Colombian band Bomba Estereo plays a blend of electronica, traditional Colombian rhythms and hip-hop. It releases its albums on Polen Records, a small Colombian indie. All told, here in the United States it has sold 16,000 copies of its three albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In other words, Bomba is anything but mainstream. And yet, the group, which is celebrating its first Latin Grammy nomination (for best alternative album, for 2012’s “Elegancia Tropical”), has managed to build a touring calendar that many other major Latin acts would envy, playing 300-plus shows in the past three years.
How the band has done it underscores the value of old-fashioned promotion and risk taking that goes beyond what a label can do.
“Our promotion has been playing live,” says Simón Mejía, a visual artist/guitarist who founded the group in 2005. And while the band’s core audience is in Colombia, where Bomba Estereo plays roughly 60% of its shows, its notoriety has come from the 40% of its audience that is abroad, which has taken the act to virtually every major music festival, including Bonnaroo, WOMEX, Austin City Limits, Coachella, Lollapalooza Chile, Vive Latino in Mexico and Paléo Festival in Switzerland.
How Bomba Estereo got there has to do with timing, luck and investment.
The band is managed by M3 Music, whose partners include Juan Paz, a digital marketing expert who is now senior director of digital business for U.S. Latin at Sony Music Entertainment. Paz’s expertise no doubt gave the group a foothold in the digital arena.
But the turning point, Mejía says, was 2009, when Bomba Estereo released its second album, “Blow Up,” and signed with Nacional Records in the United States. (Although the group is no longer with Nacional, it remains close to president Tomás Cookman.)
“We took a financial risk and flew up to New York for the Latin Alternative Music Conference, played several key dates and then we went to Europe — completely self-financed — and played a bunch of festivals,” Mejía says.
Other festival directors saw Bomba Estereo and got hooked on the music. A key figure was Tom Windish of the Windish Agency, who caught a show in New York at Cookman’s urging, signed the band and booked it to play key shows.
Those live performances made the difference. While Bomba Estereo never worked a single to radio, one track — “Fuego” (Fire) — became the de facto single from reaction to the live show, and the official video has more than 6 million YouTube views.
For the past two years, Mejía says, the group has been profitable, and while “no one is becoming a millionaire, we can tour and we can continue making albums.”