synchs, so we obviously made the financial plateau to extend that.
For someone with your background, you don’t put out many punk artists.
What I do now is a reflection of that downtown New York openness to try different things -- sounds, looks, images -- and not so much a desire to have a company that deals with punk rock music.
During the past 10 years, what has been your biggest challenge?
Finding ways to sell music and be profitable. We became a full-service company by necessity, not so much by design, because we felt there was a void. Remember, we look at things and operate on an international level. When you are managing an artist like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, who have sold out the [26,000-capacity] Foro Sol in Mexico City five times -- when you add it all up, it starts becoming a real business.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.